by HEATHER LOVEJOY
The six members of the Jacksonville-based Americana group, collectively called the Canaries, are gathered around a table on a Sunday morning. Joining Pounds and Wicker, the singers and songwriters for the band, are guitarist Arvid Smith, a longtime fixture of the Florida folk music circuit; fiddler Philip Pan, better known as the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster; upright bassist Pete Mosely, also of the pop-punk band Inspection 12 and formerly of Yellowcard; and drummer Eric Bailey, who has played in heavy metal and hardcore bands.
They appear to be an unlikely assembly of individuals, ranging in age from 20 to 63 and in musical background from classical to metal to country. Their easy, open-armed camaraderie, though, is immediately apparent. The bonds that seem to tie them are curious minds, laughter and a shared love of authentic, thoughtful folk music.
The story starts after Pounds and Wicker crossed paths several times while visiting Asheville, N.C. They both grew up in Northeast Florida—Pounds in Baldwin and Wicker in Macclenny—but Wicker had been living in Johnson City, TN, and Pounds in Jacksonville.
“I kept passing Sandy,” says Pounds, who was on a sort of quarter-life, soul-searching vacation. They exchanged introductions and before long sat down to play a few songs together. They were struck by how perfectly their voices harmonized. That’s rare enough, but here’s the weird part: They figured out that Wicker was dating a bassist from Jacksonville who had been playing with Pounds. “I had seen pictures of Jessica but never met her,” Wicker remembers.
“This is such a great story,” says guitarist Arvid Smith, leaning back far in his chair. He’s probably heard it a dozen times but is obviously as charmed as ever.
“I thought, ‘Somehow, that can’t be the end of the story,’ ” says Pounds. Back in Jacksonville, she called Wicker and said, “Move here and let’s start a band.”
The concept of Canary in the Coalmine has always been based on harmonies. That, and songs with a sense of eerie hopefulness, says Pounds.
They played a few gigs as a duo before trying out several drummers and bass players. Smith, a respected acoustic/electric/dobro guitar and sitar player, was the first to officially join. Pounds and Wicker met him during open mic sessions at The Loft in Riverside, but they thought of him as being out of their league. “Arvid was like a little celebrity to us,” Wicker says. “We thought, ‘There’s no way he would want to play with us.’ ”
To their amazement, he was interested in their songs and later invited Pan to sit in on a local set. Pan had been playing off and on in Smith’s established folk band, Tammerlin. Pounds and Wicker reacted similarly to Pan as they did to Smith: “Oooh, wow, the concertmaster.” When Philip was late for the set, they thought, “He’s the concertmaster. He’s never going to want to play with us.” But then suddenly he was behind the band, “going off like Charlie Daniels,” recalls Pounds.
Mosely joined a little over a year ago, and until recently had been doing double duty in the band, adding percussion by thumping his bass and stomping his feet. Now, with drummer Bailey on board, the band’s sound is more complete.
“I’m the new guy,” Bailey comments, “but there was never any tension or awkwardness walking into this.” Indeed, the feeling at the table is relaxed, fun and friendly. There’s no single personality dominating the conversation, and there is a remarkable absence of cynicism and competition.
“Music’s not really like a choice. I have to do it, so it’s great to do it with people you feel like are family,” Pounds says.
In spring 2014, the group plans to release its debut album, which does not yet have a title but has already been recorded in New Orleans by producer and musician Matt Grondin at Parlor Studios. Grondin has Northeast Florida ties, as his father, Jack Grondin of .38 Special and his mother is Judy Van Zant-Jenness, owner of Freebird Live and widow of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant.
After the album is released, the band hopes to hit the road touring in summer. They have played shows regionally already, but the summer tour would be their most extensive to date. Also, within the next couple of months, look for a music video produced by the local company TigerLily Media.
The group has several shows scheduled, including the North Florida Acoustic Music Festival at the Flamingo Lakes RV Resort on Nov. 9 and the Harvest Festival at the University of North Florida on Nov. 22. Check the band’s website, www.canaryinthecoalminemusic.com, for upcoming news and more show dates.
The Jacksonville Music Scene:
Through the Eyes of the Canaries
“I think a lot of times, we take our scene for granted,” says 28-year-old Pounds. Back around 2006, the singer/songwriter wanted to get out of Jacksonville—a sentiment not unusual among local musicians and artists seeking larger, more welcoming audiences. As her musical direction shifted from alternative to Americana though, she came to appreciate northern Florida for its rural, down-to-earth side. Growing up in Baldwin, country and gospel music were what she heard the most. “Rather than trying to push away from that,” she says, “I started to embrace it and be more influenced by it.” Jacksonville is a good base for making Americana music, as the culture “lends a certain level of authenticity.” The city is also proving to be a good base while the band tries to extend its reach across the Southeast. There are obstacles, of course, and perhaps the biggest dilemma that faces bands here is the age-old struggle to get local people out to shows. Whether they enjoy it or not, musicians need to be more proactive and better skilled at promoting themselves.
There are few folk musicians in Jacksonville with careers as varied and extensive as Smith’s. He has played in too many bands to name, achieving the most success with Tammerlin, a band that is still active. Turning 63 this month, the acoustic/electric/Dobro guitar and sitar player has been a well-known part of the regional music scene for decades. “It tends to be overlooked, but Florida has a rich heritage in folk music, and it’s a great bluegrass state,” he says. He points out that Bill Monroe, the grandfather of bluegrass music, used to play in Northeast Florida regularly. In Jacksonville, he has watched the music scene ebb and flow many times, and right now he feels “it’s in a good spot.” “[The scene] is better than it’s been for a long, long time,” he says, pointing to popular local groups like Grandpa’s Cough Medicine and Antique Animals as indicators. “I think it’s that positive spirit that gave [Canary in the Coalmine] the opportunity to hawk our wares.” He warns against bands getting complacent about promoting their music, though. “It’s called taking care of business,” he says. “There’s an illusion that it’s easier now [with Internet and social media,] but fundamentally, it’s not.”
As concertmaster for the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, Pan’s outlook is different from his Canary bandmates—but not as different as you might think. The 52-year-old violinist came to Jacksonville from New York City to join the symphony in 1984 and has watched the organization mature tremendously, which he feels is a good indicator of cultural growth. In 2007, he expanded professionally into playing popular music, and, especially during the past two years, his number of opportunities has steadily increased. He attributes that to the city’s growing music and film scene. He particularly appreciates that in Jacksonville, “the whole element of stripping down music has taken off.” By that, he is referring to the area’s predilection for organic styles of music like Americana, which celebrates musicianship and technical skills by encouraging performers to play instruments (as opposed to punching computer buttons). He does, however, understand people’s frustrations here. There’s an understanding in New York City that any night, any day, there’s something interesting to do and all you have to do is walk outside. “Here, I think there’s something to do, but you have to look for it. You have to seek it out,” he says. One place to look, he suggests, is The Elbow, a collection of venues at Ocean and Bay streets.
Wicker wasn’t swept off her feet by Jacksonville when she moved here a few years ago. The 21-year-old singer/songwriter is from Macclenny, but she had been living in Johnson City, Tenn., where she enjoyed a tight-knit and very supportive musical community. “It was a little frustrating at first,” she recalls about moving back to Northeast Florida. She was used to getting ample amounts of encouragement and praise, which didn’t happen at first in Jacksonville. “I realize now that maybe I didn’t deserve it, because I wasn’t that good,” she says, laughing. She and Pounds originally considered moving to Knoxville, Tenn., where the Americana music scene is particularly strong, but Jacksonville has turned out to be “a great city for growing.” These days, she’s much more comfortable and has settled into a supportive niche community where she finds inspiration. “I wouldn’t want to leave now,” she says of Jacksonville. Events like After Dark during this year’s Jacksonville Jazz Festival, which had Downtown buzzing with activity, have helped her get excited about living here.
Jacksonville has a reputation as a “lazy town,” says Mosely, a 33-year-old bassist and pianist. Just as some modern kids haven’t learned how to play or occupy themselves because they are constantly stimulated by electronic media, adults can suffer from a similar sit-and-watch-TV syndrome. “You have to know what you’re looking for and how to find it, and you have to want to go out and find it,” he says. He points to the Riverside Arts Market as being a huge part of exposing local culture to more people. The idea of running off to New York City or Los Angeles never appealed to him, so when he was a member of the successful pop-punk band Yellowcard in the mid-2000s, he found himself wanting to return to his Jacksonville roots. Jaded by his experiences in the major-label music industry, he “played piano for his cat” for six years before being inspired by Canary in the Coalmine a little over a year ago. “Finding this band and joining it really kinda saved my life in terms of being an active musician again,” he says. With a nod to his bandmates, he adds, “It’s just an example of how Jacksonville is a breeding ground for the unique and talented.”
At age 20, drummer Bailey has a fresh perspective on the music scene. Overall, he feels “hopeful” about what Jacksonville has to offer. He’s been playing shows here for five years already, primarily in hardcore and metal bands, and is well aware that the city is notorious for having a negative attitude that looms over the arts. He briefly thought of leaving, but saw Jacksonville in a new light after visiting a cousin in Nashville. “I realized I hadn’t given [Jacksonville] a fair shot,” he says. “I should exhaust all my opportunities here.” Nashville and other bigger cities are “giant ponds,” but a growing city like Jacksonville may actually provide greater opportunity to hone his skills and distinguish himself as a musician. His musical future here is bright. In addition to having just joined Canary in the Coalmine, he plays with Mosely in the Tommy Harrison Group.