Emerging from the isolated environs of Horsefly, British Columbia, Pharis and Jason Romero know all too well the draw of the backwoods and what it means to live in a lonely expanse of rural environs. In fact, no pair could be better cast when it comes to recreating their roles as old school purists. Pharis Romero’s family has made their home in Horsefly for five generations, and when the couple isn’t on the stage performing, they spend their time working in their family business – building banjos. They’re also favorite guests of Garrison Keillor, whose A Prairie Home Companion radio show epitomizes the essence of the old time, heartland homilies the Romeros express through their music.
Still, nothing epitomizes their specific take on tradition more than their music itself, as manifest in a series of folk-fueled rambles that seamlessly mesh rustic originals, banjo-driven instrumentals, and familiar standards of an earlier origin. Indeed, that’s especially evident on A Wanderer I’ll Stay, the latest album by this humble yet assertive Canadian couple. The acoustic arrangements – most garnished with banjo, fiddle, or pedal steel – are rich and emphatic, but it’s the lovely, high, lonesome harmonies that clinch the connection. While the subdued themes of the traditional tunes (“The Dying Soldier,” “Goodbye Old Paint,” etc.) hint at a generally mournful pastiche, the pair takes pains to maintain that sobering stance throughout. It takes only a glance at the song titles to affirm that impression – “A Wanderer I’ll Stay,” “New Lonesome Blues,” “Lonesome and I’m Going Back Home” – but it’s the lyrics that accompany these offerings that make the message clear.
“It’s a wicked world when you’re all alone,” they moan on “Ballad of Old Bill.” It’s a pessimistic perspective to be sure, and it’s affirmed with this line from the very next song on the disc, the forlorn ballad “There’s No Companion,” where they lament, “There’s no companion like the misery of an unfulfilled desire.”
The harrowing themes of their songs aside, Pharis and Jason Romero’s series of albums – three as a duo and one as part of the Haints Old Time String Band – have earned them a stunning series of accolades over the past decade. Their previous album, Long Gone Out West Blues, garnered a Canadian Folk Music Award for Traditional Singer, as well as a nomination for Traditional Album of the Year; an Independent Music Award nomination for Americana Album; and two Western Canadian Music Awards nominations. NPR included it in their Top 10 Folk & Americana releases of 2013 and featured them consistently on NPR Music’s Favorite Sessions. Their first recording as a duo, A Passing Glimpse, earned them New/Emerging Artist of the Year at the 2012 Canadian Folk Music Awards, Americana Album of the Year at the 2012 Independent Music Awards, and placement on many best and most played lists of 2011, including those of Folk Alley, Folk-DJ, and Galaxie Folk-Roots.
The praise is hardly surprising. The Romeros are clearly of another era, purists who remain true to the music and their early influences. Clearly, their Americana instincts are well-placed.