Cactus Blossoms keep vintage country music aliveby Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The "alt country" music scene isn't as big as it used to be, but there's still a lot of vintage twang in the Twin Cities, courtesy of the Cactus Blossoms. The Minneapolis group, fronted by a pair of brothers, harkens back to the roots of country with their earnest songs and pristine harmonizing.
A Cactus Blossoms song is like a time tunnel, taking you back to when country music first started crackling on the radio in the 1940s and '50s.
The band's hand-in-glove harmonies mimic some of the giants of early country, groups like the Louvin Brothers and the Delmore Brothers, and even later on the Everly Brothers.
Maybe it's a brotherly thing. The Cactus Blossoms frontmen have different last names, but are 20-something brothers, Page Burkum and Jack Torrey. Even though the band's recreation of the traditional country sound is uncanny, Burkum says it's not intentional.
"I'm sure it would seem that way to people," he said. "Like, 'Oh, they're really trying to do this old style.' But I think it's more just not caring that it's old, and liking it."
The two brothers didn't inherit their vast knowledge of early country music. It was more like an excavation. Whenever they listened to a more mainstream folk or country star, they'd want to dig out their influences.
"You hear an Everly Brothers recording or a Johnny Cash recording, or something that's more popular," Burkum said.
Other influences they name are Bob Dylan and American folklorist and enthnomusicologist Alan Lomax.
"So then you just end up following the trail, I guess," said Page Burkum.
For Jack Torrey, the core of the Cactus Blossoms is the singing.
"Your voice is the most expressive thing that you have, if you let it be," he said. "It can also be the most contrived thing you have, if you choose to use it that way."
Creating immaculate harmonies comes easily. The two brothers come from a musical family, where a rendition of "Happy Birthday" sounds like a choir. But Burkum says that's not the only reason they've chosen to be old-style country crooners.
"There's a lot more sentimentality in old music, and that is another thing I like," he said. "There aren't songs like that now on the radio."
The band has caught the ear of City Pages music writer Nikki Miller, who also writes the alt weekly's country music blog, Are You Ready for the Country?
"Sometimes when you hear people trying to take after an older style, you can hear the imitation," she said. "But I feel like they immersed themselves so much that they completely took on that same sound that used to be so popular."
Most of the Cactus Blossoms songs are originals. And Miller says they're written in a thematic tradition that keeps them connected to their country forebears.
"Whether it's about traveling, or about lost love or about hard times, when they do it somehow it just doesn't seem like they are saying, 'These are the themes that are important to country music, so we're going to go ahead and adopt those themes,'" she said. "It comes across as natural. I'm not quite sure how."
The Cactus Blossoms have a new self-titled album they unveil Friday night at the Ritz Theater in Minneapolis. The band includes fiddle player Mike "Raz" Russell, who's played with Joe Henry and Mark Olson; and Gear Daddies and Trailer Trash member Randy Broughton on pedal steel.
Page Burkum and brother Jack Torrey will be wearing cowboy hats, strumming guitars, and harmonizing together. They'll be performing in a tradition that began decades before they were born, but one they feel perfectly comfortable taking into the future.
EDITOR'S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Alan Lomax compiled the Anthology of American Folk Music. Harry Everett Smith compiled that work.
- All Things Considered, 10/07/2011, 4:45 p.m.