by Scott Roos
photos by Nico Humby
“I was really into punk rock growing up,” begins Happy Trails, Prospector banjo picker Miles Zurawell.
Some may be surprised at this admission. I am not. A lot people in their youth, including myself when I was a teen in the 80’s, get drawn to music of a heavier ilk. There’s something about the aggression and the raw energy exhibited on stage that draws us into that world. Oh yeah, and there’s the rebellious nature of it all too. I still dig that kind of music, actually. I’m not sure if Zurawell does, but it’s a great place to start our conversation. We begin by meeting on common ground. The hallowed grounds of the majesty of ROCK.
“I was into going to lots of punk shows in the Edmonton music scene and going down to Warped Tour and stuff in Calgary when I was a kid. So I still have a little soft spot for heavier music although I don't listen to it too much anymore,” Zurawell continues.
Today, Zurawell is a well respected banjo picker and dobro player who has his feet firmly planted in the country and bluegrass worlds. He was drawn to the bluegrass genre in particular during a stint in university where he was earning an environmental science degree at the University of Alberta. As it turned out, his professor, Dr. Lee Foote, played the banjo and when his classes would do “field school” he would bring his instrument along and have jam sessions with the students. With his interest now piqued he began his own exploration and discoveries in the instrument and genre. The rest, as they say, is history.
“I knew the sound but it was never part of my listening focus or interest until I saw Lee play the banjo. I thought playing the banjo looked fun and that it would be fun to try to learn a tune or two and so I just picked a really cheap one up,” recounts Zurawell.
Currently a member of Happy Trails, Prospector, Zurawell along with bandmate Nico Humby will be teaching the vocal harmony class this year at the Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music camp on the Ness Creek site near Big River, Saskatchewan. Other Happy Trails, Prospector bandmates will be teaching advanced guitar (Patrick Hamilton), beginner bluegrass fiddle (Sarah Hamilton) and intermediate/advanced bluegrass fiddle (Nathan Smith). It’s cool that this group is so heavily involved in the camp this year given the fact that they formed during a previous year’s edition.
“As instructors, we really hit it off, and it was just one of those things where we became fast friends and really bonded over the course of the week and had a ton of fun playing music together,” Zurawell explains.
As it turns out, bass player Nico Humby is a graphic designer. That year at camp the future Happy Trails, Prospector bandmates joked that they should have an official looking band photo taken sort of as a memento. So the Prospector crew has one snapped in Saskatchewan.
“The photo was so good and eye-catching that another festival out in Vancouver Island, Cowichan Valley Bluegrass Festival, got in touch with us and said 'so what's this new band you're in?',” chuckles Zurawell, “We're all really experienced performers and we knew we could put together a good sound so that's kind of how it all happened. So it's great to be back at Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme music camp to teach again and hang out and kind of be more officially a band.”
Speaking of the band, they have just released their latest full length The Good, The Bad, & the Dreadful. Touted as an album that features “screaming double fiddles, hard-driving banjo, rippin’ rhythm guitar, and cheeky basslines”, it definitely does not disappoint. It’s a solid representation of the musical chemistry that this group exhibits.
Zurawell, in the meantime, is also getting ready to release his own, dobro focused, solo record. It won’t be out in time for the festival but, from what it sounds like, it’s going to be chock full of bluegrass, old time and other instrumental music; something to keep an eye out for and look forward to for sure.
“I'm a sensitive, melodic, acoustic instrumentalist. That's where I fit and that's my interest. That's what comes out (when I perform). Music and playing emotionally in a way, whether that's super happy and fun or jovial through the banjo or maybe some sorrowful stuff through dobro, that's where I can kind of communicate more often with people than I can with my own words,” Zurawell concludes.
The Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music camp will run from August 14th - 18th on the Ness Creek site near Big River. Various levels in classes will be offered on guitar, dobro, banjo, mandolin, fiddle. upright bass, and voice. For the little ones, a “fungrass” option for ages 5-9 is available. The festival will run the weekend of August 18th - 20th. Zurawell, along with his Happy Trails, Prospector bandmates will be performing a few times throughout the festival. The whole lineup is top notch this year. The whole week, if you register for class and purchase tickets for the festival, is an awesome time. For more info about the camp and festival specifically, visit the society’s website at northernlightsbluegrass.com