Jeffrey Barrett’s favourite music of 2020
A year from now, your phone will be showing you “One Year Ago Today” photos; photos of landscapes, and your cat, and the neighbour’s Christmas lights down the road. But that doesn’t mean you should completely forget about 2020. For roots music lovers, some of the highlights presage great things for 2021.
Pharis and Jason Romero, veteran bluegrass players, music teachers, and also banjo makers, released a wonderful new album in 2020 – Bet On Love (LULA Records). It was their seventh record, and they’re showing no signs of slowing down. The duo, based in Horsefly, BC, continually turn out traditional bluegrass-style albums seemingly set in another era. Having won a Juno in 2016 for Traditional Roots Album of the Year, they seem like contenders for a 2021 repeat. I’ve been to most every nook and cranny in BC, but Horsefly isn’t among them. Somewhere in the Cariboo region, high in the mountains, there must be something in the water. What I’d really like to see in 2021 is this duo lashing together a raft, Huck Finn style, and floating down the Fraser Canyon to headline at the Cloverdale Rodeo Fairgrounds for a Canada Day bash to end all Canada Day bashes. Cross your fingers.
Cowboy Junkies, OG Canadian roots, blues, and country rockers, dropped a 2020 release of earlier material composed on reflection of the loss of Michael, Margo, and Peter’s mother in 2018. It’s called Ghosts (digital only/Latent Recordings). Definitely the tenor of 2020 called for a Cowboy Junkies album, but the band managed to throw a curve ball at a time when everyone else’s introspection and loneliness was brought on by the bad kind of going viral. Then 2020 piled it on when their old friend and onetime collaborator/touring partner, the irreplaceable John Prine, passed away in April. So maybe there will be a 2021 recording of Margo softly murmuring “Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County down by the Green River where paradise lays.”
Speaking of OG, Canada’s roots rock supergroup Blackie and the Rodeo Kings started 2020 on stage at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville – the legendary Grand Old Opry – then immediately released their 10th full-length album, King of this Town (Warner Music Canada). The album features easily the coolest single of the year, “Cold 100.” Technically, Blackie is a side project for each member of the primary trio of Stephen Fearing, Colin Linden, and Tom Wilson (aka Lee Harvey Osmond), and each continued their solo works writing, producing, and performing as was possible.
The multi-talented Julian Taylor contributed to our overall understanding of 2020 through a new collection of songs titled The Ridge (Howling Turtle), based on imagined letters to his family. If there’s one thing 2021 needs it’s some recognition for this veteran singer-songwriter. His honey baritone and ease of delivery are untouchable.
In the quietude of Eastern Ontario, Lynne Hanson released her seventh studio album. Recorded in Kingston at North of Princess and Stittsville at inimitable producer Jim Bryson’s own Fixed Hinge Studio, Just Words is Lynne’s finest effort to date. The rich, soulful vocals are stitched with plush guitar layers into a quilt for a cold winter’s night.
The almost criminally overlooked record of the year is Sarah Harmer’s Are You Gone (Arts and Crafts). Sarah’s album output isn’t what you’d call prodigious – six albums since her debut in 1999 – but the process obviously works, since she knocks it out of the park every time. Although stylistically different, this record harkens back to her’s brilliant 2004 album I’m A Mountain. In the early days of her career Sarah once remarked about her touring schedule, “Sarah, you can garden when you’re 50,” and … you know what’s coming … that dreaded but inescapable scene played out in 2020 as well. So, gardening seems like a possibility for 2021. The planned tour to accompany the release of Are You Gone was of course cancelled last spring, so COVID-be-damned, here’s to seeing this supremely talented artist on the road in 2021 and letting the garden go to hell.
And of course, the ignominy of 2020 was perfectly punctuated by the cancellation of the Junos last March. The City of Saskatoon, robbed of its chance to shine, should be rewarded with a return engagement in 2021. I’m imagining a scene where the hometown country rockers The Sheepdogs take over the stage and challenge Vancouver’s The Wild North to a Free Bird Guitar Battle for a newly minted Grooviest Beardo and Tattoo Combination Matt Minglewood Look-Alike Award, bringing the house down. But instead, it’ll be a stodgy ceremony in Toronto, and most everybody will watch it from home.