Pharis and Jason Romero live in Horsefly, a rural community home to some one thousand people in British Columbia. Over one hundred and fifty years ago, gold was discovered in the Horsefly River during the famous Cariboo Gold Rush, and subsequently, a small collection of miners settled in the foothills of the Cariboo mountains. So perhaps it’s too obvious a metaphor when I say that Jason and Pharis, musicians and banjo makers, are producing gold, really. In the heart of British Columbia, the married couple own and operate the J. Romero Banjo company, creating coveted handcrafted banjos that are ordered from around the world. If you wish to own one of their custom-made banjos, be prepared to wait about five years for it to be built, that is, if you’re lucky enough to get on the waitlist. In addition to making handmade banjos, Pharis and Jason create rich, timeless folk music. They recorded their latest album, Bet On Love at home, in their banjo shop, recording most of the tracks live. Absent heavy-handed production and mixing, the songs are intimate and organic, the listening experience, immersive. The sense of where the album was made—an idyllic landscape of lakes and rivers, snow-capped mountains that pierce scattered clouds—comes across seemingly effortlessly. And the homemade, minimalist composition has been no hinderance to the record’s critical reception; the album won the 2021 Juno Award (the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy) for Traditional Roots Album and has received wide praise in the Americana, Bluegrass, and Folk scene.
Bet On Love, released in May 2020, opens with “Hometown Blues,” which is possibly the most well-rounded track if I had to pick only one to summarize what the album sounds like. There’s an old-timey, Appalachian sound to Pharis’s skillful singing. Jason’s brilliant banjo playing stands out, as well as his ability to sing strong harmony. The melody is upbeat, but there’s a melancholic tone to the lyrics, a sense of isolation and longing.
In “Roll on My Friend,” Jason Romero takes the lead with vocals, one of the few occurrences of this on the album. In his textured voice, Romero sings a somber melody over banjo. His impressive musicianship is highlighted, playing a striking but restrained lead throughout the song. Fans of folk duos like Mandolin Orange and The Milk Carton Kids will draw favorable comparisons but still find that the song maintains its own identity.
The continuing comparison I make throughout the record is that of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. In the fourth track, “Right in The Garden,” Romero’s guitar playing has hints of Rawling signature style that accompanies Welch— think cross picking and occasional dissonance in the lead guitar. But again, it’s the harmony and unison of Pharis and Jason’s singing and playing that makes the song. “We All Fall” is possibly the most Welch-sounding track of the record both in the melody as well as the details and specificity of the lyrics. It’s a track that would fit well on Time (The Revelator) or Soul Journey.
There’s no shortage of fine musicianship in the album. “New Caledonia” arrives halfway into the record and while it’s void of lyrics, the skilled banjo picking carries the homespun narrative found in these songs. “Old Chatelaine” and “A Bit Old School” are other standouts showcasing expert playing by both Pharis and Jason.
To try to pick out singles off Bet On Love, to pull away songs that I may frequently return to in the future, would disserve the record as a whole. Together, the tracks— all sparse in production but full of energy and emotion—weave a particular chronicle of folk and bluegrass music, songs that get passed down from generation to generation. The songs seem as old as time, yet strung together they represent something unique to the moment that they were created by Pharis and Jason. To put it simply, this album of carefully crafted (but free of restraint) songs is best enjoyed in its entirety from start to finish. The album, like the gorgeous banjos the Romeros make, is a triumphant dedication to the craft of making good music.