According to Pharis Romero, there’s nothing she loves more than old-time music jams. “The feeling you get sitting around with people all playing the same tune around and around for up to 20 minutes—with nobody taking solos, and all of you making things as tight and groovy and fun as possible—is amazing,” says the songwriter and guitarist, reached at her home in the small Cariboo town of Horsefly. “It really gives you a sense of grounding in the tradition.”
Pharis has another reason for holding such gatherings to heart—it was at a mighty session six years ago that she met her husband, Jason Romero. A renowned banjo-maker and player from northern California, he’d come to B.C. to go fly-fishing and check out the alt-country band Pharis was performing with, Outlaw Social. Their courtship wasn’t drawn out. “Three months later we were married,” says Jason, on another line.
It took the couple several years to settle down, however. “We moved four or five times, and felt so transient,” Pharis recalls. “When we got to Horsefly—where I grew up—we both breathed this incredible sigh of relief and felt ‘We’re not moving again.’ I’m a fifth-generation Horsefly resident, and this is probably where we’ll be the rest of our lives.”
The couple bought a small house just outside town on 40 acres that they share with cougars, bears, eagles, and osprey. “I have a workshop where we make up to four or five high-end custom banjos a month,” says Jason. “We do the whole family—banjo ukulele, banjo mandolin, tenor and five-string banjos, and the original banjo, made from a gourd. I play them all.”
The Romeros started out together performing traditional music in the Haints Old Time Stringband and accompanying old-time fiddlers on the CD Back Up and Push. As a duo they put out the critically acclaimed Passing Glimpse two years ago, featuring material gleaned from vintage recordings as well as songs by Pharis. Though the mix is similar on their recent follow-up Long Gone Out West Blues, there are more of their own compositions—including the bittersweet beauty “Lost Lula”, Jason’s first banjo instrumental, and the yearning early country-flavoured title track, the only piece credited to both musicians.
“But all the new songs are really joint efforts,” says Pharis. “In most cases we’ll work something up, then bring it to the other for refinement. Asking somebody else to work on a song that‘s not quite finished can be an anxiety-ridden process, but we’re trusting each other more and more.”
As titles like “Sad Old Song”, “Lonely Home Blues”, and “Come On Home” suggest, the mood of many of Pharis’s songs is downbeat. “That’s strange because I’m really happy,” she says. “It probably reflects the nature of country music. But it’s also like in dreams, where things you don’t necessarily express in any other way come out. I think that part of my songwriting process is giving a voice to these feelings without letting them be a major part of my life.”