Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms
If there’s one thing that the city of Portland, Oregon has taught the rest of the world, it’s the value of making your own path. That’s a lesson at the heart of Portland country singers Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms’ music. On their new album, Innocent Road, they navigate fourteen original and rare country songs with the kind of easy authenticity that comes from deep immersion in the tradition. And even though they tour the world with their country band, the Pacific Northwest always draws them home. For years, Caleb Klauder has been at the heart of Portland’s music scene. His first band, Calobo, rode the line between 1990s jamband and alt-country scenes and featured members of The Decemberists. In the early 2000s, his group Foghorn Stringband led the burgeoning square dance and Appalachian stringband revival. In the past twelve years, he’s been leading Portland’s underground country scene with his rough-hewn vocals and incredibly catchy songwriting. He’s the kind of artist that sparks the trends, never chases them, and bands directly inspired by his music stretch across the United States. Nearly every young string band today cites Foghorn Stringband as a key inspiration behind their interest in the music, and his original songs are covered by everyone from Bostonites Joy Kills Sorrow to Scottish folk singer Kris Drever. That’s because there’s a simple honesty to his music, a kind of unassuming greatness that draws other artists in. This was certainly the case for his musical partner Reeb Willms, who met him in 2009 at the National Old-Time Fiddle Contest in Weiser, ID. Reeb hails from the rural hinterlands of Eastern Washington, where she grew up on a wheat farm with a family band that sang old county songs for the surrounding community. She formed a roving honky-tonk band and a string band of her own when she lived in Bellingham, Washington, and she retains that kind of easy confidence that you find in natural bandleaders. Together, Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms are the new power couple in roots country music, following in a long tradition of country duos.
If Innocent Road buzzes with a rich, vintage sound, that’s because it was recorded at analogue tape studio Blue Rooms with engineer Mike Coykendall (M Ward, Blitzen Trapper, Jolie Holland) in Portland. The goal was to capture the raw energy Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms embody, the grit of a live performance without the studio trappings that can overpolish the music. Country duos like this have always been at the heart of country music and that’s because they require the kind of deep connection that generates impossibly close harmonies and lightning-fast maneuvering. “Singing with Reeb is like driving a hot rod,” Klauder says. “Things are just tight and locked in. The sum is greater than the parts.” To make the album, Klauder assembled some of the best players in Portland’s underground country scene, like young fiddler Sam Weiss, much in-demand pedal steel player Rusty Blake, longtime collaborators bassist Jesse Emerson (a former Decemberist), drummer Ned Folkerth, and the former fiddler for Bearfoot, Jason Norris.
Of course, as any great fan of country music knows, the music lives and dies by the songs. Here, Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms present a mix of original songs from Klauder’s pen and covers from greats like George Jones and Buck Owens, but also more eclectic artists like alt-country pioneer Paul Burch, Western singer Bud Deckleman, or bluegrass great Jimmy Martin. The great testament to this music is how hard pressed you’ll be to tell the new songs from the old here. That’s Caleb Klauder’s great talent as a songwriter, that he can so easily channel the giants of American roots music. Together, Caleb Klauder & Reeb Willms show the vibrancy of country roots music today!