Tim Ross remains unique among the independent recording artists of British Columbia. Having spent the last thirty years onstage at cross-Canada roadhouses with his back to beer-sodden drum risers and various Fender and Gretsch guitars wailing away in his sweaty hands under glaring spotlights, he’s had a good run at the road, and shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.
Whether he’s rocking out through the years with the Naked Crows, Buffalohead, or the Bison Brothers, Ross confidently straddles the musical lines between blues-swampy roots-rock and western-traditionalist revivalism; one song could sound like the Georgia Satellites or Creedence Clearwater Revival or the Drive-By Truckers or John Hiatt or David Wilcox…another song could sound like Hank Williams Sr. or Eddy Arnold or Ernest Tubb.
Many of his songs fall somewhere enjoyably in between. Usually it’s only musical schizophrenics like Neil Young who get away with this sort of thing, but Tim Ross is no flaky dilettante, and he sure as hell isn’t any Urban Cowboy, either.
As a full-time grasslands-conservation contractor and part-time rancher, he;s one of the lucky people in the 21st Century who makes at least part of his living on horseback. He’s the Real Deal alright, and he’s about to release his second solo album Cowboy Museum to those music lovers near and far who still have no use for Rihanna, Foster the People, or “American Idol.”
Daily Townsman: What was the creative process behind this new album?
Tim Ross: From start to finish, it was about two years in the making. It began in January 2010 with me woodshedding 30 or 35 tunes over in the studio of my good friend James Neve (guitarist-vocalist for acclaimed local folk-rockers 60 Hertz).
Basically I started at the A’s and worked to the Z’s and flipped through my songbook and played through all the album-contender songs. James recorded my scratch vocals and guitars.
My other good friend (Rustler drummer) Neil Gorrie, who played on the last album (2006’s Blue Sky, Green Grass), came out from Calgary; we brought a little quality scotch whiskey with us, reviewed all the tunes, cut the list in half and went from there. The true album sessions began in Spring 2010, when Neil laid down his drum tracks.
We brought (Belushis / Gentle Infidels bassist) Ferdy Belland up from Vancouver that summer and he nailed down the bass tracks. The next year and a half was spent on the vocals and the guitars and everything else. A labor of love, to be sure.
DT: Blue Sky, Green Grass had more of an alternative-country roots-rock groove to a lot of the songs, which was reminiscent of older bands like Poco, Manassas, and Gram Parsons’ stuff. Cowboy Museum is more acoustic and western-sounding, for the most part. It’s like old-school Nashville all over again. You can almost feel the sawdusty plank floors of an old-time honky-tonk under your boots while you’re listening to it. But it’s not corny or creaky by any means. And quite a few of them bounce around with good groove.
TR: I wanted the album to have an old-timey-western feel, by using Gretsch guitars and tweedy amps and different kinds of production and harmony than the last record. I was trying to evoke the way those records used to be made in the 1950s. And certainly the material is talking about that sort of thing, too, as I gathered up all the cowboy and western songs I had. A great example is the song “About A Horse.” The chorus is very simple: you never hear a song about a horse on the radio. My next album will be a full-on rock and roll record, for sure. There’s a bunch of songs that I’ve written over the past few years, when I was sort of band-less, that need to find a home at some point. But I really made an effort to collect all the western material and make a cohesive record. Not that every song’s about looking at a cow’s butt from between a horse’s ears or anything, but certainly they’re western-flavored.
DT: You teamed up again with (renowned local musician-producer) Ray Gareau for the making of Cowboy Museum, and the production results are amazing-sounding. Even with the proliferation of digital recording software over the past decade-plus, it’s still rare to hear high-quality professional production results like this from regional artists like yourself.
TR: Two things happened. One is that right from the start we were aiming for a brighter sound. Less of a rock sound and…I hate to say it, but more of an old-time country sound. If you listen to a lot of those old western songs, the production is just stellar. The vocals are clear, they’re up front. It was all done on old analog-tape machines, and probably mostly recorded live off the floor in as few takes as possible. We were shooting to emulate that vibe with modern digital equipment. The other thing was that we took the basic backing tracks to my home studio, so we could do all the guitar overdubs and harmony vocals right here. It took five separate mixing sessions before Ray and I were satisfied with the end result. That’s probably got a lot to do with the way the record was built, incrementally over two years, versus just going into a studio full-time and plowing full-speed through the whole thing in a debauched week or so. The plus side is that everything you hear is well-considered, but on the minus side is that you’re apt to look a little differently at certain sounds over the course of time. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. We just wanted the album to be good, and if that’s how many sessions it takes, then that’s how many sessions it takes. Unless someone’s a musician themselves, no one knows what went into creating an album when they’re listening to it. It doesn’t matter if you’re an internationally-famous superstar on a major-label budget, or if you’re an independently-operating artist doing it yourself. No one knows. So you might as well do as well as you can, and pay attention to detail. Don’t be in a hurry to fail.
DT: You’re quite a prolific songwriter, and you probably have close to 200 songs in your complete repertoire. There’s a refreshing anti-urban / pro-rural lyrical vibe to many of your songs, whether electric or acoustic, but the stories are all written with smarts and with care. Are the songs on Cowboy Museum mostly recent songs you’ve written, or do some of them go back deep into the vault?
TR: The only song on the album that’s from my songbook archives is the “Cowboy Museum” track itself. I originally wanted it included on Blue Sky, Green Grass. I felt it was a strong song, but I wasn’t satisfied with the final arrangement during those sessions, so it didn’t make it. I was down on the coast, in Steveston, probably a dozen years ago, and what do you do when you’re down there? You go to the maritime museum. And there’s all these old pictures and all this old stuff about the hundreds of salmon canneries that were up and down the BC coast back in the day. And Steveston, these days? Well, at least you can still go down and buy some fresh salmon off the dock, but it sure is nothing like what it used to be. So I started to think: well, that’s what’s happening in the open range. Maybe that’s what’s happening to the cowboy. Maybe the cowboy is something that’s just a fixture of a place in time. Certainly the trail-drive-type cowboy; y’know, bring the herd of longhorns up from Texas? And that period itself only lasted about twenty years. As far as full-time working cowboys go, are there a thousand of them? Still? Who knows? So the extension of that in my mind was: as soon as you lose something, you build a museum to celebrate the fact that you used to have them, when really…like the salmon canneries and the salmon fishery…you should still have them. So, in a way, the fact that the “Cowboy Museum” song didn’t make the last record is a good thing, because it set the theme for this record instead.
DT: Are there any personal favorites among the songs on Cowboy Museum that stand out, or is that like trying to pick a favorite child?
TR: One song that really merits mention is “Lucky Star.” It was written by my good friend (and former Naked Crows bandmate) Clint Hussey, who is no longer with us, but I think it’s the best song about West Coast salmon fishing that I ever heard. And I’m honored to be fortunate enough to have that song to put on this record. I’ve often said that western songs include fishing, logging, and trucking songs, as well as songs about horses and cows.
DT: Another strong song on the album is “Old Cars.” We understand you’re a proud owner of an old car yourself?
TR: Yes, indeed. A 1963 Oldsmobile, long and wide and made of steel. I’ve got a little bit of tinkering left to do on it, but it’ll be out of the garage and on the road this year. What I was thinking about in that song was not so much restored old cars, but people driving beaters. When I was studying agriculture back at the University of Guelph, the parking lot was this ugly collection of various beater pickups, farm trucks, old Volkswagens, old castoff sedans from Mom and Dad, rustbucket crap cars. Then when I later went to UBC, there was not so much of that. There were a lot of brand new cars from three years ago, two years ago, and one year ago…high school graduation presents. And I just thought about that one day and said: you know what? No one drives old cars anymore. And that song took shape from there. I wanted to celebrate the joy that people had to just have mobility, even if they didn’t have a lot of money. They had wheels. If you had wheels, you were somebody, even if it was a crap car.
DT: So what’s on the agenda after the CD Release Party?
TR: Now that the record’s finished, I just want to get out and play the songs! Neil Gorrie’s coming in again from Calgary to bash the traps, and Ferdy Belland and (keyboardist-vocalist) Kent Merkley are coming in from Vancouver to rock out the bass and the Hammond organ, respectively. Imported talent all around! That’ll be the Bison Brothers…my trusty backing band. Sort of how Bruce Springsteen has the E Street Band. And we’ll be having Steel Wheels open the show with some great country-rock. A proposed Fall 2012 tour is in the works for us, which should take the Bison Brothers back west through the Okanagan and the West Coast. We always have a good time rocking out the Railway Club in Vancouver, which has been one of Canada’s best club-venues since Trudeau was flipping the bird. And hopefully we can get into Alberta. I hear they wear Stetsons over there, too.
Tim Ross unveils his new album “Cowboy Museum” live in concert with the Bison Brothers and Steel Wheels on Saturday May 12th at the Heritage Inn Ballroom (803 Cranbrook St. N., Cranbrook BC). Doors open 7:30pm. Advance tickets available in Cranbrook at Lotus Books, Cranbrook Photo, and the Kootenay Livestock Association; tickets also available in Kimberley at Black Bear Books & Video.