By Scott Roos
pics by Deanna Roos of Contingent Colours Photography
Just what in the Sam Hell is Countrypolitan anyway? It's probably a question most often posed when Wolf Willow, the ginormous band hailing from the R.M. of Slippery Butte, takes the stage. Also, where the fuck is Darston or the RM of Slippery Butte for that matter?
"You drive south to Weyburn and then you drive straight west. If you blink you might miss it," explained guitarist Stoneface Stanley in a recent conversation with NSMZ. Stanley was joined during this chat by lead vocalist Mitsy Mueller and drummer Sleek Steve.
When is comes to the band's overall sound, it's a little bit more challenging to characterize. Think motown horns, a lounge singer, the twang of a steel guitar with a pinch of rockabilly groove plus the sweet, dulcet sounds of a string section and you might be just starting to scratch the surface of the vibe that Wolf Willow puts forth.
"It's like Country and Western but classier," quips Mueller, "It's Country and Western for the city folk."
Inevitably, the eclectic cocktail that is Wolf Willow was forged in the fires of the bands longing to explore the world outside of their hometown of Darston. In talking to them, you get the impression that they had immense musical knowledge already but getting out to the big cities of Regina and Saskatoon added another dimension to their sound.
"When we started out we really wanted to do western swing in kind of a schoolhouse dance kinda style. People in the town liked that and were used to that. But then we got a big van and the ten of us would drive around to different places and we heard lots of different kinds of music. We have a bit of Western Swing, a bit of country and western, some soul, a little bit of pop and rock. Countrypolitan has really been our bag lately," explains Stanley.
"I think it comes down a lot to playing the music that we want to hear. Playing the type of music that we wanna listen to is a really big part of it," adds Sleek Steve.
Crafting the band's immense wall of sound over the years has largely fallen on either Stanley or Moose the pedal steel player. Moose will write the string arrangements, the horn shots and fine tunes the vocal harmonies whilst Stanley will do a lot of the heavy lifting on guitar. Moose's schooled approach in combination with Stanley's impeccable feel for the band's collective vibe is the secret to Wolf Willow's early success story. Mitsy also chimes in to further refine things.
"For the last few albums it's mostly been Moose and myself writing tunes. And then on this last album Mitsy wanted to get in on a few tracks. Forced her way in (Laughs). No we were totally pleased to have her contribute. But that's kinda how it starts. I'll write a song with my guitar or the piano and bring it to Moose and Mitsy and the three of us would decide if we wanted to keep working on it. Then I would bring it to the core band with the rhythm section and then we would pair it down a little bit even further and then we could show it to the whole band," said Stanley.
Speaking of Mitsy, her vocal approach is a key factor in all of this as well. Seeing her live, she has an understated, folksy way of going about her stage banter. Her voice is not far off that mark as well.
"I don't know it Mitsy would call herself a country singer but she's made herself one somehow. I think an inspiration that we had as a band and also on the vocals end of things is the sort of Skeeter Davis feeling of harmonizing my own vocals and layering those in so we use that approach on the record for sure," Stanley continues.
"I'd say that my heart lies with sort of the 50's jazz singers like Doris Day, Kay Starr, and so I think that that shines through my vocals maybe not necessarily intentionally," adds Mueller.
Wolf Willow released their released their Old Guitars and Shooting Stars album this past July to much critical acclaim. Their old timey vibes and lush, thick arrangements are a hallmark of the record and also a sign of things to come in the not so distant future. While it's true that they are likely not reinventing the wheel per se, they certainly are forging their own path at the same time. Wolf Willow is far from being a "farcical left wing tribute" to bands of the past. Very far from it.
"We're just trying to do something that's certainly inspired by bands of the past but there's no bands that I can think especially around here that are doing anything like we're doing. When we're playing live, someone walks into the bar or wherever we're and there's like a ten piece band on stage. Just seeing a vibraphone in person is amazing. It's like a piece of art. This huge band... You know we're doing something a little different,"says Stanley.
"I feel like maybe paying homage or giving a nod to but we're not trying to recreate or reenact a certain sound. The inspiration is in our hearts and brains and our bones and sort of influencing the music we make but not in a purposeful way. It's purposeful but it isn't," states Mueller.
"I think we've all played in bands when you kinda know it's fluff. Even as a player right? Sometimes you have to convince yourself that it's good just to get up there and do it and I've never had that feeling with this band. Especially with this new batch of tunes," concludes Steve.