Home Jason's Jukebox The Chat Room: The Lucky Ones’ Ryan West

The Chat Room: The Lucky Ones’ Ryan West

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On a hot Tuesday in August 2023, The Lucky Ones dropped into Ganaraska Recording Co., the studio east of Toronto run by Juno-winning multi-instrumentalist Steve Marriner and guitarist extraordinaire Jimmy Bowskill, following the time-honored tradition of artists capturing lightning in a bottle while in the midst of a tour. It indeed proved to be a highly productive day, with the five songs laid down live-off-the-floor now comprising the new EP, A Nickel For The Fiddler.

Having built up a stellar reputation in their home area, largely through a long-running weekly residency at the ’98 Hotel in Whitehorse, The Lucky Ones are now fully committed to hitting the road and connecting with bluegrass audiences all around the world. A Nickel For The Fiddler is the latest phase of that process, with a further full-length album slated for later in 2024. It also marks the group’s first recording without original member JD McCallen, although they pay tribute to him with “20 Months,” one of his songs that hadn’t found a place on record until now. The EP also pays homage to the group’s roots, from Guy Clark — who inspired the title — to Townes Van Zandt, Blaze Foley and Rodney Crowell. It’s also an homage to The Lucky Ones’ friend and mentor, fiddler Joe Loutchan, who had the ’98 Hotel residency up until his passing in 2021.

With The Lucky Ones’ line-up now solidified around mandolin player/vocalist Ryan West, guitarist/vocalist Ian Smith, banjo player/vocalist Ryan McNally, fiddler Kieran Poile and upright bassist Jeff Dineley, the group is ready to prove conclusively that you don’t need to be from Appalachia to play great bluegrass. A Nickel For The Fiddler serves as both an encore to the band’s tavern and saloon era, and a harbinger of things to come. But above all, its five songs are as authentic as it gets.

Ryan West took some time to tell us more, and you can get A Nickel For The Fiddler from Bandcamp or theluckyonesmusic.com.

 

A Nickel For The Fiddler almost seems like a reset for the group. Is that fair to say?
For sure. The seeds of the band were planted playing three nights a week at the Midnight Sun Hotel in Dawson City and later moved over to the historic and infamous Westminster Hotel. We were living in broken down trailers or above the tavern in broken down hotel rooms, playing and partying all the time, the whole thing fueled by alcohol, drugs, and a love for a good time and honkytonk music. It took its toll, but people loved it, tourists were always asking to buy a record – a record that we didn’t have.

That all seems like a lifetime ago now. Over the course of recording the first two albums, we moved to Whitehorse and set up camp at the 98 Hotel. Members came and went, with a core group of us usually being around. By the time we had finished cutting the second record there was a pretty good shift in the mindset of the group, some members decided to go their own way, new folks had continued to keep sitting in with us at our residency at the 98, and the band just kind of naturally amalgamated to the five of us who are still here now. We’d been touring for a couple years, promoting albums that the five of us hadn’t even played on together.

We wanted to have something that displayed who, and where, the band is now. We still love a good time, but the machine is no longer fueled with all that other stuff. Most of us have become parents in the past few years and that idea of family and tradition is what keeps us going. In many ways, we are a completely different outfit from when we started this journey, but we’re also continuing to do what we always set out to do: continue with tradition, on a trail that was blazed by country music icons of the north, like Hank Karr, Joe Loutchan, Buddy Tabor, and the Pointer Brothers.

How do you feel you’ve improved as musicians and songwriters over the past few years?
As a group, our playing is tighter, more polished and professional if ya want to go that far. All that other stuff was a lot of fun, but after a while it just gets old and doesn’t really serve you or the music anymore. Our song writing is a little more cohesive, but we’re really just a bunch of storytellers. Ya learn to trust the muse when she’s working just as much as ya trust her when she ain’t. As my mother puts it, “The boys sure look and sound a heckuva lot better these days!” I think sobriety has a lot do with that.

What did Steve Marriner and Jimmy Bowskill bring to this project?
Other than the music, Steve and Jim brought it all. The whole thing likely wouldn’t have gone down if it weren’t for them. Steve and Jim are a couple of all around good guys, super humble, and real hospitable; we felt right at home. It certainly doesn’t hurt that they are both world class musicians and producers – it was a real privilege to get to work alongside them. Jim runs the studio and has amassed an arsenal of old recording gear, vintage mics, and a 1952 reel-to-reel Ampex tape recorder. All of which we utilized when cutting this record.

It was just a “make hay while the sun shines” project. We had a day off on tour and thought we could use our time a little more wisely than hanging out in the van. We wanted to capture the sound of a live and intimate performance; we couldn’t have asked for a better way to do that than gathered around a couple old ribbon mics in the living room of an old farmhouse. We wanted to keep things as honest as possible, just old school hillbilly music, no frills, what ya see is what ya get. Steve and Jim provided their experience, know-how, equipment, and the perfect environment to make it all happen.

It’s an incredible coincidence that the record was made in a farmhouse that was once part of your family. How did you come to realize that?
Absolutely, incredible. I come from a very large family from a very small farming community about an hour outside of Toronto. We all grew up next door to each other, on properties that surrounded the family farm. My great-grandfather’s old farm was about five kilometers from that, and though it was long-since sold by the time I came around, my dad and I would often drive by the old farm on our way to go speckle trout fishing. He’d point it out and tell one of a handful of stories each time we passed it. Though the stories were often repeated, they never got old. I knew it was a special place, but just a little far out of reach, and not quite the right time for me to be part of those stories. So, you could imagine the surprise I felt when talking with one of Bowskill’s partners, and he started explaining where the new studio was.

It’s a winding old country road that takes some unmarked turns, so by the description, I thought it might be the old farm, but wasn’t quite sure. Sure enough, as we followed the directions and pulled up to the joint, there it was! I’d driven by that place a hundred times, but never down the driveway. It’s largely been left untouched, with all the rural antique farmhouse appeal, with some small renovations to make it a functioning recording studio. Other than that, it really felt like I was travelling back in time, hanging out in the very spot where my great-grandfather raised my grandad. Though they both passed when I was young, it really felt like they were there with me, like I was singing songs and sharing stories with the ghosts of my ancestors. All these years later, it was finally time for me to be part of that story.

What are some of your plans for later this year?
Now that the EP is released, we’ll tour it through Alberta and with some dates in the Yukon. The band toured our first two albums throughout most of Canada, but we’ve never made an official stop in Alberta, so it just seemed like the next logical step to make. We’re really trying to play as much of Canada as possible, all the nooks and crannies, and continue building relationships with the audience here at home. We’re from a pretty isolated corner of the country, so in addition to playing the big cities and regular stops, it’s important for us to get out there and play the little and lesser-known hideouts as well.

We hung up our hats from playing locally just over a year ago and we’ve really missed our hometown crowd. We’re looking forward to being back playing in the north where we’ll be playing the bi-annual Moosehide Gathering, a traditional village and fish camp for the Hän and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nations. It’s a super wholesome event that is both an honour and a privilege to be invited to play. There’s likely a stop at our old haunt, the historic 98 Hotel. Folks there would be pretty upset to hear we were playing shows in the Yukon and not stop in – they get pretty rowdy in there, and we like that just fine.

We’re currently in the writing process for our third full-length album. We’ll hopefully see that get buttoned up as we get ready to enter back into Winter.

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