Fiddler, singer, and stepdancer April Verch knows how relevant an old tune can be. She grew up surrounded by living, breathing roots music—her father’s country band rehearsing in the “Newpart,” the beloved Verch family room; the lively music at church and at community dances; the tunes she rocked out to win fiddle competitions—and decided early she wanted to be a professional musician.
She took that leap, and has been quietly leaping into new, nuanced places for more than two decades. Moving from exuberant stepdancer to fiddle wunderkind and silver-voiced singer, Verch may still spend many a fond hour rehearsing in the Newpart, when at home and not on tour, but like tradition itself, she has never been content to stand still. “When you really know and love this music,” Verch reflects, “you want to go deeper, to bring out new dimensions, without straying too much into novelty.”
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.”
Now on her milestone 10th album The Newpart (release: April 7, 2015), with producer Casey Driessen, Verch digs deep into songs and tunes from the era before the often-mined mid-century heyday of bluegrass and folk. Harkening back to vaudeville and beyond, Verch and her fellow trio members pare down their arrangements, highlighting the simple pleasures of upright bass, guitar, clawhammer banjo, mandolin, voices, fiddle, and stepping in intimate conversation. At the heart lie Verch’s delicate voice, energetic footwork, and stunning playing, a trifecta of talents she brings together simultaneously for the first time on stage and on The Newpart. It all works to insist that, “these songs don’t need to be revived,” Verch exclaims. “They are timeless. They are still very much alive and relevant.”
The album’s title pays tribute to a special space in the Verch family home, where old meets new. The house, a one-room schoolhouse her parents attended, received a new addition the same year Verch was born. It was dubbed “The Newpart.” With the exception of the large collection of trophies April and her sister won for their music and dancing, it hasn’t changed much over the years, right down to the 70’s shag carpet. To Verch, it’s the perfect symbol of family, tradition, and music, the things she values most: “It’s the place we gather to jam, to practice songs for family baptisms, funerals, and weddings. It’s where I practiced countless hours and wrote many tunes, including the songs on this album. It’s where we take family pictures, visit and entertain our guests. It’s the most special place in the house, the scene of my most cherished memories.”
Many years ago, Verch was up on stage at the county fiddlers’ monthly dance event in her native Ottawa Valley. She was a darling among the fiddlers there, a cute kid who could play beautifully, and the more seasoned players encouraged her. But April noticed something: “When I played a waltz, even though I had decent tone and technique, the floor didn’t fill up. At the urging of my Dad, I began to listen to the way elder fiddlers played, and watched how, even if they were a little scratchy, they got people dancing.”
Verch marked that lesson well, even as she plays with the tradition she inherited. She keeps the community-fired celebratory side of her music at the forefront, honing a keen awareness of how to engage contemporary listeners. With ten albums and years of touring under her belt, Verch has moved from upstart prodigy to mature and reflective songwriter, interpreter, and storyteller.
Verch’s inspiration often comes from unexpected quarters: the mix made by a dedicated fan or regional music aficionado (how Verch discovered many of great Old-Time American tunes in her repertoire), a field recording played in the tour van that left Verch and her two trio-mates (guitarist Hayes Griffin and banjo/bassist Cody Walters) dumbstruck. The rough blues gems, the ballads with roosters crowing and dinner cooking in the background: Old recordings often touch Verch, Griffin, and Walters profoundly.
Yet Verch never forgets the roots of her music, that connection to the people out there in the audience, on the dance floor, to the community sparked by a good song. It’s about doing less to engage more. “I’ve lived with these songs and tunes, and my job is to get out of the way and let them hit the listener. To let them shine on their own and to leave space for interpretation,” Verch muses. “It’s all about touching people, about bringing them together in a community to celebrate music. I’ve understood that better and better as time has passed: how to take this music that is at the center of my life, and make it live and breathe for other people.”