Western Centuries - aiming from brotherhood
It’s a good guide to band members’ compatibility. Is there a song in the set that makes anyone think, “Aw, no, not this one again.”?
Western Centuries have done the test and hands on hearts, all their songs passed with flying colours. The band is about to play its first dates in Scotland and although it’s a relatively new name, there is at least one face in it that will be very familiar to local followers of American roots music, even if its owner, Cahalen Morrison is in the unusual role of playing electric guitar.
“I had played electric before, not a lot, I admit, but I’d starting writing these songs that were kind of old school country music rather than the old-time and bluegrass style people might know me for,” says Morrison, the singer and multi-instrumentalist who, for the past five or six years, has been touring regularly over here in a duo with singer-guitarist Eli West.
Western Centuries began as something to do to unwind between long tours on both sides of the Atlantic with West. Morrison is quick to point out that there’s been no falling out. The pair might well record together again at some stage but for the moment he is concentrating on this larger ensemble he formed with Jim Miller, the guitarist from roots rockers Donna the Buffalo and Ethan Lawton, a drummer, guitarist and vocalist Morrison knew from the Seattle music scene.
Adding a friend of Miller’s, bass guitarist Travis Stuart, and a friend of a friend, Nashville-based pedal steel guitarist Leo Grassl, they’ve taken something that was happening in the spare room out onto the road and into the recording studio. They released their first album, The Weight of the World, last year to considerable acclaim.
“When Ethan, Jim and I started playing together we were really just jamming,” says Morrison. “It was a hobby more than a project and we’d play old country songs, maybe a bit of bluegrass. Then I wrote a bunch of songs that were different from the style I’d been working in with Eli and I wanted to make a record. At that point we were called Country Hammer, which was my band and the other guys were in it. Jim and Ethan are both great writers as well as great singers and players, and so we decided it should be a collective. We changed the name, brought in Travis and Leo as full members and here we are.”
With three prolific songwriters there is no shortage of new material and all five members share a common idea of the direction they should be heading in.
“We all really love The Band,” says Morrison. “The idea wasn’t so much that we should sound like them – because nobody can, really – but we wanted to have a similar vibe. That thing where everyone’s chipping in with a guitar lick or some part of the arrangement, the organic quality that The Band had, was what we were after and it’s what I feel we have now. Plus, the three-part harmony singing they brought to their material – we’re at the stage now where we’re starting to write whole songs with the three voices in mind right from the start.”
A common observation about the Band when they set out as an entity in themselves, instead of being rockabilly hell-raiser Ronnie Hawkins’s and Bob Dylan’s backing group, was they were a band of brothers in the way they lived and worked together. Morrison and West had arrived at the stage where they sounded close enough to be actual siblings and that’s a quality that Western Centuries are working towards.
“It’s something that comes from hard experience of travelling together and working on music closely together over time,” says Morrison, a songwriter who has songwriting in his blood, his great-grandfather being an eminent Gaelic bard, Murchadh Moireasdan from Lewis. “We haven’t done any co-writing in Western Centuries as yet but that could easily happen in the future.”
They’re certainly spending enough time on the road. After the five dates that introduce the band to Scottish audiences they have gigs lined up in the US through to September and beyond. For Morrison, the switch from intimate acoustic duo gigs to bigger clubs where the atmosphere can get quite raucous has proved an exciting transition.
“Playing in a band is different in terms of dynamics and volume, I guess, but ultimately it’s still about playing music to people,” he says. “I’ve had a few comments like ‘I wasn’t sure I was going to like it when I saw you with electric guitars and drums onstage’ but I think if people have listened to me with Eli over the years, they’ll trust me enough to try something different.”
Western Centuries play Old Coach House, Dumfries, Wednesday, May 3; Dundee Acoustic Music Club, Friday, May 5; Glenbuchat Hall, Strathdon, Saturday, May 6; Grand Ole Opry, Glasgow, Sunday, May 7; and Traverse Theatre, Monday, May 8.
From the Herald, May 3, 2017