- Jen Squires
- Bassist Alastair Whitehead, far right, and The Slocan Ramblers bring their traditional-meets-contemporary bluegrass sounds to Pickin' & Paddlin.'
It wouldn't be summer in Bend without Pickin' & Paddlin'—and it wouldn't be Pickin' & Paddlin' without all-star pickers playing traditional bluegrass. Now in its 11th year, the series began with a couple kayakers creating music on the back deck of Tumalo Creek Kayak & Canoe after a long day on the river. The event has grown over time to become a celebration and fundraiser for the Bend Paddle Trail Alliance, featuring regular doses of pickin' alongside boat demos, food carts and craft beverages.
The Slocan Ramblers, hailing from Toronto, Canada, blends traditional and contemporary bluegrass. The band headlines the first of the series.
"I grew up in Newfoundland on the east coast of Canada. I grew up around a lot of folk music and in high school got into jazz music," says Alastair Whitehead, bassist, vocalist and songwriter. "When I was living in Toronto, there was a really great bluegrass and old time folk scene. In the night time I'd find myself at bars in Toronto where they would be playing really great bluegrass music. It was a community thing."
Depending on who you ask, the band's draw to bluegrass and old time music may differ. Whitehead believes that it blends well with jazz, which he and other members of the band studied in college.
"It's amazing that folk music—fiddle music—blends with the roots of jazz. It blends all of our musical influences," Whitehead says.
While they're focused now on the United States and the United Kingdom, the band has seen many corners of the planet.
"We get to see so much of the world and meet a wide variety of people," Whitehead says. "And also, you get to make a living playing music. Every time we get up on stage, we play to a crowd of enthusiastic people."
The Slocan Ramblers have become known for their energetic live performances. They typically sing around one microphone, in a traditional bluegrass, old-time style. When they first got together, the band rehearsed often and tried out a lot of different material and sounds. Now, they spend more time on the road, where they spend more time workshopping new material.
"If you have an idea, you're probably in a hotel with at least one of the other guys, and you can rally the troops pretty quick," Whitehead says. "Playing live so much, you can get some immediate feedback and maybe test it on the crowd as you go. Bluegrass is a lot like jazz and improvisation is a big part of it. It's fun to see where the guys take it."
The Slocan Ramblers release their latest album, "Queen City Jubilee," on June 15. With this album, Whitehead says they've found their strengths and have gotten comfortable in their own skin. On their first album, The Slocan Ramblers focused more on traditional bluegrass. On "Coffee Creek," the band's last album, they got into songwriting for the first time.
"This album, I think we're comfortable with our strengths as a band and our identify as songwriters," Whitehead says. "By blending traditional and original music, we've created a sound existence between the two. It sounds the most like the band than any of our albums."
Whitehead admits that writing original bluegrass music can sometimes be tough because of the aesthetic and style that already exists within the genre. Each member writes songs and the content varies from old-time kind of tales to more personal, relationship themes.
This year's Pickin' & Paddlin' event includes a new tradition, Songwriters on the Round, to kick off the music part of the evening. Local singer-songwriters showcase their river-inspired songs to get things warmed up for the two co-headlining bands. True North Band performs from 5:15 to 7pm and The Slocan Ramblers take the stage at 7:30pm.