In a story worthy of country music lore, it was a bottle of whisky and a banjo that inspired the genesis of the Washboard Union. Moving from their native Kelowna to a large Tudor-style Vancouver mansion, stepbrothers Aaron Grain and Chris Duncombe swiftly encountered fellow multi-instrumentalist David Roberts—a resident who lived down the hall—after the pair’s jubilant jamming caught his ear. As the trio knocked back the Scotch, they collectively decided that they couldn’t make serious music with two guitars. Grain took up the mantle.
“Chris said to me, ‘You’ve got to get a banjo,’” Grain tells the Straight on a conference call with his bandmates from his Vancouver home. “So I got a Level 1 beginner’s banjo book, and a cheap instrument that I picked up from the local music store. Within four hours, we were rehearsing our first cover tune with those instruments.”
Two significantly lengthier beards later, the Washboard Union is one of the most in-demand up-and-comers on the North American roots circuit, landing shows with Toby Keith, Jason Aldean, and Old Dominion. Having scooped two Canadian Country Music Association awards and three B.C. Country Music Association awards for its 2015 six-track EP In My Bones, the trio is continuing to build a devoted fan base with a modern bluegrass-meets-pop-country sound.
“All that, and I still haven’t finished the beginner’s book,” Grain jokes.
That sense of humour is one of the reasons that the Washboard Union has been catapulted so quickly into the public arena. Known for its jangly guitar lines, sing-along choruses, and lively double bass, the trio continues to find itself in heavy rotation on Canadian radio—an accomplishment that might have something to do with its unconventional format.
“We’re a sextet, but it’s led by the three of us,” Duncombe says. “The typical arrangement in country music is a singer-songwriter surrounded by their band, but we found that we each had very different voices, and when they come together they sound really great. Working with three-part harmonies gives us a skin-tingling edge.”
Grain adds with a laugh, “We joke that it takes the three of us to make a one-piece.”
Currently in the midst of completing a full-length debut album, the Washboard Union is writing with some of Nashville’s premier names. The record is scheduled for a release in early 2018—the group is still polishing up some of the LP’s tracks—but Warner Music Canada couldn’t wait to put out a first single.
“When the label heard our new track ‘Shine’, they were pretty excited about it,” Roberts says. “They wanted to release it straight away.”
Grain jumps in with, “On the new album, our writing is getting more cohesive, and we’re collaborating with more people so we’ve got a larger pool to choose from. We took a real leap forward with In My Bones, but we didn’t have any fans. That record was a calling card to let people know what kind of music we were doing—something that tells a real story. We feel liberated to explore that sound and make it into a full statement on the album.”
The Washboard Union plays Rockin’ River Music Fest next Friday (August 4).
Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSays