Hillbilly Highway – Checking in to New Country Rehab

by Sheldon Birnie

If you missed New Country Rehab at last year’s Winnipeg Folk Fest, now’s your chance to make up for that grievous error in judgment or scheduling on your part when NCR hit the Park Theatre on March 15.

“My vision for the band was to play, essentially, traditional music,” front-man and fiddle-phenom John Showman tells me over the phone from Toronto, describing the roots and genesis of New Country Rehab. The group is fresh off the road from a month-long jaunt through Europe, and are prepping for their western Canadian / northwestern US tour when I speak to Showman.

“When I say traditional music, I mean the style upon which country music is built and predicated. You know, songwriting, story telling, ballads. Songs about guys like John Henry and Billy the Kid, and also love stories, and a lot of tragic songs. I’ve played that music for a long time.”

Indeed. Showman is an accomplished fiddle player, earning his living cutting rugs for the past 17 years, Showman recently won top honours at a West Virginia fiddle contest.

“That was a big deal for me,” he admits humbly. chuckling over the memory.

Formed in early 2009 by Showman, New Country Rehab quickly cranked up a fan base among the folk set in and around Toronto, where Showman also plays with local bluegrass heavies Foggy Hogtown Boys. Releasing an eponymous debut in 2010, the boys in NCR took the show on the road, and they’ve been going strong ever since.

“I think we’ve been fortunate in that we’ve found something that resonates well with audience pretty well everywhere we’ve played,” says Showman.

NCR’s particular mix of traditional tunes, themes, and arrangements crossed with an interesting ear for contemporary sounds and textures is a highlight of their live show and the group’s debut disc. Wedged, on New Country Rehab, between original odes to “The Angel of Death” and “The Houses in This Town are all Falling Down” listeners are treated to original, insightful arrangements of classic tunes like the Boss’ “State Trooper” and ol’ Hank’s “Ramblin’ Man.”

“I wanted to do that,” Showman confesses, “but play with a lot of guys who weren’t totally harnessed to the tradition, and who would bring something new to it.”

Showman & Co. certainly succeeded on that front. Their tunes are geared perfectly towards the barefoot honky-tonk happy folk fest crowd. After a successful run of festivals last year, the group is currently confirming more festival dates this summer across Canada and a tour of the southern States later this spring. From there, the group has its sights set on another record, and more time on the Highway.

“It’s pretty much full steam ahead at this point,” says Showman jovially. Catch New Country Rehab while you can, friends.

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