When they started pickin’ and grinnin’ together two years ago, The Blue Wranglers didn’t expect they would ever cut a record.
But in a small rural town in the midst of a pandemic, anything can happen.
The Clinton bluegrass band – comprised of Dustin Bentall, Trixie Berkel, Bruce Ambler and Dan Fremlin – spent the past 10 days recording their first album, a compilation of 11 new and reimagined songs, written mostly by Berkel, with help from Bentall and Fremlin.
“I feel incredibly proud of everything we’ve thrown into this and what it’s turned out to be,” Berkel said during a break in recording last week. “We’ve worked incredibly hard.”
The songs were recorded in a tight 10-day deadline in between family duties – Berkel and Bentall have two small boys – and calving season on Fremlin’s ranch. The vocal tracks were set to be completed last weekend before being mixed and produced by Vancouver’s John Raham.
The songs evoke life, death and everything in between, Berkel said, and are inspired by the Clinton countryside and rural lifestyle.
“Bruce has taken both Dustin and Dan into the mountains and I can imagine them sitting in the bush,” she said. “These are community-focused songs.”
Berkel credits Ambler, the group’s banjo picker, for inspiring her, after he told a Free Press reporter he wanted to go to the Grand Ol’ Opry. “He looked me in the eye and said you better get writing,” Berkel said, before turning to Ambler. “I don’t know if you know how serious I took that. I’ve always been writing songs but I’ve never really followed them through so this record has been the first time I’ve had the opportunity to do that.”
This will be Ambler’s first record. Fremlin has been playing mandolin since he was 14 and Bentall has several albums under his belt. Berkel has also done a few recordings, but said “nothing I’m too proud of.”
Until now. Berkel maintains she always thought they would make a record one day – “I thought we sound pretty good off the hop, to be honest” – but acknowledges it might have taken longer if the pandemic hadn’t struck.
Bentall had been touring with an indie rock band, Hunting, when COVID-19 shut them down on the night of their release party. He came home to wait it out, jamming with The Blue Wranglers.
“This really carried us through that, those dark times,” Bentall said. “We were fortunate to have moved here and had these incredible players to play with. After a year of messing around, we started to sound pretty good.”
The band played their first back-to-back concerts last July 23, as a benefit for the town of Lytton. Later that fall, Berkel got busy, writing one of their songs – Hello Today – when Ambler, a guide outfitter, took Bentall and his father Barney on a pack trip into the mountains.
“I just felt like, the chorus anyway, it came together while you guys were away because I was having this existential crisis,” Berkel said. “I thought, you guys are going to come out of the mountains and we’re going to have to get to work because this is who and what I am.”
The album features songs that showcase each individual member’s strengths, she said. And although a bluegrass band, the Blue Wranglers also decided to add drums, bringing in Leon Power, who was raised in Salmon Arm but now lives in Vancouver.
“He was just the perfect choice for a drummer,” Berkel said. “It is interesting because we came to a really strong realization as a band we have a really strong sound together. When I think about what’s going to shine in this record, the drums are not going to be much of an overpowering thing. It’s just going to lift up the vocals, the incredible instrumentation, and the strength of these songs.”
Ambler agreed, saying the “vocal arrangements are going to send shivers up your spine.
“We’re all fairly talented musicians but we don’t stand up to some of these pickers, not even close, never will. But the one thing they can’t take away from us is our sound … Nobody will match that.”
As the newest kid on the recording block, Ambler said he found the process a bit overwhelming “as the songs came flying out of the woodwork but we’ve pulled it off.”
Bentall agreed “we’ve done something good here” but adds they also will make a bluegrass album one day, as the group keeps growing and learning together. Even he has “expanded his musicality 10-fold,” he said, after having to learn melody and harmony – “a complete mystery to me.”
“I’m actually doing my best to do flatpicking on a record. That’s a huge huge thing for me,” he said. “You’ve got to fit that place in this band because everybody takes lead and everybody sings and our voices together are very special.”
The group hasn’t yet decided how they will distribute their new album, saying they are contemplating “creative ways” to share it with the public.
“We’re trying to forge relationships with people,” Berkel said. “Just to have that back and forth feeling – we’ve all been missing that for so long. I think there’s a way we can do that with the actual release of a record, a much more interactive experience than just a link somewhere on the internet.”
Bentall agreed, noting while they still hope to get to Nashville or the Ryman, connecting with their local listeners is key.
“Our hometown is the nucleus and letting it spread from there. Because of our lifestyle, we can’t just hit the road for weeks on end like we used to do when we were younger,” he said. “With the perspective that COVID brought and how this band was borne out of it, we’ve figured out what’s really important.”