By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
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In the mid-1950s, Don and Phil Everly set up shop busking in Nashville's Ryman Alley. The brothers, soon to become famous for their close harmonies and crossover successes, were discovered near the back door where renowned performers of the Grand Ole Opry would cross over to drink in the row of honky tonks lining Lower Broad. Today, one would reckon that busking in that alley would get you little more than an autograph from Mandy Barnett, the vocal doppelganger who stars in the perennial Ryman hit, Always... Patsy Cline.
Minneapolis sibling duo the Cactus Blossoms, living far away and in a time far removed from the alleys behind Broad Street, have taken a different tack.
"We started just playing with friends; we had some other friends who were into folk music, so they'd invite us over and we'd play in our houses, or at campfires," Page Burkum says of the band's start.
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Since then, Burkum and his brother Jack Torrey have stepped away from the campfire to play a variety of area venues, from Palmer's to the Turf Club, 331 to the Aster. They've opened for Chicago alt-country artist Robbie Fulks and country legend/Nashville historian Marty Stuart, and even made an appearance on Minnesota's own take on the Opry radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, after being awarded a pair of Baby Taylor Guitars as first-place duet winners in the 2010 Minnesota State Fair Flatpicking Guitar and Duet Championships.
After about a year of performing outside the backyards of friends, the brothers have assembled a dedicated band, comprised of Mike "Razz" Russell (Jayhawks) on fiddle, Liz Draper (DitchLilies, Black Blondie) on upright bass, and Randy Broughten (Gear Daddies) on pedal steel guitar and dobro. It was as a five-piece that, in a day of live in-studio recording with Brent Sigmeth at Cannon Falls' LittleBig Studio, Cactus Blossoms completed their first album, which they will release this Friday with special guests "Spider" John Koerner and Meg Ashling. It'll no doubt be a meaningful event for all—Torrey and Burkum got their start together backing Ashling on bass and drums, and legend Koerner has proven an inspiration to the brothers.
It's one thing to phone in an imitation of old country, covering timeless classics in the style of the originals. While the Cactus Blossoms have put out an album made up of a Delmores song ("Blue Railroad Train") and a traditional tune ("Lost John Dean"), the highlights of their self-titled full-length are its eight originals—six penned by Torrey, two by Burkum, all true to the sound and lyrical themes of the classics, yet fresh and vibrant enough to secure a place in today's musical landscape.
Their brotherly harmonies are as spot-on as those of the Everlys or the Louvins, the Delmores, Osbornes, Monroes, or Stanleys—but how did these two, 900 miles from Nashville and some 70 years after many of these acts first graced the Ryman stage, end up landing on traditional country?
According to Burkum, it wasn't a love nurtured from the cradle. "If something was super popular we would've seen it, like anybody, but [we] didn't really know. I knew who Randy Travis was, I knew who Garth Brooks was, but no. My parents didn't like country music; I didn't think I did, because I didn't really like that stuff, you know? I thought, like, Billy Ray Cyrus, I just thought—that's really corny."
"My dad...has a Master's in composition, so he knows music theory and all that stuff. So we had good music around, a variety, but kind of normal stuff," he continues. "Like Paul Simon's Graceland and Stevie Wonder, and some Beatles, and some new Christian music; it was just like a mix. Everly Brothers, though, was around, so that was good."
"When we started playing music, we were living in a house together, and then we pretty much just listened to 78s from the library, old recordings of 78s," Torrey explains.
Burkum chimes in. "Like for one year, that was all we were, just sucked into the..."
His brother finishes his sentence. "The Anthology of American Folk Music."
"Yeah, just sucked into that old stuff, and then everything new-sounding started sounding really weird, and..."
"I can understand old blues guys, but I can't understand things on the Current, can't understand the enunciations of things," Torrey says, finishing off their collective thought with a chuckle.
An examination of their roots leaves it clear—you'll likelier see Cactus Blossoms hanging around a "Spider" John show than at Toby Keith's. As Torrey says, with regard to modern country: "I don't care that they do it; don't call it country. Find a new name."
THE CACTUS BLOSSOMS play a CD-release show with "Spider" John Koerner and Meg Ashling on FRIDAY, OCTOBER 7, at the RITZ THEATER; 612.436.1129