Not Quite Bluegrass: Coole, Rosenberg’s Clawhammer-Dobro Duo Returns with New Album
Chris Coole likes to quantify his musical partnership with Ivan Rosenberg as the only clawhammer banjo and dobro duo act in the known universe.
Although Coole’s banjo and Rosenberg’s dobro often have homes in larger bluegrass ensembles, the unusually sparse pairing of the instruments lets them live in a space that hovers somewhere between bluegrass and old-time folk music.
“Traditionally if you are going to hear just one other instrument with the clawhammer banjo, it’s usually the fiddle,” Coole says by telephone during a recent tour stop in Chicago. “The dobro has some relation to the fiddle in that the fiddle is not fretted and neither is the dobro, because it’s played with a slide, but it’s an unusual combination that makes it not quite a bluegrass show, even though it’s inspired by that.”
While Coole hammers out a rock-steady groove, Rosenberg’s dobro in effect assumes the fiddle’s “voice” in their arrangements that span from original instrumentals to reworked tunes from Ralph Stanley, Jesse Winchester, and even the Band.
“Ivan and I both really have a love for melody,” says Coole, who along with Rosenberg is touring the United States and Canada as part of a CD release tour for their sophomore album, Return To Trion. “It sounds like an obvious thing but modern bluegrass can sometimes get away from that so we like to play as close to the melody as we can.”
Coole, who may be best known as guitarist and singer for the Canadian bluegrass band the Foggy Hogtown Boys, and Rosenberg, whose dobro music is featured in more the 300 film and TV scores, first met teaching at the British Columbia Bluegrass Workshop.
“For a few years in a row we got put into some workshops together since we both play clawhammer banjo,” Coole says. “We started working up repertoire just from teaching these workshops with Ivan on the dobro. Because Ivan is a great clawhammer player as well and he understand that instrument, it allows him to play dobro in a way that’s sympathetic to the clawhammer style. Taking a dobro player strictly from the bluegrass style it might not get in on the vibe of the old-time thing but we found that out musical aesthetic was pretty similar.”
Coole, a Toronto native, and Rosenberg, who lives in Portland, Ore., first took to the road in 2008. They released their debut CD, Farewell Trion, in 2010. The newly released follow-up, Return To Trion, offers 11 tracks that continue to mine the old-time folk songbook. Among the highlight’s are Doc Watson’s “Train That Carried My Girl from Town,” Ralph Stanley’s “Bound to Ride,” and “Rain and Snow,” the traditional folk song that the Grateful Dead once recorded as “Cold Rain and Snow.”
The duo emphasizes its instrumentation on a reworked arrangement of Uncle Dave Macon’s 1927 fiddle tune “Sail Away Ladies,” and expands outside the genre with Jesse Winchester’s “Glory to the Day,” and The Band’s “Stage Fright.” The album also features original instrumentals “Standard Mule” and “Waiting for Ivan.”
“When we make an album we try to make it so it holds together from beginning to end because we want people to put it on and have a listening experience,” Coole says. “So I also play some guitar and there’s some folk stuff with fiingerstyle guitar and country-blues. There’s some stuff where Ivan is playing a resonator, which is interesting as well.”
After Coole wraps up his tour with Rosenberg, he hits the road again in November with The Foggy Hogtown Boys – which also includes Andrew Collins, Max Heineman, Chris Quinn, John Showman – in support of that band’s seventh studio album. The band recently finished tracking the as-yet-untitled project, which will be officially released Dec. 12.
“I’m excited because I get to play with four of my very best friends,” Coole says. “We’ve been together for 13 years now. At one point, we were like one of the only young bluegrass bands playing in Canada so it was quite a novelty in a way. Now there’s a real thriving bluegrass scene in Toronto and across Canada.”
When asked if there was any added pressure having multiple projects coming out at once, Coole says that it would be harder to try to find enough gaps in the schedule to stagger them.
“When the inspiration is there to make an album you just have to do it,” he adds. You put them out when it feels right and you’re ready to share it. I guess that’s what’s happening this year.”