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Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, The Louvin Brothers, The Blue Sky Boys: music born of Appalachia bears a long tradition of siblings singing together, locking into that otherworldly realm of harmonization that mostly shared DNA can produce. The Cactus Blossoms, a duo of brothers Jack Torrey and Page Burkum, tap into that tradition on their new album, "You're Dreaming," which they call "the culmination of several years of songwriting and the kindness of thousands of miles and friends." It evokes the most angelic aspects of the repertoire of Don and Phil Everly, to whom they are most often compared. I asked Page about The Everly Brothers, among other things, from his van on the band's way from Minneapolis, Minn., to the Blue Ox Music Festival in nearby Eau Claire.
Your lyrics talk of waltzes, the Hill Country in Texas, New Orleans, the Mississippi River. Where did your affinity for the South come from?
Well, the Mississippi River starts up here in Minnesota, and goes through Minneapolis, so I think that's how that got into a song. For us, we never listened to what you'd call pop-country, so we kind of came in from the other side. We kind of started at the beginning and worked our way forward, instead of growing up listening to new country and diving backward. So, for us, our sound came out of hearing classic country and old blues and folk music, and people like Bob Dylan really had a big effect on us, too. He's from Minnesota as well — not that that gives us any Bob Dylan powers, but it was inspiring to have someone from where we live who kind of knew no bounds with what he'd write about.
I want to ask you about your backing band. They play incredibly tastefully, keeping things very sparse. How'd you develop the sound so that the harmonies could stay out front?
Yeah! I'm glad you say "sparse," because that's what we were going for. We had to have great players with us to be able to play the right parts, to enable us to be sparse. If you don't have a good bass part, or a good enough drum sound, you want to cover them up with a lot of other stuff, you know? We're really lucky to have these guys from Chicago who we recorded with. Alex Hall recorded the album and also played drums on it. Joel Paterson played a lot of guitar on the record; my older brother played some guitar on it.
I did notice you share a last name with the electric guitar player. That's your older brother — does he sing?
Yeah, he's a really good singer, but at the time Jack and I started doing our own thing, he was busy playing electric guitar, so this is our first time getting him involved in what we're doing.
It sounds very much as if you and Jack have been singing together since childhood, but you took divergent paths for a while, musically.
Yeah, we started out because Jack got a guitar and started playing solo shows around town, and I wasn't exactly an accomplished drummer or anything, but I got a drum set, and eventually we tried singing some songs together. We played a show together and it turned into ... this.
In a lot of classic country music duos, the harmony's almost always in intervals of a third, but the harmonies you and Jack sing together are very different. It's gorgeous. It strays, wanders, comes back together. Is it a gut thing?
Yeah, for me, it's totally a gut thing. I couldn't even explain that part of it. (Laughs.) Other people probably understand what I'm doing more than I do. I think I just follow the chord of the song and sing whatever feels right. It's just kind of intuitive.
On that note, I'm almost 15 minutes into this interview, and I haven't said the words "The Everly Brothers."
We should talk about that comparison, because it's so natural, and the first thing people tend to say when they hear you. How do you feel about it?
Well, I think it makes total sense, but we were listening to all sorts of stuff when we were making this record. I definitely love the Everlys, but I think part of it is just what happens when you sing country songs together and are going for a more sparse sound. They took that country sound and made it a bit more poppy and polished, and added a little rock 'n' roll to it, and I think that has to do with the time that they were playing together. Before, with the Louvins, you had dobro and mandolin.
There's an album called "Live at the Turf Club" that all but disappeared for a while. Was it intentional that some of your earlier work sort of drifted off the map when you were making "You're Dreaming"?
It's funny that you notice that. The funny thing was that we'd made the CDs on our own before signing with the record label, and we decided to redo a few of those songs, and didn't want any confusion out there about which one was our current recording. I think we let it fade off, but actually I just found a box of "Live at the Turf Club," so I put it up for sale on our website. Maybe we'll press it again, who knows?
Last thing: It's pretty remarkable that you all don't have beards.
I know, I know. They're everywhere these days, aren't they?
The Cactus Blossoms play at Stickyz Rock 'n' Roll Chicken Shack Thursday, June 16, 8:30 p.m., $10.
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