Beautiful as the city he calls home is, Bob Sumner figures there are places that might understand him in a way Vancouver never totally will. This hit him big time during a recent, by-all-accounts-blurry stint in Nashville, Tennessee.
The White Rock–raised Sumner made the pilgrimage after attending a wedding—his sister’s—in Palm Springs. The side trip was partly for pleasure, and partly a reconnaissance mission. After years of making gold-standard country records as half of Vancouver’s the Sumner Brothers with his older brother Brian, the singer-guitarist has struck out on his own with a magnificent solo debut, Wasted Love Songs.
What’s most impressive about the full-length is that it’s not another Sumner Brothers album—not that anyone would be complaining about that.
“Brian has this thing where he likes to get pretty weird,” Sumner says, speaking from his East Van abode. “So our records can be pretty chaotic. I really love being pushed to do that. But I’m also such a junkie for melancholy ballads. I’m talking pretty extreme—98 percent of the time I’m listening to records with that kind of feel, stuff with typically a Townes Van Zandt kind of vibe.”
Loaded with gorgeously downbeat vocals, dying-campfire guitar, and space-cowboy keyboard washes, Wasted Love Songs will be remembered as one of the great records of the year. From the plaintive, peyote-dusted “A Thousand Horses” to the ghostly “Ticket to Ride”, Sumner sets a mood and then sticks to it with an admirable determination.
Forget Saturday punch-ups at the roadhouse, Wasted Love Songs is made for two hours past last call, when the only folks left are the bartender and nowhere-to-go regulars. Think Van Zandt hanging in the early hours with John Prine and post-Copperhead Road Steve Earle, which is another way of saying it’s not much like the work of someone from these parts.
“I can’t be angry at Vancouver for not fully understanding where I’m coming from, ’cause it’s a pretty niche thing,” he says. “Like, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark are my heroes—why would anyone from Vancouver know who they are or understand them?”
He left Nashville feeling that he locked onto something that’s missing from modern country—alternative or otherwise.
“There’s shit music wherever you go,” he says. “I’d play a Guy Clark tune there in a bar, and some people wouldn’t know it. But the other side of the coin was that there were a lot of people who did get it. And that felt really good.”
If you’ve ever drunk in a tavern, roadhouse, or grimy dive down South, you know everything is somehow different, starting with the incapacitating free pours. No one sits at a table when there’s a stool at the bar; jukeboxes always seem stocked by someone who knows Hank III is cooler than Hank II will ever be.
And that makes Sumner question what he’s still doing in Vancouver. Whether he was sitting in front of a beer or in front of a mike in Nashville, he couldn’t help but feel like he was home.
“I can’t believe it took me 15 years to realize this,” he says, “but, man, everything I’m into is from another place.”
Heavenly as it was, though, he could see things easily going to hell.
“I don’t think I would want to relocate there,” he says with a laugh. “After spending two weeks there, I realized I would be dead in three months if I stayed too long, 'cause I love drinking and smoking. It’s just too easy there.”
It hasn’t, however, always been easy at home.
Thanks to the Sumner Brothers, the singer-songwriter is regarded as one of Vancouver’s most stellar underground-country artists. That the duo largely continues to fly under the radar in Vancouver speaks volumes about the way art is treated in a city almost singularly focused on money.
Still, leaving isn’t an option for Sumner.
“I’m sure you can understand this,” he says. “Brian and I have been working so hard for so long, and we’re kind of like, ‘We’re born here, and we live here, so this is our city.’”
While Wasted Love Songs is a solo record, Sumner is quick to note that he had help, starting with bassist-about-town Erik Nielsen, who proved invaluable in the producer’s chair. Brian was also on hand to provide input and feedback. But—unlike the dynamic in the Sumner Brothers—there was no disputing who was in charge.
In the end Sumner had final say, the process teaching him that sometimes you have to declare yourself the boss.
“There were tears, for real,” he says with a laugh, while politely declining to reveal who was shedding them. “This was the first time I was actually spending money in a studio—normally, we [the Sumner Brothers] will set up in a cabin. When you’re spending that kind of money, and you don’t actually have money—I’m a broke dude—there’s so much pressure. What if you spend $20,000, come out the other side, and just hate it? That makes tension super high.”
The payoff, however, could not have been more worth it. If there’s a God—and she’s currently on her fourth bourbon in a sawdust-floor tavern somewhere in Nashville—Sumner will be getting plenty of rapturous attention in the months and years to come. And, yes, that includes in his hometown.
“I’ve always wanted to make a record where you don’t have to skip a song,” he says. “The kind of record that you can put on, and nothing becomes offensive to your mood. That’s where this record came from. From doing this for so many years, I just had a batch of songs that worked really well together.”
Bob Sumner plays the WISE Hall on Friday (January 25).