I have long maintained a distant relationship with the Ottawa Valley Country Music Hall of Fame.
Not by choice. I have known and interviewed a number of the Hall’s inductees and executives, all friendly-like. I have made efforts to promote their activities and the virtual Hall’s website. (See?) Yet, many of those efforts have met with resistance. And I think I get it. The City of Ottawa is creeping ever closer to the Valley; it’s understandable that folks out there might be wary of interest from city slickers like me.
But I will not be silenced. (Though I’m also unlikely to shout.) I will continue to openly admire the rich musical vein that has fueled generations of Valley people. The countrified sounds of the Ottawa Valley has earned admirers nationwide and worldwide. I know. I’m one.
April Verch is another.
This year, the Pembroke native estimates she’ll spend over 250 days singing, playing and dancing her way through songs from her 10th album, The Newpart, and extolling the virtues of the Valley to people across North America and Europe. This weekend, she’ll even find time to bring those sounds to the Valley itself — and, yes, to the City. Friday, May 1, the fiddler/singer/stepdancer will heat up the Neat Cafe in Burnstown; the following night, she’ll be mining the past at Library and Archives Canada on Wellington Street, as part of the Ontario Scene series.
That means a brief stopover in Pembroke, to see family and spend a night or three at what the busy troubadour nominally calls home. By this time next week, she’ll be in Ireland, for a round of European shows that will see her through to mid-June.
A homecoming, then, that will not include unpacking.
But if she seldom sees the former schoolhouse she grew up in, she is unlikely to forget her roots. If anything, they are growing deeper.
“You know,” she muses during a bit of catching-up over the phone, “certain aspects of having a career in music are things you have to think about — whether you want to or not. And sometimes it feels forced, or you have to overthink things. Carrying the Ottawa Valley with me is one of the things I can proudly say doesn’t require any of that. It really does just feel like a natural part of me.
“I’m proud of it, and it really does inform everything I do. Obviously, I play more than just the Ottawa Valley stuff but it’s important for me that people know where I’m from. And, you know, 10 albums in and having been raised there and carrying that with you — it’s more than just music. It’s who you are as a performer, if you’re being honest with the audience.”
True, Verch plays more than just the Ottawa Valley stuff. And with The Newpart, the repertoire continues to expand — those toe-tapping Valley tunes now abetted not only by original ballads and a cover of Verch idol John Hartford‘s Bring Your Clothes Back Home, but also by a handful of unearthed melodic pop songs from the 1920s and ’30s, courtesy of the anthropological efforts of Dust to Digital.
For those last innovative additions Verch credits the advice of producer Casey Driessen.
“There’s just so much out there now,” she says of approaching that all-important 10th album, “that there’s this constant expectation that you’re going to reinvent yourself every time you make a new album. And it’s not realistic to me, in a lot of ways, because if you’re passionate about what you do and you just want to do more of that, it’s not reinventing.
“That was how this conversation came up with Casey. It was me saying that and him saying, ‘Okay, then you need to think about digging back further and finding stuff that you can approach that fits into this, that’s going to be cohesive as an album but that isn’t another old-time tune.
“That’s how it started.”
Hence, the former Homegrown Cafe champ who grew up surrounded by tunes for and from the ages, was prompted to do a little homework — with the help of trusted bandmates Hayes Griffin (guitar) and Cody Walters (bass and banjo).
“Casey encouraged us to look back to some of that stuff,” she explains. “We found it on Dust to Digital. Man, we listened to a pile, and narrowed it down to songs we thought we could approach as a trio. They’re such great songs, and they’re still relevant. They have to be played.”
And sung. For Verch, it’s a new chapter, drawn from old texts.
“I hope it works,” Verch says hesitantly of Gilchrist, a stepdancing instrumental. That’s not an instrumental for stepdancing — the track consists of the sound of one fiddler dancing. Without a fiddle.
Not reinventing, you say? This listener begs to differ. Sure, Fred Astaire and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Ringo Starr dared to tap-dance on LP, and percussion-as-melody has been a forte of Osibisa and Sandy Nelson. But could they stepdance for our listening pleasure?
“It was interesting to put that together,” Verch says of the percussive piece dedicated the great Ottawa Valley stepdancer Donnie Gilchrist. “I would listen to back and realize it didn’t really make any sense when I couldn’t see it. It was a real learning experience for me.
“It’s the first time I’ve done that with the feet, but this (album) is also the first time I’ve played and sung at the same time — which is pretty big for me. It’s really hard. It’s still hard. But I said if I’m going to play and sing and dance (on the album) then I’m going to do that onstage. Otherwise, it doesn’t feel right to me. It’s another level of what we do.”
And it works. For the fiddler, singer and bandleader, the footloose original is an unlikely album highlight. Another level, if you will.
But, like Verch herself, still very much Ottawa Valley. The album’s title confirms as much: The Newpart is the name still used for the addition made to the Verch family home the year April was born. A family room. A music room. Another link between past and present.
“It is,” she reflects, “a pretty special place to me.”
Of course, Verch is poised to visit dozens of special places in the weeks and months following her Neat and NAC stopover. To each of those faraway lands, she will bring a touch of the Valley. And to an audience in Austria or the Czech Republic, what could be more exotic?
“I think people find it fascinating,” she observes. “And I talk about it. You know, I don’t talk about it to the extent where people who don’t want to know are going to be bored to death, or feel like they’re getting a lecture. But it’s part of what I do and who I am. It’s definitely something that I would introduce when we’re playing that kind of thing.
“The lines connect stronger in some places than in others, certainly. But we’ve never had an experience yet where people didn’t get it or didn’t connect with it to some degree. And I’ve thought a lot about that and I think a lot of it comes down to the actual performance. We really do love it and I think our performance shows that. We’re talking about where it comes from and we’re getting to know them and… When you see anything, whether it’s music or art, when there’s somebody behind it that has that passion, it’s contagious. I think that helps people to figure it out and connect with it on their own level.”
That’s what I’ve been trying to tell those Ottawa Valley Country Music Hall of Fame people. Perhaps one day, when April Verch is added to the list of inductees, she’ll put in a word for me.
Mind you, that may not be for a while. With a just-released album to show off, and a string of dates that will allow her to share with the world the sound that inspired Donnie Gilchrist, Ward Allen, Mac Beattie and others before her, Verch is unlikely to be back anytime soon.
“It won’t be home time,” she laments of this weekend’s visit, “but I do get that at other times of the year. It’s just nice that we’re coming close to home for the release date. That feels really good.”