UNFILTERED with DIRT ROAD OPERA
The Singer, The Writer, and The Musician.
By Teena Clipston.
Music. An expression of emotions, thoughts and ideas that when done right, engage the soul, and captivate the heart through voice, words, and music. And Dirt Road Opera does exactly that with Perfection, in more ways than one. This is a band where each player brings something truly unique to the table, not only with experience and character, but also with genuine talent that emanates from the core of their being. They didn’t grow into becoming The Singer, The Writer, and The Musician, they were born that way. All three of them. Dirt Road Opera reminds me of how music is supposed to be. And their debut CD, Nowheresville, proves it.
Dirt Road Opera is Rachel Matkin, Barry Mathers, and Jim Ryan.
In the Beginning…
Rachel Matkin could probably sing before she could talk. Rachel is the daughter of country music singer, guitar player, and songwriter Dave Matkin and in her youth, she performed as part of The Matkin Family Band with her dad and brothers Judd and Seth. They opened for some of country music’s finest like Dwight Yoakam, Patricia Controy, Ian Tyson, Lisa Brokop, Gary Fjellgaard and The Moffats. At the age of 14 she won her very first award as Junior Vocalist at the British Columbia Country Music Association (BCCMA). In 1995 she recorded Living Beyond Our Dreams with Cross Country Records. The album would become a complete success with five charting singles, winning BCCMA album of the year. In 1996, she was nominated for a Juno for Country Female Vocalist of the Year and in that same year she won the Ray McAuley Horizon Award for Female Performer of the Year. Her success caught the attention of MCA/Universal Records with whom she signed a distribution deal. And locally in 2006, Rachel won an Okanagan Music Award (OMA) for Female Performer of the Year and Country Group of the Year. Rachel is known as The Singer.
Barry Mathers is a rebel at heart and a musician is what he always knew he wanted to be. He started playing drums in his early teens, playing in dozens of bands through-out the Okanagan Valley. In 1985 Barry formed the band Sea Cruise with Curtis Tulman, which later morphed into The Cruzeros. From there Barry began writing songs and playing the guitar. FACTOR funded their first album, which was later nominated for a JUNO in 1998. The Cruzeros toured for two decades across Canada, Europe, USA, and Mexico. They recorded two more albums and continued on with their success with numerous top 40 hits on country radio, had seven music videos on CMT, and were given several awards including Best Independent Band in Canada. Among the other awards, Barry also won CCMA Songwriter of the Year, and Album of the Year. Barry was the main writer on almost all of The Cruzeros songs, earning him the title as The Writer.
Jim Ryan was classically trained at the Toronto Conservatory of Music from the age of three. At that same early age, he performed at the Victoria Conservatory where he played Claire de Lune by Claude Debussy from memory. He then started playing guitar at age six, and bass at age eight. He played in his first band at age nine. When the 80s were rockin’, Jim played an extra on the hit TV show 21 Jump Street in Vancouver. It was there where he met Johnny Depp and was invited to play bass in Depp’s band. The band would perform on a televised telethon. Jim also met and performed with Debbie Harry (Blondie) during said TV special. Over the years Jim has also played with Jim Foster, Patricia Conroy, Michelle Wright, Colin James, The Cruzeros, and many others. He has been nominated for a Juno, and has won several other awards as part of The Cruzeros. Known for his unique playing abilities, Jim has been called on as a session musician throughout his career, playing on over 60 CDs, some of those include work with Idle Eyes, Payolas and Doug Bennett. Jim plays bass, piano, the Hammond organ, synths, guitar, percussion, banjo, tuba, dobro and guitarron. Jim is known as The Musician.
Dirt Road Opera
Teena: Let’s talk about how Dirt Road Opera got started.
Barry: Rachel and I decided to make a record and started putting some songs down about four years ago. The songs came together pretty quickly. I had a few half-written ones like Perfection, Nowheresville and Tell the Truth kicking around so I finished them and rewrote Play That Old Steel, which is actually the first song I ever wrote that I thought didn’t suck. Jim would come rehearse with us, and after some time he joined the band.
Rachel: Jim came up with the name of Dirt Road Opera.
Barry: …and it stuck.
Teena: I know you guys have done several projects together in the past including The Cruzeros and the Steelewater band, what else am I missing, what else have you done over the years?
Jim: Drank. (laughter)
Rachel: The three of us have worked in some form or another together, but not the three of us ever TOGETHER.
Teena: Like in a band band right?
Rachel: Like Jim and I were in a band, and Jim and Barry were in a band. And I recorded for Barry but the three of us have never…
Jim: and we did a shit load of sessions for other people, we worked together, that is about it.
Rachel: But here is something funny. When I was 13, Jim was playing in Kelowna with Patricia Conroy at the same venue my family band was performing in, and I got Jim’s autograph! That same year I did my first recording for Barry, on Play That Old Steel. And Play That Old Steel is actually on this album! And as Barry just said, it was the first song he ever wrote. That was like 30 years ago.
Teena: Rachel you have spent your life in music, in fact you all have spent your life in music. What was it like growing up as child musicians and how do you feel about all of that now that you are adults?
Rachel: Well I don’t know anything different, so for me it is normal.
Jim: And we are not really good at anything else. (laughter) I tried to walk away from it, and it didn’t work out.
Rachel: I actually did too. And I managed to for a couple of years, when I was in my early 20s and things kind of fell apart. And you realize, you are just kind of born doing it. There is no walking away.
Jim: One of the things happening now between Rach, Barry and me is that there is a real mutual respect that I didn’t think was possible between anybody. The only reason why I am playing music now is because of this band. That’s it. Everything else is just like you know, side bitch. This is the only reason why I am playing.
Rachel: Ya, it’s like we are a family.
Teena: You are playing music you like obviously. What influences does the band have?
Rachel: So many, including Barry!
Barry: (smiles) Thanks Rach, a few of my influences were Jackson Browne, the Eagles, Neil Young, Little Feat and of course The Beatles. But there’s hundreds of others as well. And of course, Steve Earle and Fred Eaglesmith.
Jim: And everything to Claude Debussy to you know Glorious Sons. But Barry is the heavy lifter in this band, by all accounts. Not only that but it is his studio, and he put in the time when we weren’t there to work on things. All I do is go in there and put my little fucking fairy dust on it and do what I do. Keyboard or bass, or whatever ideas. Then Rach comes in and puts the shit down, makes it right, but it’s Barry.
Barry: Speaking of studios. I’ve always had a studio in one form or another. My first recording studio was a four-track reel-to-reel out in my garage where I did the first demos for the Grapes of Wrath. After that I built Horizon Sound, a big studio in Kelowna, but eventually returned to a home studio. Now I have Redhouse Recording. I’ve operated Redhouse Recording for about five years now.
Dirt Road Opera’s debut CD, Nowheresville
Jim: There is a song on the record it’s called Horseshoe Turn.
Teena: Yes, I love that song.
Jim: Rachel’s dad wrote that one.
Rachel: He wrote it when I was four. And it was actually on my debut album. Like back in the mid ’90s and we decided to revamp it. And it sounds completely different than the original recording, but it is awesome.
Barry: Horseshoe Turn was one of my favourite songs that Rach had recorded so we rocked it up pretty good and got Mike Sanyshyn in to play fiddle which he also did on the original version.
Teena: Who wrote the other songs on the CD?
Barry: I wrote seven of the songs, co-wrote two with Jim and there are three covers. Jim and I wrote Hard to Find many moons ago and I’ve recorded a lot of different versions of it over the years. I think we finally nailed it now with Rach singing which gives it a kind of an Alison Krause vibe. And John Ellis did a killer job on the dobro. Andrew Smith was on acoustic guitar and we added a little violin by Sue Aylard who plays with the Okanagan Symphony. Scotty Gamble did the drum tracks on Hard to Find, actually he played drums and some percussions on all the songs except The Way it is Around Here.
Teena: It sounds fantastic!
Jim: We also wrote Mother and Me.
Barry: Jim actually brought in Mother and Me, which is a cool kitchen party kind of track with fellow Cruzero Curtis Tulman on harp.
Jim: Fred Eaglesmith wrote Seven Shells.
Barry: I always liked Seven Shells, so we did kind of a reggae version with Gary Smyth playing classical guitar and Chris Stevens on banjo. And we’re all big Kasey Chambers fans so we covered a track of hers called Rattlin’ Bones which gave us 12 songs for the album. Hopefully we’ll get a couple of videos out before too long and start touring.
Teena: What other guests did you have on the CD?
Rachel: We had the opportunity to get Matt Kelly from City and Colour in to do a steel track on Play That Old Steel. So that was a really cool celebrity guest.
Jim: And John Ellis did a whole shit ton of pedal steel, dobro, banjo… plus he mixed three of our songs. As far as mixing goes, we used John Ellis, Bill Buckingham, and this guy named John Palmieri from Sony in Nashville. He mixed Nowheresville and Rattlin’ Bones.
Barry: Can’t Find a Way and the Way it is Around here were first recorded on Cruzeros albums, so we changed them up and re did them with our buddy Jay Swetlishoff drumming on the latter.
Teena: Is it where you want it to be right now?
Jim: Yes, and a little unexpected in some places.
Teena: What is unexpected, Jim?
Jim: Some of the genres, I mean the first track Seven Shells doesn’t sound like an alt country band. And you follow it up with Tell The Truth with is just typical old school country, and then we have got Rattling Bones and the Way It Is Around Here kinda chugin rockin, and so those sort of things. We have just kind of gone genre crazy and Perfection – I don’t know what the hell that is.
Barry: and Into Your World is a straight-ahead pop rocker.
Rachel: They are all completely different.
Teena: So how do you describe your sound then? Encompassing all of these different styles?
Jim: Music (laughter) It’s Music.
Rachel: Its tough, ’cause as you say Seven Shells like reggae, and then from there it just goes everywhere.
Jim: Perfection was an R&B type of thing originally, but we wanted Van Morrison horns in it, right, so I threw some of those in, and then I went ‘would it be cool if I put some pedal steel in?’. Oh that is fucking crazy, but we did and it worked.
Barry: Jim and I will probably go to the grave arguing about whose idea the steel was… (laughs)
Teena: That is actually one of my favorite songs.
Jim: You are asking what we are, well I don’t know. We don’t know if mainstream country is going to accept us, adult contemporary will probably grab something, but we just don’t know.
Rachel: Americana stuff.
Jim: If we sell ten copies it will be amazing.
Teena: (laughs) nooooo don’t say that, you have at least ten friends.
Rachel: I do. (laughs)
Barry: What else can I tell you… It’s been great to work with everyone during the recording of this album, Nowheresville. Especially Rach, who has the voice of an angel, and Jim, who is hands down the most talented musician I’ve ever played with. My goal was to make a record that I liked, and I’m really happy with every song on it. If anyone else digs it then that’s a bonus! Then it’s on to the next one which I swear is gonna be done in two weeks, not four years!
One more thing to mention. Previously, one of the versions of Dirt Road Opera had my sorta brother Gidd Hampton and his wife Bettyanne in it. They moved back to the island so that’s when we regrouped and got Jim in the band. Sadly, Gidd passed away last year so the record is dedicated to that wonderful friend and brother of ours.
Teena: Thank you for this amazing interview!
Featured photo on Album cover by Nikki Harrison.