The blues are a 'frame of mind' for songwriter on debut full-length record

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There is a real love story behind Calgary singer-songwriter Erin Ross’s Clear Lake Waltz.

It was inspired by the relationship between Ross’ paternal grandparents, a 50-year romance that began when the two met “by the willow tree in the dimming of the day” at Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba. Ross wanted to write a country waltz in the style of Wilf Carter and penned the tender love song not long after visiting her grandmother. It had been six months since her grandfather died and her grandmother was still in mourning.

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“I spent some time with her and she was certainly feeling his loss,” says Ross. “I often will keep a collection of different lines that occur to me or things that I’ve collected as ideas from something I’ve read or something I’ve seen. I had this one line about music soft and low ringing across the prairies. It just seemed like a good fit for how they met, which is something I learned when I visited her after my grandfather passed away. I wove it into some verses and tried to tell a little bit of that very long love story.”

They lived in Calgary for a large part of their marriage. They had six children together.

While there may not be an official overriding theme to Ross’s debut full-length record The Wind Will Lead Me Home, Clear Lake Waltz is not the only song about finding home and a sense of belonging. The wistful Whisky and Woodsmoke, which recalls the bluesier work of Lucinda Williams, is about Ross’s time spent in southwestern Alberta. There are lighter moments that reveal smaller details of her life in Calgary. Pappa’s Got a Brand New Car rolls out under a laid-back blues groove as a tribute to some of the fixer-uppers Ross has restored over the years. The spicy Cajun number Stoke That Fire was an ode to the barbecuing that goes on at the Ross household.

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Ross has long been associated with Calgary’s music scene, whether it be as a gigging musician or host of jam nights. She also hosts two radio shows – The Departure Lounge on CKUA and The Six String Variety House on CJSW – and has been teaching guitar since 1995. She began taking guitar lessons at the age of eight. By her early 20s, she was frequenting the old King Eddy to catch blues shows and participate in jams.

But she hasn’t officially released an album since 2010 when she put out the EP Another Empty Day. So she has been building up quite a canon of material in the past 13 years.

“There are some newer pieces but there are definitely some old ones, too,” she says. “The main thing was to find songs that I felt fit together thematically or stylistically but still gave an interesting balance. Mostly they are songs about either experiences I’ve had in my life or things that are going on around me with people I care about. I didn’t want it to be all serious music. It was important to have some light-hearted tunes in the mix or tunes that have an element of fun.”

While The Wind Will Lead Me Home may reflect notions of home, Ross recorded it more than 3,000 kilometres away in Nashville. Ross and long-time drummer Lorne Peterson spent a week in Music City at Canadian expat Steve Dawson’s Henhouse Studio. A Vancouver native, Dawson is known for his skills as a guitarist but has also produced albums for Kelly Joe Phelps and Jim Brynes. He brought together an A-list team of studio players for The Wind Will Lead Me Home, including John Prine bassist Dave Jacques, fiddle-mandolin-banjo player Fats Kaplin, Sheryl Crow keyboardist Jen Gunderman and percussionist Justin Amaral.

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“It was good for the focus, to just get away and bear down for a week on doing a recording,” says Ross, who will be holding an album release party backed by a five-piece band at the Ironwood Stage and Grill on Feb. 23.

Like many session players in Nashville, Dawson’s team proved adept at negotiating all the different shades, including the aforementioned Cajun styles and country waltz but also the blues growler Telling Lies and soulful ballad Insincere.

Through much of her career in Calgary, Ross has been closely associated with the blues, a genre she fell in love with when she first began playing guitar. But The Wind Will Lead Me Home suggests it’s only one of the colours in her palette.

“I consider myself a blues player but maybe not in a traditional Chicago blues style or something like that,” she says. “Blues is probably the filter through which I’ve processed a lot of how I think and a lot of my choices as a guitar player. I view the blues more as an aesthetic or a frame of mind. A lot of the players that I really enjoy and admire in the blues play with other musical traditions as well, but they always come back to that filter, that frame-of-mind in terms of how they present their own material.”

Erin Ross plays the Ironwood Stage and Grill on Feb. 23 at 8 p.m.

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