Updated: May 13
by Scott Roos
Standing stalwart and resolute, a slight look of stoic bemusement etched across his brow, Cutknife’s bluegrass/rockabilly (Grassabilly? Rockagrass? Saskabilly?) artist Jake Vaadeland has been able to carve out quite a name for himself within the Saskatchewan music scene in a relatively short period of time. Originally part of a bluegrass duo called Jake & Ira with friend Ira Amundson, Vaadeland formed Jake Vaadeland and the Sturgeon River Boys in the spring of 2021 after Amundson and his family moved to the United States.
Initially, Jake and the SRB were meant to be more of a traditional bluegrass group - sort of a solo version of what Vaadeland had already been doing with Amundson. Vaadeland, for his first SRB show, which took place at the Jam Street shared arts space in Prince Albert, enlisted guitarist Elliot Dillabough and banjo picker Jaxon Lalonde of The Local Group fame, as trusty sidemen. The show happened in May of 2021.
At that show, there were only ten people in the audience - either family or press. Yes, the smaller crowd was due to COVID restrictions that's true but it's still amazing, given how often he sells out shows now, to think back to his group's humbler origins.
At any rate, you could tell from the outset that Vaadeland was onto something special and unique. Vaadeland’s songs weren’t the standard fare for bluegrass. He spoke of small town loneliness in “Town of the Blues”, his personal struggles for acceptance in “Retro Man”, his rebellious attitude that seemingly runs in the family in “Father’s Son” and also his struggle to escape destiny in “Be a Farmer or a Preacher” and living a simpler life in “House and Pool”. In other words, it was evident early on that Vaadeland was both an old soul and also a very deep thinker. Nothing about him is contrived or a “schtick”. What you see, slicked back hair and vintage suits and all, is what you get.
“In a place called Park Valley, just out of Big river, between Big River and Debden: that's where I grew up,” Vaadeland slowly begins in a recent Zoom call with NSMZ..
By all accounts, Park Valley was a sleepy little village; behind the times to a degree and very set in their ways.
“My dad dressed up like a cowboy every day because that was normal. The cowboy hat, the shirt tucked in, the cowboy boots and we had horses and the guest ranch and took people for rides. So I got the old time way from that and I heard the music out there too so the two went together,” reminisces Vaadeland.
In Vaadeland’s country church, it was more common for bluegrass style instruments to accompany the singing of hymns. There were also evening musical gatherings. If someone pulled up to your house, the instruments would come out and the coffee pot would come on - no questions asked.
“Whenever I was at my grandparents of course people would come over with their instruments and have a big jam session or something. Not planned. And everybody was playing music all over the place out there. And of course my parents were both in bluegrass bands before I was born. So I got the bluegrass music from there,” Vaadeland continues.
A move to Cutknife momentarily put a damper on Vaadeland’s musical progress but only for a moment. Initially, he tried to fit in with the other kids at school but, frustrated with his inability to adapt no matter how hard he tried, he eventually went back to the suits, the boots, and, of course, the music.
“I picked up the banjo and the guitar and I just started playing music and then all of the sudden somebody wanted me to go on Telemiracle. So I went on there and from there I figured I should do this for a living and get a band going so I did that. It just so happened that I dressed this way when I did it,” continues Vaadeland gesturing to his attire.
“I was just being myself mostly and taking from what I discovered of Flatt and Scruggs and saw how those old-time frontmen and women would conduct themselves on stage. And the Grand Ole Opry shows back in the day were a lot different than they are now too. Although they still have lots of showmanship traditions that stick around now but all that stuff influenced then how the show would get laid out and composed. But the dressing and the old-time way just came from who I am.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Fast forward to the present and Vaadeland’s sound has morphed away from traditional bluegrass and leans more in the direction of rockabilly. The addition of Prince Albert’s Joel Rohs on electric guitar likely played a big part in the sonic shift. Initially, Vaadeland struggled with Rohs’ plugged-in style but when the shows started to sell out he changed his tune (pardon the pun).
“I thought maybe he could play acoustic but he didn't want to do that so we tried it plugged in and I didn't really like it (at first) but when I got handed my first check then I decided maybe it was okay,” Vaadeland chuckles, “So we kept it and now I like it and here we are. He's a wonderful musician”
“He plays a style that you don't hear much anymore. He got into that sort of Luther Perkins inspired rhythm and I really like that he has that for us.”
Vaadeland also added upright bassist Stephen Williams to the SRB mix. Williams is a much beloved Prince Albert based musician as well. Known for his incendiary guitar chops and talents as a songwriter, he also, as it turns out, has a knack for playing bass.
“We got him an upright bass for him to use. We got him started on that and he started learning a little bit and got good at it. We practiced a little bit with it and he started twirling it around and all this stuff and of course he moves around quite a bit. He sort of taught himself how to play it. The things he's come up with, he hears what other people have done in old recordings and stuff and comes up with a way to make that sound but isn't necessarily doing it the way they did it. So he's got almost a totally original way of playing the thing and that's another cool thing to have,” explains Vaadeland of Williams’ bass playing.
Jaxon Lalonde, of course, has been there since Vaadeland started up his band. He’s seen the group rise in popularity from that first show until now. He adds that bit of bluegrass legitimacy that makes the band’s sound so unique and appealing. It’s clear that Vaadeland also has a deep respect for Lalonde as both a musician and a human.
“Jaxon’s a very unique player. Nobody else really plays like him that I know of so it's good to have him on board. He practices non-stop. He's always involved with the Northern Lights Bluegrass Festival. He's got all kinds of things going. He works with The Local Group too. He's got lots of experience and we're so glad to have him with us,” says Vaadeland.
The musicality of the group is almost unmatched in terms of what they do. Think early "Get Rhythm" era Johnny Cash colliding with Flatt and Scruggs. Visually, their shows are that old school wholesome family entertainment. It’s tailor made for a theatre style environment where you sit down, listen to some great music, have a few laughs and go on your merry way. It hearkens back to those simpler times that Vaadeland himself grew up with back in Park Valley and it seems to be resonating with a lot of people that cherish those old ways as much as he does. At the same time, Vaadeland also sees himself as a person who promotes acceptance and I think for many that feel disaffected and removed from society he’s becoming a bit of a touchstone.
“I like to think that I promote acceptance in the way I'm doing things. I was bullied in school for dressing this way just as other kids are bullied for other reasons. I like to think that I promote acceptance and being yourself, being unique. I love dressing up. What you see is what you get. I don't know what else to say but I love to share the music. It's what I'm passionate about.”
Jake Vaadeland and the Sturgeon River Boys are set to go on tour in the next few weeks. On Wednesday, February 1st they will be playing at the EA Rawlinson Centre for the Arts in Prince Albert. Tickets are moving quickly for this show but can still be purchased at https://bit.ly/3FXFPOi or by calling/visiting the EA Rawlinson box office at 306-765-1270. Given the current popularity of this group, this show is not to be missed.