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This bluegrass show comes with some laughs for good measure

Multi-award-winning guitarist Wendell Ferguson will join Granite Hill at the Commercial Tavern in Maryhill for a Sunday matinee. [Submitted]

Bluegrass band Granite Hill is making its first-ever stop at the Commercial Tavern November 10, but it’s familiar ground for some of the players.

Formed two and half years ago when Gord DeVries reached out to some “mostly retired guys” he’d played with over the years, Granite Hill’s members are no strangers to the bluegrass and country scene, including the Maryhill venue – fiddle player Norm Tellier, for instance, is part of the Commercial Bluegrass Band, as well.

“None of us had aspirations beyond getting together and playing some music,” said DeVries from his home in Komoka, west of London, noting the mood gradually shifted. “We thought we could make a band, and maybe do a few shows.”

Things grew from there such that they played three festivals last summer, and they’re now on the road a little bit.

“We think we’re sounding fairly good,” he laughed.

That’s not surprising given the years of experience each of the musicians has under his belt.

DeVries, for instance, was a member of Northern City Limits and Foxtail and is a five-time recipient of the Central Canadian Bluegrass Awards (CCBMA) “Dobro Player of the Year” award. In Granite Hill, he’s joined by Doug McNaughton (fiddle), Norm Tellier (mandolin), Steve Greer (banjo), Al Draper (guitar) and Bill Carson (bass).

Together, they present all six of the traditional bluegrass instruments: fiddle, banjo, stand-up bass, mandolin, guitar and dobro, he notes.

The traditional sound will be in full force for Sunday afternoon’s show, with a menu that includes some classics, but also some of the new bluegrass stuff.

“We have a fairly wide-ranging set list – we like to keep it fairly current,” said Devries, noting the guys in the band find it interesting to say on top of the music on a SiriusXM’s Bluegrass Junction. “I’d say 30 or 40 per cent of the songs draws on that.”

In that vein, they’re currently polishing up a rendition of ‘Thunder Dan,’ the Sideline hit that was named the International Bluegrass Music Association Song of the Year.

There’s also plenty of older stuff, of course, with an emphasis on songs that may not have been heard for a while.

As they’re at the Commercial Tavern, they’ll be some country in the vein of ‘Sing Me Back Home’ – “you can’t like country and not enjoy Merle Haggard,” laughed DeVries.

For this weekend’s show, the band will be joined by Wendell Ferguson, a multiple award-winning guitarist and Juno-nominated performer who’s as quick with a joke as he is with a guitar lick. That’s saying something about the comedic chops given that he’s won the Canadian Country Music Associations’ Guitar Player of the Year Award so many times they had to retire him from the running, an unprecedented string of wins from 1995 to 2001.

In typical Canadian fashion, Ferguson notes he can play the guitar “a bit, ” saying he just loves to play music.

“I’m just a guitar player – I’ve been a sideman and a frontman for years, and I enjoy it all.”

His love of music at an early age, and he pestered his parents for a guitar at the age of 7.

“I just wanted to play guitar,” he said of aspiring to play the songs he heard on the radio, and even more so once the Beatles appeared on the scene.

He took lessons for a few years, but found himself out of sync with an instructor that wanted him to play the likes of ‘Red Sails in the Sunset.’

“I wanted to play Satisfaction,” he laughed.

His way seems to have worked out, as he started getting gigs as a teenager and has been working in the music industry for decades since.

“I’ve been doing this my whole life. I’m 65 now and I’m working more than ever.”

He started out playing rock, but he’d grown up in a house where his parents listened to country music. He changed over to country in the ’80s, gradually playing some folk music.

“I remember listening to Chet Atkins, but that was way beyond my scope as a kid,” he said, noting that many years later he started to tackle that sound.

Today, he refuses to be pigeonholed, playing all types of music, and working with a very long list of artists, from Shania Twain to Gordon Lighfoot, Keith Urban to Sylvia Tyson. 

“I just love music,” he said. “I think it was Duke Ellington that said there’s only two types of music: good music and bad music.”

Along with his musical prowess, Ferguson is known for his comedic banter, which extends into some humorous songs.

“They will definitely laugh. I’m good with the jokes, and the songs are funny,” he said. “I like to make fun of things, but not in a mean way. I think they’ll laugh,” he said of Sunday’s audience.

“He’ll leave the audience howling,” agreed DeVries. “We enjoy working with Wendell – he’s a great performer.”

For this weekend’s show, Granite Hill to start the afternoon, followed by Ferguson’s set, then the band back on, inviting Ferguson to join in. Things get rolling at the Commercial Tavern at 3 p.m. Tickets are available at the venue, 1303 Maryhill Rd., or by calling 519-648-3644. For more information, visit Commercial Tavern’s website.

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