If you travelled 25 years back in time and happened to come across an RV in Kelowna, B.C., with music emanating from it, you’d stumble upon the very early days of Washboard Union. Two of the band’s three members first started jamming there as teenagers, never knowing what the future would bring. After moving to Vancouver, they met their third bandmate.
Fast-forward to now, and the three guys — Aaron Grain, Chris (Dunner) Duncombe and David Roberts — need to pinch themselves when the stage lights go up and the audience roars. They never thought they’d bear witness to thousands of people singing along with them, or hear their songs on the radio, or be in demand to perform.
But here they are releasing their third album, What We’re Made Of, and are gearing up to embark on a tour.
In a Toronto restaurant, the guys waltz in, instruments in tow, and we sit down to have lunch. They’re jovial and friendly and have the air of people living the dream. They’re so enthused, they even wrote upwards of 35 songs for this new 12-track album.
“When we look back at the songs we wrote, there was a common thread … while the themes may have been different, sonically and a bit lyrically, there’s a common story being told,” said Duncombe. “Not just about where we’re from, but all the stories of all the people we’ve bumped into along the way. Our heroes, our fans.”
Indeed, there is an upbeat feeling to Washboard Union’s music. A lot of country music tends to lean towards the darkness or feature the sad twang of a lonely guitar or the morose lyrics of a late-night drinker. Not so with these Canadian guys, who manage to infuse their songs, like Shine, Shot of Glory and Head Over Heels, with positivity and uplifting messages.
“We hear that a lot,” laughs Roberts, who plays the washboard and harmonica. “People say to us, ‘I don’t really like country, but I like you guys.’ It’s neat because there are so many different facets to country music. Ten years ago, I don’t think Washboard would’ve stood a chance because we have that rootsy sound. We’re fortunate to be here at a time when the music we happen to play is more acceptable, more powerful.”
Duncombe, who wields the banjo for the band, agreed and said the group’s “effortless” camaraderie is one of their secrets to success. It helps the band’s output and the sincerity within each song that the guys genuinely enjoy being together.
“There’s nothing contrived about it, it’s just who we are,” he concluded.
“Don’t be fooled, we never thought we would be where we are right now, doing what we’re doing,” said Grain, guitarist and the only non-bearded member of the group. “We’ve always dreamed about it, about being songwriters. But we’ve also dreamed about being up on stage, in front of people, playing our songs to these people. It’s a real dream come true for us.”
Washboard Union has racked up the awards over the past few years, too. Among them: the 2015 B.C. CMA Roots Canadiana of the Year award, the CCMA Roots Artist of the Year and Rising Star awards in 2016, and the Western Canadian Music Awards Country Artist of the Year in 2017. (There are several more.)
A school in northern Alberta is even having a Washboard Union Day at some point this year, and the students will be dressing like the band members. The kids have also learned all the lyrics to Shine.
Not only are they resonating with fans, but other country bands are clamouring to have Washboard Union play with them at shows. Country band Old Dominion — a group the Washboard Union guys listened to, respected and admired — asked them to tour alongside them last year. Their first show was a big night, personally and professionally.
“We had this moment when we walked out on stage, and Shine started the show, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that’s great, they know all the words to it!'” recalled Duncombe. “But then they knew the words to the next one, and then the next one, and the next one. The entire set. We had never been out on tour playing to rooms that size, where the audience knew every single one of our songs.”
“For us, it was like, ‘Oh my God, this is our moment.’ A song written in a dirty kitchen found its way to the audience. That is the greatest gift you can ever have as an artist.”
Even without the band’s success, Grain, Roberts and Duncombe are best friends, and Roberts contends they’d still be sitting around, playing and writing music.
The artwork for What We’re Made Of features the band members’ faces, and if you look closely you can see trees and plants superimposed on their bodies, hats and hair. Cleverly, the art depicts who Washboard Union really is at its core: three down to earth Canadian guys, music makers of simplicity and positivity, with nothing to prove and everything to share.
During our short lunch, they emphasize on multiple occasions that they’re eternally grateful for their fans.
“Sometimes it feels surreal to be doing what we’re doing,” said Grain. “We have true fans who’ve listened to our music from the very beginning and have stuck with us through three albums. It keeps growing. They show up to these concerts and sing along to these songs we’ve written and that we love. They sing those words back to us. It shows us we’re a part of their lives, and we cannot be where we are without them. The relationship is symbiotic. We need each other.”
“We need them, and we’re so appreciative,” he said with a smile. “We couldn’t be doing this without them.”
Upcoming Tour Dates
May 4 — Whitecourt, Alta
May 5 — Grande Prairie, Alta
June 15 — Liverpool, N.S.
June 23 — Teslin, Yukon
July 7 — Castlegar, B.C.
July 21 — Cloverdale, B.C.
August 4 — Bothwell, Ont.
August 12 — Oro-Medonte, Ont.
August 17 — Kipawa, Que.
Check Washboard Union’s official site for more detailed ticket/concert information. ‘What We’re Made Of’ is out on April 20.
Chris Duncombe is an employee of Corus Entertainment.