Tell 'Em You Were Gold Pharis & Jason Romero
Label: Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
Subgenre: Traditional Folk
Artist: Pharis & Jason Romero
Album including Album cover
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- 2Cold Creek Shout03:00
- 3Rolling Mills03:58
- 4Sour Queen03:35
- 5Pale Morning02:33
- 6Train on the Island02:34
- 7Lady on the Green03:01
- 8Cannot Change It All04:27
- 9The Dose02:05
- 10SS Radiant03:17
- 11Been All Around This World03:30
- 12Black Guard Mary03:08
- 13Going to Town02:04
- 14Going Across the Sea03:38
- 15Five Miles from Town02:48
- 16Old Bill's Tune03:05
Info for Tell 'Em You Were Gold
Pharis and Jason Romero are pure craftspeople. A renowned banjo builder, Jason spent years developing his own personal designs, and on 'Tell ‘Em You Were Gold,' his handmade instruments take center stage. Over a half dozen uniquely crafted banjos are played by the duo in the course of the album. There’s conviction and delicacy in this music, which ranges from duets that showcase the pair’s deep psychic and artistic connection to solo banjo meditations and full band romps. Recorded over six days in an old barn in Horsefly, British Columbia, the album displays the multiple Juno Award-winning duo playing music that is honest, direct, and reflective of life’s beauty and knottiness.
Tell 'Em You Were Gold, is Pharis and Jason’s seventh album as a duo, and the first since 2020’s Bet on Love, which won praise from the BBC, NPR, and American Songwriter who said, “To call Bet on Love anything other than masterful would be a disservice.”
Tell ’Em You Were Gold was written and recorded in an old barn on the couple’s homestead in Horsefly, British Columbia. The barn had long been run down, and between building banjos, adventuring outdoors, and loving up their two kids, Pharis and Jason restored the building themselves, milling their own spruce, hoisting beams, and rebuilding a roof originally covered in tin printing plates. “The music made on this record was made in the spirit of that working transformation and in the spirit of the history that old barn contains,” they write in the album’s liner notes. And while the intimacy of the old building does make its way onto the record in the form of crackling stoves and tapping feet, the sense of ease that glows from the album’s center gives it the warmth of a hearth in a cold BC winter. Like many albums recorded in the past couple of years, Tell ʼEm You Were Gold is an at-home record, one where the performers’ sense of being at home with one another is obvious in their effortless interplay.
Making things by hand comes naturally to the pair: Jason has long been a highly regarded banjo-maker whose designs expand the instrument’s expressive range while respecting both its mechanical history and the music it’s frequently been used to make. When setting out to write and record Tell ʼEm You Were Gold, the duo created something where the depth and brilliance of Jason's banjos would shine on each song, where each of the instrument’s distinct personalities could be showcased through the repertoire. Jason plays seven different banjos on the album, and Pharis plays one gourd banjo guitar—all handmade by Jason in his shop. Each banjo on this record started with an idea of a sound, a feeling, or an aesthetic, and each one makes Jason play and feel a different way. They were even given names reflecting their individual character and identity: Papillon, Big Blue, Clara, Birdie, Mother, Bella, Gourdo, and The Beast.
Nearly half of Tell ’Em You Were Gold’s 16 songs are in the public domain, but the duo make sure to note whose versions have informed their own. The duo’s take on “Train on the Island” takes inspiration from the work of Tom Sauber and Mark Graham, among others, but Jason’s delicate touch—he plays three-finger style with no picks on the song—makes his virtuosity feel gentle and companionable, and contributes to the track’s incredible warmth. On opener “Souvenir”, he lays back, following the lead of Pharis’ guitar, allowing her rhythms to pull him forward as she sings about time well spent. Jason fluidly moves between various banjo styles, displaying mastery of clawhammer and three-finger picking styles and various alternate tunings.
Pharis’ lyrics shine with wisdom that’s hard won and love that’s kindly offered. “We’re always older than yesterday, but I don’t change and you won’t stay,” she sings in “Sour Queen”. The song is a showcase for her voice, too: She pushes it higher, nearly breaking it into a yodel while Jason chases the melody downward behind her. Pharis grew up in rural British Columbia singing in her family’s folk-country band, playing in the creek, and falling for ’60s folk revival and bluegrass records, and throughout Tell ’Em You Were Gold, she sings with a sweetness that never feels like affectation. Her voice is clear, bright, and informed by the sadness of a song like “Black Guard Mary” without succumbing to it. In “Cannot Change It All”, she sings an ode to the possibility of a better world with an open-eyed view of just how difficult that world will be to achieve; she carries that knowledge in her tone, never expressing it with words, but in the shadow of heartbreak that flickers through the song.
But what shines through Tell ’Em You Were Gold the brightest is the sense of joy that Pharis and Jason have playing with one another and with their friends. They’re joined by fiddlers Grace Forrest and Trent Freeman, pedal steel player Marc Jenkins, bassist Patrick Metzger, and John Reischman on mandolin. You can hear it in the way Jenkins’ pedal steel slides like liquid among the wiry picking of “The Dose”, or in the contented exhales of “SS Radiant”, a sweet solo banjo meditation dedicated to the duo’s son Sy. Even “Been All Around This World”, a rambling song Pharis and Jason each sang before they met and sing together here, feels quiet, at rest, like it’s arrived—like they’ve been around the world, but they’re here now, and there’s no place they’d rather be than at home together.
Jason Romero, banjo, vocals
Pharis Romero, guitar, guitar banjo, vocals
Grace Forrest, fiddle (tracks 7, 13, 16)
Trent Freeman, fiddle (track 4)
Marc Jenkins, pedal steel
Patrick Metzger, bass
John Reischman, mandolin
Pharis & Jason Romero
Singing vibrant duets, writing deadly songs, playing handmade banjos and loving old acoustic guitars, Pharis & Jason Romero have a classic story. When some scratchy old records and a custom banjo led to their meeting in 2007, they quickly knew they were in for the long haul. They've since released five records - with a sixth coming out in May 2018 - and toured across North America and the UK. They've won a Juno award, been featured on NPR Music, CBC, BBC, and Folk Alley, and have performed on A Prairie Home Companion and CBC's The Vinyl Cafe. They are passionate teachers and believers in many things folk, and their heartbreakingly harmonic live show is an ever-evolving and never-ending quest for good songs and beautiful sounds. Pharis is Artistic Director for Voice Works, a workshop for singers, as part of her work as a diverse singing teacher; Jason instructs all styles of banjo playing, especially old-time three finger playing.
May 2018 brings a new release from the duo. All originals, with light, love and time leading the themes, it's a record that sounds like over a decade of playing and listening together. Part duets and part featuring guests, it’s Pharis & Jason at their very finest, their most open, and their most givin’ ‘er. Primarily recorded in Horsefly, BC by John Raham, it's produced by Marc Jenkins and features musical guests and a choir of family & friends. The new record follows up on the critical acclaim of 2015's A Wanderer I'll Stay. Called "sublime" (NPR) and "brilliant" (BBC), it won a 2016 Juno Award, a Western Canadian Music Award, and was nominated for an International Folk Music Award and four Canadian Folk Music Awards. The title track was 2015's #1 most-played song on the Folk-DJ Charts.
The Long Version...
It's a classic story. A matchmaker, some scratchy old records, a custom banjo and a flyfishing trip all led to to a meeting in 2007 at an old-time fiddle jam. She was living in Victoria, BC and he was living in Arcata, CA. Both had been playing music for decades, and both loved the early stuff. She sent him a copy of the 1928 recording Tupelo Blues from Hoyt Ming & His Pepsteppers, and they married 3 months later. In 2010 they moved their home and the J. Romero Banjo Company to the central British Columbia town of Horsefly (her hometown). Surrounded by wilderness and good people they build banjos and play music new and old, releasing three records as a duo - A Wanderer I'll Stay, Long Gone Out West Blues, and A Passing Glimpse - and two records with other folks.
Writing songs about ageless characters, hard lives, loss and love, Pharis’ songs have been played on radios around the world. She was called a “historical treasure” by the BC Folklore Society. On stage from a very young age with her family's country band, classically trained and country schooled, she was a co-founder of the award-winning and innovative roots-folk band Outlaw Social, releasing two celebrated albums from 2005 to 2009, before venturing out musically with Jason.
Jason was a fixture on the Arcata, CA bluegrass and old-time scene before coming to BC, and is deft in banjo styles from early fingerstyle to clawhammer to bluegrass. When not playing banjo, his resophonic and acoustic guitar playing is a distinct texture, melodic and percussive. His singing and his playing has been called both seductive and badass.
In 2008 Jason and Pharis started the Haints Old Time Stringband with fiddler Erynn Marshall and the later addition of mandolinist/guitarist/songwriter Carl Jones. Releasing their debut recording Shout Monah in 2009, SingOut magazine said “This is a very special recording, one that [we]’ll return to time and again. "They play and sing superbly" (fRoots), and Shout Monah was named one of the best banjo releases of 2009 (Banjo Newsletter).
In 2010 Jason and Pharis released an instrumental album of fiddle tunes, Back Up and Push. With nineteen west coast old-time fiddlers and Pharis and Jason's guitar and banjo back-up, it earned them the accolade "old-time duo of Canada" (Penguin Eggs).
2011 brought the release of their first duo album, A Passing Glimpse. A beautiful collection of songs - originals or lovingly sourced from old recordings - it set the stage for future duet recordings, with plenty of powerful duet singing over acoustic & National guitars, fingerstyle and clawhammer banjo. It won the 2012 Independent Music Award for Americana Album of the Year, hit #1 on the North American Folk DJ playlists, and won a 2012 Canadian Folk Music Award for New/Emerging Artist of the Year.
Their second release as a duo, 2013's Long Gone Out West Blues, found a new place in their songwriting, picking and closeness as a duet. It was featured on NPR Music's Favorite Sessions, Utne Magazine's Monthly Music Sampler, and in Folk Alley's Hear It First. It also brought a Canadian Folk Music Award for Traditional Singer and a nomination for Traditional Album of the Year, two Western Canadian Music Awards nominations, and an Independent Music Award nomination for Americana Album of the Year.
Their newest release is A Wanderer I'll Stay. Now raising a family while sustaining on an ever-growing line of custom handmade banjos, Pharis and Jason have carved out new songs - heartbreak to wilderness dwellers, gourd banjo instrumentals to moaning refrains - and put their singularly recognizable stamp on some beautiful covers. With instrumental guests on fiddle, bass, pedal steel and even drums, it was recorded by David-Travers-Smith at their home in Horsefly. Called "sublime" (NPR) and "brilliant" (BBC), it won a Juno Award (Traditional Roots Album) and a Western Canadian Music Award (Songwriter of the Year), and was nominated for an International Folk Music Award (Song of the Year - "A Wanderer I'll Stay"), and four Canadian Folk Music Awards. The title track was 2015's #1 most-played song on the Folk-DJ Charts and the album was the #1 most-played on Stingray's Folk-Roots radio.
Pharis & Jason's releases continue to attract audiences and radio play globally. Their delight in making music for music's sake no doubt contributes to the joyful lack of pretense in their albums and performances and to the rapidly-growing fan-base for both.
Performance highlights include several appearances on A Prairie Home Companion, a tour with The Vinyl Cafe, the Winnipeg, Vancouver and Edmonton Folk Music Festivals, Celtic Connections and Pickathon. When not building or performing, they also spend much of their year teaching at music camps and workshops including Voiceworks, BC Bluegrass Workshops, Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, Fiddle Works, 108 Mile Bluegrass Camp, Georgia Straight Guitar Workshop, and others.
This album contains no booklet.