Craftsmanship Takes Center Stage on Pharis & Jason Romero's 'Tell 'Em You Were Gold'
Pharis & Jason Romero—whose old-time, country-folk, and early roots music has made them three-time Juno Award and seven-time Canadian Folk Music Award winners—have announced the release of their new album, Tell ’Em You Were Gold, out June 17th, 2022 on CD, streaming, and digital, on double-LP with additional bonus tracks in early 2023. The album, as well as two limited edition bundles which include a set of J. Romero Banjo Co. strings, are available for pre-order now. It’s Pharis & Jason’s seventh album as a duo, and the first since 2020’s Bet on Love, which won praise from the BBC and NPR; American Songwriter said, “To call Bet on Love anything other than masterful would be a disservice.”
Tell ’Em You Were Gold was written and recorded in an old barn on the couple’s homestead in Horsefly, British Columbia. The barn had long been run down, and between building banjos, adventuring outdoors, and loving up their two kids, Pharis & Jason restored the building themselves, milling their own spruce, hoisting beams, and rebuilding a roof originally covered in tin printing plates. “The music made on this record was made in the spirit of that working transformation and in the spirit of the history that old barn contains,” they write in the album’s liner notes. And while the intimacy of the old building does make its way onto the record in the form of crackling stoves and tapping feet, the sense of ease that glows from the album’s center gives it the warmth of a hearth in a cold BC winter. Like many albums recorded in the past couple of years, Tell ʼEm You Were Gold is an at-home record, one where the performers’ sense of being at home with one another is obvious in their effortless interplay.
Making things by hand comes naturally to the pair: Jason has long been a highly regarded banjo-maker whose designs expand the instrument’s expressive range while respecting both its mechanical history and the music it’s frequently been used to make. When setting out to write and record Tell ʼEm You Were Gold, the duo created something where the depth and brilliance of Jason's banjos would shine on each song, where each of the instrument’s distinct personalities could be showcased through the repertoire. Jason plays seven different banjos on the album, and Pharis plays one gourd banjo guitar—all handmade by Jason in his shop. Each banjo on this record started with an idea of a sound, a feeling, or an aesthetic, and each one makes Jason play and feel a different way. They were even given names reflecting their individual character and identity: Papillon, Big Blue, Clara, Birdie, Mother, Bella, Gourdo, and The Beast.
Nearly half of Tell ’Em You Were Gold’s 16 songs are in the public domain, but the duo make sure to note whose versions have informed their own. The duo’s take on “Train on the Island” takes inspiration from the work of Tom Sauber and Mark Graham, among others, but Jason’s delicate touch—he plays three-finger style with no picks on the song—makes his virtuosity feel gentle and companionable, and contributes to the track’s incredible warmth. On opener “Souvenir,” he lays back, following the lead of Pharis’ guitar, allowing her rhythms to pull him forward as she sings about time well spent. Jason fluidly moves between various banjo styles, displaying mastery of clawhammer and three-finger picking styles and various alternate tunings.
Pharis’ lyrics shine with wisdom that’s hard won and love that’s kindly offered. “We’re always older than yesterday, but I don’t change and you won’t stay,” she sings in “Sour Queen.” The song is a showcase for her voice, too: She pushes it higher, nearly breaking it into a yodel while Jason chases the melody downward behind her. Pharis grew up in rural British Columbia singing in her family’s folk-country band, playing in the creek, and falling for ’60s folk revival and bluegrass records, and throughout Tell ’Em You Were Gold, she sings with a sweetness that never feels like affectation. Her voice is clear, bright, and informed by the sadness of a song like “Black Guard Mary” without succumbing to it. In “Cannot Change It All,” she sings an ode to the possibility of a better world with an open-eyed view of just how difficult that world will be to achieve; she carries that knowledge in her tone, never expressing it with words, but in the shadow of heartbreak that flickers through the song.
But what shines through Tell ’Em You Were Gold the brightest is the sense of joy that Pharis and Jason have playing with one another and with their friends. They’re joined by fiddlers Grace Forrest and Trent Freeman, pedal steel player Marc Jenkins, bassist Patrick Metzger, and John Reischman on mandolin. You can hear it in the way Jenkins’ pedal steel slides like liquid among the wiry picking of “The Dose,” or in the contented exhales of “SS Radiant,” a sweet solo banjo meditation dedicated to the duo’s son Sy. Even “Been All Around This World,” a rambling song Pharis and Jason each sang before they met and sing together here, feels quiet, at rest, like it’s arrived—like they’ve been around the world, but they’re here now, and there’s no place they’d rather be than at home together.