April Verch has never sounded more comfortable in her skin than she does now, in the second decade of her career as an internationally touring Canadian fiddler, step dancer and singer-songwriter. Her ninth album, Bright Like Gold, captures a woman who’s fleshed out her identity and is in full command of her gifts, a woman who’s grown from a prodigy into an enduring artist—one of music’s most unforgiving public transitions—with grace and grit to spare.
The story of how Verch came to be a brilliant interpreter of tradition is just as striking as the results. She’s of a generation far more likely to have spent its formative years taking in MTV than taking part in any sort of traditional music scene, and yet practically from birth she was immersed in folk music and dance from her native Ottawa Valley, a melting pot of Franco-Celtic flavors brought by the hard-working loggers who settled the area. Ferried to dance-filled old-time gatherings and country & western jamborees by her music-loving parents, she followed her older sister into step dancing at age 3, and picked up the fiddle at age 6. She was lucky to have the chance to start studying, performing and competing in both so early, but there’s no question that she also made the most of it.
Says Verch, “I was fortunate to have an opportunity to grow up performing with a lot of people that didn’t make their living playing music, but were the local country music stars. And I remember my parents asking them questions and having them talk to me and tell me how hard it was to have a career in music. I think the reason I did some of the things I did so early on, such as recording my first album at thirteen, was because I thought, ‘I know this is hard, but I’m still going to do this. So I’d better get going.’ In a sense, their way of trying to warn me just made me push all the harder.”
In her early teens, Verch found herself at Mark O’Connor’s fiddle camp (to which she later returned as an instructor) rooming with young musicians who strove to become carbon copies of their idols, and learning a lot from the encounter. She remembers, “I asked myself, ‘How are these girls going to do it? They sound exactly like somebody else. How am I going to not sound like somebody from Canada, or somebody that I’m listening to, and make my own sound?’ It was really important at that age to grasp that.”
By the time Verch graduated high school, she’d won the Canadian Open Old Time Fiddle Championship and released a pair of albums, followed by a year at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music and a win at the Canadian Grand Masters Fiddling Competition, which made her the first woman ever to take both of her country’s two top contests. From there she dove into a full-time music career, signing with Rounder Records for a trio of albums—produced by the likes of Bruce Molsky and Dirk Powell—starting to put her delicate soprano to use and experimenting with a more contemporary palette.
Verch looks back on that earlier era with clear-eyed perspective. “I was always true to myself in performing stuff that I liked,” she reflects, “but I think I was also trying to please a lot of people. I mean, we were playing bluegrass festivals, Celtic festivals, folk festivals. And I was just really trying to do everything I could to make sure that this was a career that was going to last. Now I’ve been doing this long enough that I’ve realized I’m the one playing the music every night—I’d better love it. And if I’m loving what I’m playing, it’s going to get across no matter what. I think it’s just a part of growing up and realizing that I don’t need to try so hard to please everyone. We are the April Verch Band, and this is what we do. That’s what people love about us.”
There’s a lot to love. The April Verch Band—rounded out by bassist and clawhammer banjo player Cody Walters and guitarist Hayes Griffin, who has a Masters in jazz improv from the New England Conservatory—is an energetic, virtuosic, tradition-celebrating outfit, not to mention one that’s not soon forgotten when they depart the stage. It doesn’t hurt that the thrilling grand finale involves Verch fiddling and step dancing—and often executing two entirely different intricate rhythmic patterns—at once.
Says Verch, “My favorite versions of this music are the field recordings. That’s just where my heart lies. For me, it’s just about letting these tunes live on the way they are. Because the three of us in the band come from different backgrounds, we don’t have to try really hard to make it sound like we’re putting our own spin on it. We end up sounding like us anyway.”
Verch, leader of this self-assured ensemble, is claiming her power as an artist and a woman, and taking charge of her recording process. Produced by Verch, Walters, Griffin, and their engineer Chris Rosser, Bright Like Gold is, quite literally, the album of Verch’s life. It captures her applying the rich texture of experience to the reclaiming of her roots.
The 20 tracks range from originals—including Walters’ broodingly elegant instrumental “Raven In the Hemlock,” Griffin’s classic western swing number “Foolish Heart” and Verch’s simply profound confessions “Broken” and “Sorry,” along with other compositions that showcase the breadth of her sensibilities—to a sprightly old-time Canadian medley made up of “Dusty Miller,” “Fiddle Fingers” and “Grizzly Bear.”
“‘Grizzly Bear,’” she explains, “is a tune that my dad used to play for me on a record when I was growing up, and there was actually a fake grizzly bear growling in the background when it came back around to the A part. He said I used to go hide under the table when he put it on. Those three tunes in particular, I probably heard them before I could walk or talk. I mean, those are my roots. For a while, I didn’t want to play them anymore. I grew up on them. They weren’t cool. Now I’m at a point where I’ve been away from them long enough to realize their value, I miss them, and I want to share them.”
After Verch had acquainted herself with Canada’s array of regional fiddle styles, she further enriched her repertoire by becoming fluent in the Appalachian traditions from down south. (For the uninitiated, Canadian styles tend toward more effervescent melodies and articulate, single-string bowing, while American old-time styles often feature darker, modal melodies and the droning sound produced by cross tunings and double stops. “What they have in common,” she adds, “which is what I love, is that they’re both meant for dancing.”) She, Griffin and Walters never rest in their pursuit of vintage American string band material. “We’re nerds,” she laughs. “We love to watch old DVDs of Flatt & Scruggs. And we have the Tommy Jarrell documentary ‘Sprout Wings and Fly,’ and we watch it probably three times a month.”
On the new album, there’s a version of the irresistibly tuneful number “Big Eyed Rabbit” that was inspired by the rendition Jarrell, standard-setter for old-time fiddling, played in the film. Verch is joined on it by Molsky, the old-time fiddle master she’s known for her entire professional career; the two of them also do some mighty handsome dual fiddling on “Evening Star Waltz.”
From the online sound archives of Berea College, Verch and her bandmates dug up the trad tune “Big Eared Mule,” one of four tracks which feature Sammy Shelor as a guest. It turns out that he’s not only a bluegrass banjo icon—who’s been IBMA Banjo Player of the Year no less than five times—he’s also a clawhammer-style enthusiast, and a fan of the April Verch Band. He can be heard on the traditional medley “Davy Davy” and “Folding Down the Sheets,” the classic country courting duet “Before I Met You” and “The Only One,” which Verch penned specifically for Bluegrass Hall of Famer Mac Wiseman to sing with her.
“I’d never met him,” she admits. “I just called him and said, ‘Yeah, hi, Mac. I’m a Canadian fiddler and I wrote this song that I can hear you singing. Do you want to do it?’ I still really can’t believe that he’s on there. We’re so privileged to play a kind of music where you have access to your heroes like that.” The 87-year old living legend also wound up lending his still-warm, mellow voice to a song once performed by his dear friend Charlie Moore, “My Home In the Sky.”
That Verch decided to tackle the Loretta Lynn chestnut “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’” might seem a bit unexpected at first, given that she’s a considerably softer singer than Lynn. In truth, it offers a chance for Verch to show another side of her personality; one feisty woman covering another. “I have a big soft spot in my heart for old country,” she says. “If I can’t do this anymore at some point, I just want to join an old country band and play fiddle and be like Loretta Lynn.”
Verch gets it honest. Her father, Ralph Verch, once played local dance halls with his own country band, and she honored that piece of her heritage by recording his sturdy, sentimental waltz “No Other Would Do.” She explains, “He wrote it for my mom when they got engaged, and it’s the only song he’s ever written.” The crisp, courtly language of his lone songwriting venture is a throwback to classic country from before even his time.
The other tribute to her dad on Bright Like Gold is her original old-time Canadian waltz “Morris & Boris,” named for a book they used to read together at her at bedtime. The instrumental also serves as a reminder of a kernel of wisdom that he impressed upon her at the fiddle gatherings of her youth, and that she’s carried with her into adulthood: there’s no substitute for conviction and a lively tempo to your waltz when you want to get people out on the dance floor.
Speaking of, the album couldn’t possibly paint a complete picture of Verch as an artist if it didn’t showcase the phenomenal musicality of her step dancing. Sometimes she’ll dance a capella during shows, and other times to Griffin and Walters’ crisp accompaniment, as she does on “Sandy River Belle.” It’s the first time a recording has truly done justice to the feeling and nuance of her footwork, and that’s thanks to engineer Chris Rosser discovering the right formula. “So often in the past when I’ve tried to do it, it ended up sounding more like maybe it was spoons,” she says. “And that bugged me. This time it really worked out great. Chris used a bass drum mic in addition to a bunch of others to get that thump. And we covered my taps up with duct tape too!”
It’s a wonder to behold Verch pulling off those pristine double-time triplets with her feet, and the myriad other ways she’s made good on the promise she showed at a tender age by becoming an artist in touch with roots and in her element. She won’t be the one to mention her championship titles to you, or even the fact that she represented her country/tradition? by performing in the Opening Ceremonies at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. “The accolades are important and noteworthy and special to me,” she says, “but what I think is most impressive to me is that I’ve been doing this full time since 2000. We make a living playing music that we love and it touches other people. I feel like we’re extremely lucky to do that, but also I work really hard, not just at the music, but at every aspect of our career, to make that happen. That we find a way to make it work, and have had that kind of longevity, that’s impressive to me.”
And rightfully so. Verch has perfected the art of winning fans for life.