The last time the Georgia Straight caught up with Ryan Boldt, Townes Van Zandt came up in the conversation. This time around, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Johnny Cash make appearances. The singer and rhythm guitarist for Saskatchewan’s Deep Dark Woods is well aware that his band is still an emerging act, not quite ready to be mentioned in the same breath as any of those icons. But after receiving a 2012 Juno nomination for The Place I Left Behind and winning a U.S. record deal with Nashville’s prestigious Sugar Hill label, the Deep Dark Woods is getting closer.
“There’s nobody better than those people,” says Boldt of his musical heroes when he’s reached by phone during a brief visit to his Saskatoon home. “I always kind of look up to them, and try my best, and you always have to think about what they would do. You’ve got to question yourself all the time—would somebody like that put out something like this? And if not, then you should definitely look into it a little more, and work on it a little bit.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he adds. “Trying to get as good as the people you love.”
In a sense, Willie, Waylon, Johnny, and Townes serve as Boldt’s internal editorial board. “I’ve written a lot of songs, and most of them I don’t show anybody,” he explains. “I only try and take the ones that I think people like that would maybe like, a little bit. I’m very hard on myself, when it comes to writing—which I think everybody should be. A lot of people just settle for whatever, you know, and I don’t want to be one of those people. I have, absolutely, settled for less at times, and I’m just trying to be a little harder on myself. Which is a good thing—and it can be a bad thing, also.”
No negative ramifications are evident on The Place I Left Behind. The Deep Dark Woods’ fourth full-length is a solid effort, with 13 Boldt-penned songs that sometimes tap into the folk tradition the same way another of his idols, Bob Dylan, does.
“If I’m feeling broken up about something, I kinda listen to a lot of the Carter Family,” the songwriter says. “ ‘Mary’s Gone’ is a good example of that: I took the old Carter Family song ‘I Never Will Marry’, and I kind of wrote my own lyrics about that.…I think the best way to write a song is kind of figuring out ‘What would the Carter Family do?’ or ‘What would Ralph Stanley do?’ And then try to make it as good as that song, and hopefully you do.”
Dylan, of course, has been getting a lot of flak for similar borrowings from the folk canon, a criticism that was rarely, if ever, levelled at earlier musical magpies like A. P. Carter or Willie Dixon.
“People will call it plagiarism, but it’s not that at all,” Boldt argues. “I mean, like Dylan said, it’s a part of the folk tradition. People have been doing it since the beginning of time. Everybody’s done it. Shakespeare did it; all the great writers did it. So why do people get in trouble for it now?”
That’s a question one might have to lawyer up to answer. But Boldt’s approach to songwriting certainly puts him in good company—even if, as he’d be the first to admit, he’s no Shakespeare.
The Deep Dark Woods play the Commodore Ballroom next Thursday (November 1) as part of the Straight Series.