The Avenues, a four-man band from Peterborough, Ontario, call themselves country.
But don’t expect the slow whine of broke-down-truck, heart-wrenched, country crooners.
These boys make country cool – and a little bit happy.
“I wouldn’t say we’re happy,” said lead singer and guitarist Chris Culgin. “I’d say it’s upbeat though. The music is upbeat, maybe not the lyrical content.”
“You can’t play a sad song on the banjo,” said lead guitarist Sean Conway.
“Some of it’s funny, some of it’s ridiculous,” added Culgin about their original lyrics.
“And some is sad, some is wild,” said banjo, bass pedal and accordion player Benj Rowland.
Rowland, who is described as “skinny and awkward” by his bandmates, bashfully admits he is starting to indulge more and more in that “really slow, whiny country.”
“We admire Hank Williams,” said Rowland.
“How could you not,” added Conway.
“We would never trash Hank. That stuff is great,” said Rowland.
True to those words, The Avenues never “trash” Hank when they cover his songs, but it definitely doesn’t sound like the originals either.
The group’s show at Tippler’s Pub in Whitehorse Wednesday, started with a Williams tune.
Honky Tonk Blues isn’t usually considered a dance song, but the ladies gathering in front of the band in the small, make-shift dance floor of the downtown bar couldn’t stop their heels from popping along with the driving rhythm.
Culgin’s strumming hand was a blur as he kept time with Rowland’s quick banjo picking.
By the second song, an original written by Culgin when he was riding his bike, the girls were fully dancing, swinging each other around by the arms.
The four musicians all got to know each other in the small, arts network of their southern Ontario town.
Culgin, Conway and Rowland each won an “emerging artist” award at the Peterborough Folk Festival at the beginning of their respective careers.
Not long after, Rowland and Culgin joined forces with another local musician to form the County Boys.
When they joined with drummer Josh Fewings, a born and bred Peterborough-ian, they knew a name change was needed -plus they were sick of people confusing “country” with “county.”
The Avenues comes from the local name for a specific district of town, said Fewings, keeping his eyes on the game of darts he was playing at the back of Tippler’s Pub.
“It’s a really cool area of Peterborough with really funky houses,” he said. “We wanted something that was ‘Peterborough’ but would also mean something to other people. Plus we travel lots. I guess that’s – nice shot (he said to his dart competitor) – I guess that’s mainly why we picked it.”
“It’s hard to get three people to agree on a name,” said Culgin, laughing at his bandmate’s multitasking.
Despite their strong, Ontario connection, the band welcomes the road.
As the County Boys, Culgin and Rowland have been across Canada twice before and they’ve grown a penchant for having tour “anchors” on the furthest ends of the country.
“We’ve already been to Newfoundland and the East Coast this spring,” said Rowland. “We’re into traveling distances to play music in the far-flung regions of Canada. The North and Newfoundland are really special places so it’s nice to get to come here.”
But the guys admit they underestimated how arduous the drive up to Whitehorse was going to be.
“When you map quest it, and you look at the hours of driving – when you’re sitting at home and you’ve been sleeping regularly – and you’re doing all the math, you’re like, ‘Sure, ya, we can drive 10 hours and then play a gig,’” said Culgin.
“We played a show last night and I think we almost died,” said Rowland. “Because we had been travelling so hard for two days just to get here.”
After that first show, the band slept. And slept.
They woke up just in time to set up for their second show.
But they will have time to really see the territory as they drive up to Dawson City to play shows this coming Friday, Saturday and Monday.
They’ll be back in Whitehorse for a final show on Tuesday before heading south again.
“It’s awesome up here,” said Conway, his inherent optimism and high-energy bursting out with each syllable.
Conway was brought along on the tour to help keep up the morale, joked Culgin.
The lead guitarist is the newest addition to the band.
While young, Conway carries the air of a much more seasoned artist as he flings his pomade-slick hair back and forth with each solo.
“It’s cool to have a lead player, it adds more texture,” said Culgin. “It’s a thicker sound.” Along with Fewings’ break-neck brush strokes on the drums, Culgin’s shy but slick voice, and Rowland’s high-velocity picking, that sound is something like Great Big Sea meets a banjo and cowboy boots.
Who knew all country needed was a little bit of speed?
The Avenues will be at the Midnight Sun Hotel in Dawson City Friday, Saturday and Monday night. They will be back in Whitehorse at the Rock Pub (formerly Flipper’s) on Tuesday night.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at