What do you get when you take a retired professor, a pilot, an academic, and a telephone repairman; mix in a couple guitars, banjo, mandolin and stand-up bass?
You get the Willie Sons; a blend of bluegrass, gospel, and old-timey country straight out of the soundtrack of ‘O Brother, where art thou?’
For the last 15 years. the four-piece acoustic band from Clavet has been entertaining folks at outdoor festivals and community halls across the west.
With two critically-acclaimed CDs under their belts, the Willie Sons just keep on playing for a love of the music.
“Some people play rec hockey,” said Willison. “We do music. It just feels good.”
The band has its roots, fittingly, in a little country church.
In 2002, Reed Willison and his wife moved to an acreage near Clavet, just half a mile from the Pleasant Point Mennonite Church.
“One day I went to a service there and saw these two guys playing some old-timey music. I thought it was really cool,” said Willison. “I decided I wanted to give it a try.”
Willison, a veteran of country bands and the cabaret circuit in the 1990s, soon got to know those two guys, who happened to be Alf Epp and Brendan Varcoe. They hit it off, started playing together, and before long the “Willie Sons” were attracting a lot of devoted fans to their concerts.
As a trio, they sounded pretty good. But there was something missing.
“What we really needed was a lead guitarist,” said Willison. “I’d known Tyler Bergen for about 20 years. He’s a wizard on guitar and a great singer. He also does a lot of music arrangements and knows what sounds good.
“I introduced him to Alf and Brendan and we finally convinced him to join us.”
Varcoe said the band’s staple fare is traditional bluegrass and gospel, but any song is fair game.
“The inside joke we have is that if we hear a song we like, we try and “willie son” it; put our own spin on it,” said Varcoe. “Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. One that does is ‘The Weight’ by The Band, that came out in 1968. Another one is Wagon Wheel, which sounds good with a banjo lead.”
Varcoe said during the band’s first few years, “we would take the money we earned from shows and pool it until we had enough to make a CD.”
The band has evolved, said Varcoe. “We’re four very different guys from four different walks of life,” he said. “The glue that holds us together is a love of the music. Plus we enjoy each other’s company, so that helps.”
The band has played the Blueberry Bluegrass Festival near Edmonton, Northern Lights Bluegrass Festival, Country at the Creek festival, and many others. Of all their concerts, there is one that stands out, for all the wrong reasons.
“We played at Craven one time,” said Willison. “The big country festival with all the big names from Nashville.
“As a country music guy, I grew up with the dream of one day playing at Craven, and then we finally get a chance.
“It was in the Gospel tent, but that was okay.
“The only trouble was, the Gospel tent was right next one of the beer gardens, with a country band playing there, rocking out at full volume. So we had to try and compete with that.
“To make matters worse, right behind the Gospel tent were two motorcycles doing laps in a big steel cage. And to top it off they had a big giant boom box blasting away.
“We literally could not hear each other playing, standing right next to each other.”
“We had a good crowd, but they couldn’t hear us either,” said Varcoe. “So it was kind of funny. We waited this long to be in Craven but it turned out to be a disaster.”
A concert last summer at a gospel festival near Calgary last summer was a highlight for all the right reasons, said Willison. Even the road trip was great.
“On the way down, we stopped at Sask Landing, got our instruments out of the truck and just played music on the riverbank. Off in the distance was a nice thunderstorm backlit by a sunset. It would have looked great in a movie.”
The band’s website is www.thewilliesons.com and they also have a facebook page to keep fans posted on upcoming concerts.