The highest compliment one might pay A Wanderer I’ll Stay is that it sounds like the work of folks who are almost completely off the grid.
From the bare-bones title track to the fiddle-scorched blowout “There’s No Companion”, the husband-and-wife team of Pharis and Jason Romero deliver a brand of unvarnished Americana that brings to mind sepia-toned parlour photographs, scratchy 78 records, and weather-beaten porch swings.
If A Wanderer I’ll Stay seems like the real rural deal, that makes sense. In addition to playing what falls under the umbrella of old-timey country, the Romeros actually live in the country, specifically, the community of Horsefly in British Columbia’s beautifully rugged Cariboo region.
While that places them far away from established and thriving roots-music hubs like Vancouver, the two wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If I look at my entire life before we moved here, this seemed like a perfect fit,” the California-raised Jason says, on the phone with his wife from Horsefly as their one-year-old daughter plays in the background. “I like not looking at neighbours, and there are very few places you can go these days where you can afford a piece of land and not see another house—even in B.C. I remember staring at a map and going, ‘That’s too far north, and the Kootenays can be dark in the winter, and the Chilcotin is too far out there.’ We had this concentric circle, and then suddenly we were like bam!”
The duo’s Horsefly residence operates as both a home and a business base. Not only is it where Pharis and Jason Romero’s songs are written and honed, it’s also where Jason runs a booming banjo-making business. Throw an often busy touring schedule into that mix, not to mention child-rearing, and that makes for a lot of time together, something that the couple isn’t complaining about.
“If you consider the amount of time that we spend together, we literally are pretty close to 24/7,” Pharis says. “Neither of us are going off to a day job separate from the other. And I love not having to come home at the end of the day and explain what my day was like, or what my three-week tour away was like.”
That the Romeros are perfectly happy operating as an insular unit partly explains why stellar past outings like A Passing Glimpse (2011) and Long Gone Out West Blues (2013) were basically the work of two people. A Wanderer I’ll Stay throws the doors open to topnotch collaborators like fiddler Josh Rabie, bassist John Hurd, pedal-steel ace Marc Jenkins, and drummer Brent Morton. In the producer’s chair was David Travers-Smith.
“With this new material, we definitely heard other instruments on the songs,” Jason says. “The challenge, though, was not to put a full band on every song. That would have been fun if we’d done it, and all the songs would have sounded huge, but what we really wanted to do was take people on a journey.”
And take fans on a journey they do. Pharis and Jason Romero roll out their trademark honeysuckle harmonies for the banjo-backed “New Lonesome Blues”, rip up the roadhouse on “Cocaine Blues”, and kick back in front of the Bakelite radio for the antiquated jazz gem “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie”.
The only downside to the major triumph that is A Wanderer I’ll Stay is that the record is going to create the kind of festival-circuit demand that will make downtime in Horsefly nothing but a fond memory. The two musicians have already been away more than they’ve been at home this year, starting with a couple of months in the U.K. The upcoming tour, which will take them through Vancouver and down to the States, is going to keep them busy to the point where some things will have to remain on the back burner, including their banjo-making business.
“We’re at a four-year wait list, so we kind of need to keep on that,” Pharis says. “But we also don’t want to lose track of music, because this is an amazing creative expression for Jason and I. It keeps me writing songs and it keeps us out there experiencing new things. And even though it’s hard touring with a little one, both of us are firm believers that it’s really good for all of us.”
Pharis and Jason Romero play St. James Hall on Friday (April 10).