The Cactus Blossoms Take a Turn onto ‘Easy Way’
Page Burkum, left, and Jack Torrey of The Cactus Blossoms. Photo by Nate Ryan
The first time I met Jack Torrey of The Cactus Blossoms, we were standing in line to use the latrines at a music festival in Madison, Wisconsin. I had first heard The Cactus Blossoms about a year earlier, in 2014, when I attended a live taping of A Prairie Home Companion in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I quickly became familiar with their harmonized Americana sound. I bought tickets for the folk festival in Madison just to hear them again. I recognized Torrey, the tall and striking lead singer-songwriter, standing in front of me in a tan Carhartt jacket. But before I could introduce myself, someone approached Torrey and told him that he did not need to use the portables, that he should use the indoor facilities reserved for the festival’s talent. Torrey shrugged and stayed in line with the rest of us, a sign of his inherent humility, his affinity for ordinary people, or his go-with-the-flow character. Maybe all of the above.
Torrey’s easygoing attitude is clearly reflected in the group’s second full-length album, Easy Way, released March 1. A solid follow-up to their critically acclaimed 2016 debut, You’re Dreaming, Easy Way pushes at the boundaries of their signature sound, a mixture of vintage country, folk, and early rock and roll, overlaid with pristine brother harmonies. The result on Easy Way is a little less country and western and a lot less heavy in tone than fans might expect. There’s not as much of the heartache, for example, that Torrey, 32, channeled into earlier songs such as “If I Can’t Win” and “Adios Maria.” Instead, his brother and co-singer-songwriter Page Burkum assures us that “love is here to stay” on the album’s ethereal title track.
Burkum, 37, is the older brother of the duo, whose tight harmonies have been endlessly compared to The Everly Brothers and Louvin Brothers of the 1950s and 1960s. The Cactus Blossoms still echo the 1960s in their latest venture, but they used to sound older, back when they wore cowboy hats, effected a twang, and featured a fiddler in a band that mostly covered Americana classics like “Crazy Arms” or “Down South in New Orleans.” Had it not been for their ability to create original tunes in traditional styles, they might have remained frozen in time like a novelty act. Instead, Torrey and Burkum soon earned recognition as brilliant songwriters, capable of experimenting with a variety of genres. They even caught the attention of Black Keys alum Dan Auerbach, who co-wrote two songs on Easy Way.
Their most original song to date may be Easy Way’s first single, “Please Don’t Call Me Crazy,” a rollicking number that defies comparison. The lyrics play at people’s perceptions of the group as old-fashioned: “I got a time machine. Bought it off of TV,” sings Torrey in the opening line.
That’s not to say that none of the tracks on Easy Way will invite association, whether to The Statler Brothers, Don Williams, John Denver, or The Beatles. The meandering “Boomerang,” for one, returns to listeners like a lost track from Rubber Soul. But The Cactus Blossoms retain their originality on standouts like “I Am The Road” and “See It Through.”
“You have to keep growing,” Burkum, who exudes kindness, explained in January. “It’s like when you’re a chef and you make something for a while, but then you want to add more ingredients or try it another way.” Torrey nods, adding, “The old albums will always be there for people.”
Their band has changed with the sound. Instead of a fiddler and upright bassist, they now tour with a drummer and three guitarists, including their eldest brother, Tyler. But the duo (Jack and Page) are the main focus, and they do all of the singing and songwriting.
I met The Cactus Blossoms for an interview on a cold day in the Northeast neighborhood of Minneapolis, at an eclectic bar serving New England clam chowder alongside New Orleans-style po’boys. When they arrive for lunch, Torrey admits he brought his appetite, but not much verve. “I promise we’ll have more energy at the show tonight,” he says in reference to a scheduled appearance at The Turf Club, on the second Monday of their five-week residency there. When they started out in 2012, they played the Midway venue every Monday for years, honing their gig.
They could surely be forgiven for bouts of tiredness. The brothers keep busy scheduling their own tours, meeting with press, booking flights and hotels around the world, and managing their recently launched label Walkie Talkie Records, in addition to writing and recording music, of course. Their upcoming tour across the US will keep them occupied for much of April and May, and they typically spend the summer months on the road.
But they always return home to Minnesota, where they were born and raised on a rich musical heritage.
The Making of Legend
“The old Minnesota fireside stories used to be about the legendary tales of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox … now they are about Bob Dylan,” Cactus Blossoms guitarist Tyler Burkum wrote on Instagram on the folk-rock icon’s 76th birthday. And his appreciation for Dylan reveals a family trait. All three siblings share a strong interest in their fellow Minnesota native, who grew up in Hibbing, about 200 miles north of the Twin Cities.
At lunch, Torrey mentions he’s been listening to Dylan’s 1970 album Self Portrait – he and Page are well-versed in Dylan’s extensive catalog, and his influence is evident on some of Torrey’s earliest songs, especially “Change Your Ways or Die,” a cautionary tale about the risks of pride or ignorance. Infused with what Torrey describes as “flood lingo,” the song seems relevant to issues of climate change or political corruption.
“[It’s] not explicitly political, but I’m sure it would work well for a politician to hear it,” Torrey told interviewers during a Twin Cities PBS episode of The Lowertown Line in 2016. On their new album, the defiant “Downtown” comes across as a jeremiad against the privileged set out of touch with the masses. But maybe not to its creator.
“You think that song is political?”, Torrey asks me.
“Downtown?”, I specify with incredulity. “The lyrics are all about working-class solidarity.”
Torrey smiles slightly: “Huh, I didn’t really think of it that way, but yeah, class politics, I guess.”
“Would you consider ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ political?”, Page Burkum asks.
“Absolutely,” I reply, grinning.
“I think certain songs can go beyond or transcend the political message of its time,” he says.
The best political songs, of course, always do. It doesn’t make them any less political. One could argue, actually, that “Blowin in the Wind” stands as the most politically significant song in American history, save “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Are you uncomfortable owning up to songs with a political message? I ask.
Torrey shrugs: “No, I don’t really mind either way. I appreciate the political impact that Woody Guthrie and Dylan had.”
The kind of coy persona that The Cactus Blossoms display is reminiscent of the more famous Minnesotan. Dylan deflected questions from reporters and often appeared bored or annoyed when asked about his music’s meaning. He also buckled at the label “protest” singer. He kept people guessing and put people on — all part of his myth-making charm. In a similar vein, The Cactus Blossoms may be trying to preserve their mystique. Most musicians do. And, Dylan, as they well know, was a master at it.
It becomes clear to me that they would much rather ask the questions than answer them, preferring the Bob Dylan model of interviewing over the style of more garrulous musicians.
As Torrey sings in “Please Don’t Call Me Crazy” — “The answer is a question; don’t ask me.”
At The Turf Club that night, Torrey pauses to introduce the next number, “Downtown,” which he dedicates to the federal workers affected by the government shutdown. That’s some heavy lifting for a song they claim as non-political.
Though they may balk at “political” or “protest” labeling, their embrace of traditional styles illustrates that roots Americana music remains the best genre for what I call prophetic songwriting, offering not despair and anger about the present, but hope for a better future. The duo brings anti-modern elements to bear upon modern problems. And, they do it in such an easy way, timely yet timeless.
During the concert at The Turf Club, I overhear a middle-aged woman comment on The Cactus Blossoms’ stage presence to her friend: “Their chemistry is so amazing. And, they created that together.” Their chemistry is very much their own. It isn’t that of The Everly Brothers or The Louvin Brothers or even Bob Dylan. They are their own act singing their own songs. They are siblings who finish each other’s thoughts and trade inside jokes. And like the Mississippi River that runs through their hometown of Minneapolis, they can go with the flow or capsize those who would dare to contain them.