Folk music is a wide umbrella covering an enormous amount of genres and subgenres, so it’s of no small surprise that the answer musicians give when being asked to put their music into a specific category is also nuanced.
“I think we like ‘vintage country,’” Jason Romero said.
“Vintage roots?” Pharis Romero, Jason’s wife, said. “Categorizing is so hard because it depends on the listener’s context … if they’re a vintage country music fan, then we might fit right within there. Some people have even called us ‘bluegrass’ … we’re definitely not bluegrass.”
Award-winning Canadian folk/vintage country/vintage roots/non-bluegrass musicians Pharis and Jason Romero will be this year’s guest artists at the 44th annual Alaska Folk Fest in Juneau. The duo will be performing shows, as well as teaching workshops and playing for dancers, throughout the festival.
The Romeros have made their home — quite literally — in Horsefly, British Columbia. The attraction to the area is in part due to both of their love of wilderness, as the interior temperate rainforest is sparsely populated by humans, but richly inhabited by every other regional organism.
“We’ve had pretty much every single fur-bearing animal in B.C. … just right in the front yard,” Pharis said. There is also a deeply familial connection, as Pharis is “fifth generation Horsefly.”
Horsefly is also home to J. Romero Banjos, their renowned artisan banjo-making business. Every instrument — which Jason also plays as part of their duo — is custom built, and it shows in the craftsmanship, each piece looking simultaneously like a highly polished artifice and some arcane natural construction.
“People have said often that they look like they’ve been sort of ‘unearthed,’” Pharis said.
Taking a break from touring recently, the Romeros instead took up hammer and nail and built a new house and had a second child. Having access to a wide array of instruments in the home, their young children have shown an interest in and aptitude for music, and are already able to hold a bow and fiddle and can play “Mississippi Hot Dog.”
“I grew up that way too, with just having instruments around, and everything gets turned into an instrument,” Pharis said. “Our little daughter makes up songs. It’s kind of like living in a musical theater with her all the time. It’s amazing.”
While they were building their house, they also lost their banjo workshop to a fire one night, an immeasurable loss already, though they had also put their personal belongings in there, as well as a collection of vintage instruments and custom built banjos awaiting shipment to their new owners the following day. In the wake of the disaster, however, the Romeros experienced an outpouring of support, both from their local community as well as donations from all over the world.
“All of a sudden all of these people started showing up and helping, whether it was labor, or food to feed all the people who were here, or a check in the mail,” Pharis said. “The help that we got was unbelievable … it changed us. Mostly the thing we took out of it was gratitude for how really amazing people are.”
“Always trying to find a balance these days,” Jason added. “Family, kids, banjos, and the music, it’s … challenging and exhausting and wonderful all at the same time.”
Their trip to Juneau will mark the Romeros’ return to the road, touring around Canada and the U.S. throughout the summer months, with plans to travel to Europe next year. The duo will be debuting music from their forthcoming album, “Sweet Old Religion,” their first comprised of entirely original songs. The album is due to be released on May 18.
Their travels to Southeast Alaska also marks another departure from their more recent traditions.
“The Alaska Folk Fest is our first trip in about four and half years without kids, so it’s kind of big deal for us,” Pharis said.
Jason concurred, adding that the logistics of their travels to Folk Fest, which requires multiple flights and crossing an international border, will be a little easier with a smaller entourage.
“If you can picture flying … with all your luggage, three precious instruments in very heavy cases, and then two kids running all the different directions, and then trying to get that through security multiple times, it’s pretty much hell,” Jason said.
This week, Pharis and Jason will be joined on stage at Folk Fest by friend and fiddler Josh Rabie.
“He’s a great young fiddler we met … almost 10 years ago now,” Jason said. “He was maybe 17, and we were like, ‘Who is that kid?’ We just instantly fell in love with his style and his touch.”
Rabie has recorded with the Romeros on multiple occasions, including their 2010 “Back Up and Push,” an instrumental album featuring a guest fiddler on each track, as well as on their celebrated album “A Wanderer I’ll Stay,” which earned them a Juno Award for Best Traditional Roots Album in 2016.
More recently, Rabie also contributed to “Sweet Old Religion.”
“Whenever we think about wanting fiddle on something, no matter where he is, we’re like … ‘we’ve got to get Josh in on this,’” Jason said.
In addition to writing and recording music, unearthing banjos, touring, and raising new roofs and children, the Romeros also share their knowledge with others at camps, meetings, and in private lessons. Currently, Pharis serves as artistic director at Voice Works, a workshop for singers in Port Townsend, Washington. Folk Fest attendees will get a chance to glean some lessons at workshops throughout the weekend, including 3-finger old time banjo instructions, vocal skills building, and duet singing. Rabie will also be teaching an old time fiddle workshop.
The Romeros will be playing at a dance at Folk Fest joined by caller Susan Michaels as well, which they both emphatically expressed excitement about.
“Sit and play a tune for 10 minutes, and watch people dance … it’s like heaven,” Jason said.
Pharis said that the resurgence of popularity for traditional folk dancing among younger participants, as well as continued traditional interest from older folks, creates a magical atmosphere.
“It’s just brought all these generations together,” she said. “You get grandparents and you get young punks, and you get all these people coming together and everyone’s dancing together, and it just feels so good.”
For the full schedule of the 44th annual Alaska Folk Fest showtimes, workshops, dances, and events, go online at http://akfolkfest.org. This year, the first of the guest artist performances will be at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, April 13 rather than the usual Thursday schedule. The second performance will be at 9 p.m. on Sunday, April 15.
Richard Radford is a freelance writer living in Juneau.