FolkWorld #78 07/2022
© Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Across the Western Ocean

Banjo Month

Pharis & Jason Romero Presents 'Tell 'Em You Were Gold' [Behind The Scenes Documentary]

Handmade Gold

Pharis & Jason Romero—whose old-time, country-folk, and early roots music has made them three-time Juno Award and seven-time Canadian Folk Music Award winners—have released their new album, Tell ’Em You Were Gold, out now! It’s Pharis and Jason’s seventh album as a duo, and the first since 2020’s Bet on Love, which won praise from the BBC and NPR; American Songwriter said, “To call Bet on Love anything other than masterful would be a disservice.”

Pharis & Jason Romero

“Each of the banjos seemed right for particular songs — the tone, the feel of the neck, the scale length (and tension of the strings) all made each banjo feel right for different sounds.” – Pharis and Jason Romero give insight into the role the banjo plays in crafting their songwriting and recording sessions. Read more @ No Depression!

Artist Video Pharis & Jason Romero @ FROG

Tell ’Em You Were Gold was written and recorded in an old barn on the couple’s homestead in Horsefly, British Columbia. The barn had long been run down, and between building banjos, adventuring outdoors, and loving up their two kids, Pharis and Jason restored the building themselves, milling their own spruce, hoisting beams, and rebuilding a roof originally covered in tin printing plates. “The music made on this record was made in the spirit of that working transformation and in the spirit of the history that old barn contains,” they write in the album’s liner notes.

While the intimacy of the old building does make its way onto the record in the form of crackling stoves and tapping feet, the sense of ease that glows from the album’s center gives it the warmth of a hearth in a cold BC winter. Like many albums recorded in the past couple of years, Tell ʼEm You Were Gold is an at-home record, one where the performers’ sense of being at home with one another is obvious in their effortless interplay.

Pharis & Jason Romero

Artist Audio Pharis & Jason Romero "Tell ’Em You Were Gold", Smithsonian Folkways, 2022

Making things by hand comes naturally to the pair: Jason has long been a highly regarded banjo-maker whose designs expand the instrument’s expressive range while respecting both its mechanical history and the music it’s frequently been used to make. When setting out to write and record Tell ʼEm You Were Gold, the duo created something where the depth and brilliance of Jason's banjos would shine on each song, where each of the instrument’s distinct personalities could be showcased through the repertoire. Jason plays seven different banjos on the album, and Pharis plays one gourd banjo guitar—all handmade by Jason in his shop. Each banjo on this record started with an idea of a sound, a feeling, or an aesthetic, and each one makes Jason play and feel a different way. They were even given names reflecting their individual character and identity: Papillon, Big Blue, Clara, Birdie, Mother, Bella, Gourdo, and The Beast.

On opener “Souvenir,” he lays back, following the lead of Pharis’ guitar, allowing her rhythms to pull him forward as she sings about time well spent. Jason fluidly moves between various banjo styles, displaying mastery of clawhammer and three-finger picking styles and various alternate tunings.

Pharis’ lyrics shine with wisdom that’s hard won and love that’s kindly offered. “We’re always older than yesterday, but I don’t change and you won’t stay,” she sings in “Sour Queen.” Pharis grew up in rural British Columbia singing in her family’s folk-country band, playing in the creek, and falling for ’60s folk revival and bluegrass records, and throughout Tell ’Em You Were Gold, she sings with a sweetness that never feels like affectation. Her voice is clear, bright, and informed by the sadness of a song like “Black Guard Mary” without succumbing to it. In “Cannot Change It All,” she sings an ode to the possibility of a better world with an open-eyed view of just how difficult that world will be to achieve; she carries that knowledge in her tone, never expressing it with words, but in the shadow of heartbreak that flickers through the song.

But what shines through Tell ’Em You Were Gold the brightest is the sense of joy that Pharis and Jason have playing with one another and with their friends. They’re joined by fiddlers Grace Forrest and Trent Freeman, pedal steel player Marc Jenkins, bassist Patrick Metzger, and John Reischman on mandolin. You can hear it in the way Jenkins’ pedal steel slides like liquid among the wiry picking of “The Dose,” or in the contented exhales of “SS Radiant,” a sweet solo banjo meditation dedicated to the duo’s son Sy. Even “Been All Around This World,” a rambling song Pharis and Jason each sang before they met and sing together here, feels quiet, at rest, like it’s arrived—like they’ve been around the world, but they’re here now, and there’s no place they’d rather be than at home together.

Watch the official music video for Souvenir by Pharis & Jason Romero, from their Smithsonian Folkways album 'Tell 'Em You Were Gold.' Filmed at 153 Mile General Store, located in British Columbia's Cariboo region. Jason Romero's instrument is called Big Blue, a banjo with hand-cast blue heron L-shoes (built in a unique double hook configuration), 13” rim, goatskin head, and nylon strings.

Watch a live performance of Cannot Change It All by Pharis & Jason Romero. Shot live at the barn in Horsefly, BC in October 2021. Jason performs using his own banjo named "Clara".

In their words: “‘Cannot Change It All’ started with Clara the banjo. Clara has a 12” rim and a small flangeless resonator, all made from Claro walnut salvaged from a fire. For the banjo-interested: the tonering is a rolled brass tube sitting on a v-channel of rosewood, so it has plenty of nice metal overtones on top of the woody richness of the pau ferro. Jason was playing around with the banjo in the tuning d#BF#G#B and this ‘Little Birdie’-esque riff started coming out. We sat down and played ‘Little Birdie’ for a while, trying it out on piano and guitar, and then we went camping and canoeing in an incredible valley in the mountains. ‘Little Birdie’ was stuck in Phar’s head, and the words ‘man is best when he does not know the riches at his feet’ just popped out with the rhythm of the canoe paddle. It’s on our minds a lot: how to be a loving and beloved part of the ecosystem. The videographers, Trent Freeman and Eva Anandi Brownstein, filmed nearly the whole time we were making the album. ‘Cannot Change’ was filmed as one long beautiful moving shot. Patrick Metzger (bass) had arrived that morning, and we’d spent the day recording some other songs for the record. We had supper and went back to the barn for a rehearsal run on ‘Cannot Change’; it was dark and snowing outside and cozy in the barn, and the kids were in bed. It all felt so good that we just went for it.” — Pharis & Jason Romero (The Bluegrass Situation)

Photo Credits: (1)-(2) Pharis & Jason Romero (unknown/website).

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