Country at its finest
The Sumner Brothers are keepin’ it real
Article: Dana Morternstein – Contributor
To put it bluntly, the Sumner Brothers couldn’t give two shits if they ever sell out an arena. It’s not that they aren’t good musicians. Their music, which they classify as “alternative country folk rock,” is as smooth and vulnerable as a singer-songwriter open mic night and as gritty as a Waylon Jennings record with a fifth of Crown.
It’s obvious, upon meeting them that they’re not what you’d classify as typical country music fans. When asked if they know who the country music singer Jason Aldean is, both of the Sumner brothers quickly reply in unison, “Who?”
Joseph Lubinsky Mast, who is the band’s bass player, is the voice of reason.
“He’s one of those new fellahs.”
Neither Bob Sumner nor his brother, Brian, listens to mainstream country music radio. When challenged that perhaps the mark of an excellent songwriter is one who can pen a catchy chorus, Bob responds in dead pan, “We haven’t written our ‘Call Me Maybe’ yet.” Which may be just as well.
However, their song-writing prowess hasn’t gone unnoticed. Recently, Bob Sumner was nominated for a Western Canadian Music Award in the category of Songwriter of the Year. All of the Sumner Brothers’ songs are raw, their lyrics open books, casting glimpses on to their private lives and lost loves, like in “Colorado Girl”, to an eerily raw reflection on death in “The Lord is my Protector”. “Going out West” is a slow drawl of a gem that sounds like it should be played in a southwestern biker bar filled with cigarette smoke and dusty old bar stools. Think Neil Young on a little bit of absinthe.
“Success, on a whole, would just be to make a living. That’s the most important thing. Raise a family and all that,” Brian Sumner says, when asked what he considers the epitome of success in the music business. Sounds noble and nice, but don’t most artists, deep down, crave fame and fortune?
“Success,” adds Bob Sumner, “is just to be able to not come home at the end of a hard work day and fall asleep on the couch with no energy to do our music.”
Wouldn’t it be nice though, to be played on mainstream radio?
“For me, it’s not one of my goals at all,” says Bob. “Unless that’s what had to happen to meet our other goal, which is to make a living. I always think of one of my musical heroes, Tom Waits, who isn’t played on popular radio, but he’ll sell out a soft seat theatre two or three nights in a row in every city for $80 a ticket.”
You can’t fault these guys’ desire to remain authentic and true to their roots. Many artists would sell out faster than you could say Milli Vanilli. The Sumner Brothers seem genuinely focused on writing music, performing, and meeting new friends along the way. Money, it seems, is just a bonus and a means to an end.
“College radio is pretty supportive. If you’re charting regularly in Canada or the States, you’re probably in a pretty good spot,” says Brian. “There’s some big public radio stations like KEXP, who we did a session for in Seattle, and CBC. If you can get played on the two of them, you can make a little money touring and selling records. You don’t need the Top 40.”
When asked if they would argue that Top 40 radio isn’t the definition of musical success, the boys back track a bit and admit that deep down, they’d love to be playing alongside country music superstars like Kenny Chesney or Tim McGraw, with big, expensive cowboy hats and custom leather cowboy boots.
“If it came about with no compromise,” says Mast, “I think the general feeling, amongst us and amongst most of our peers, is that success in the Top 40 market comes with great compromise.”
This makes a person think about all of the empty country music songs out there, charting right now on popular radio. And when compared to the soulful, genuine feel of The Sumner Brothers’ songs, it’s easy to agree.