They had just played a slow song about a guy jumping into the Mississippi to end it all, and another one about jealousy, so no wonder that Page Burkum was worried he and his brother were bringing the crowd down at 89.3 the Current’s 11th anniversary party two weekends ago at First Avenue in Minneapolis.
And then came “Queen of Them All.” A tender, swooning ballad drenched in two-man harmonies and one man’s romantic outburst, the song is a standout on the new — and, they believe, first proper — album by the Cactus Blossoms, the vintage country and rockabilly duo that Burkum plays in with his younger brother, Jack Torrey.
“That one was actually a happy song,” Burkum remarked afterward to the audience, which was pretty well enchanted even during the downers. Those sibling harmonies of theirs could make verses of Revelations sound sweet and endearing.
Torrey added into the microphone, “That’s actually the happiest song I’ve ever written. If that says anything.”
Perched atop bar stools two days earlier at Dusty’s Bar in their native northeast Minneapolis — a watering hole as old-school and untrendy as their music — Torrey and Burkum explained the origins of “Queen of Them All” and the rest of the new record. First or not, this is the album that should make the Cactus Blossoms more than a local phenomenon.
Titled “You’re Dreaming,” it was named one of the most anticipated country albums of 2016 by Rolling Stone. And it was coproduced by Oklahoma rockabilly star JD McPherson (“North Side Gal”), who got turned on to the brothers when they opened for his two First Ave shows in 2014.
“I heard them running ‘Adios Maria’ for their sound check, and I was drawn into the main room like a clipper ship over a waterfall,” recalled McPherson, who later took them on tour.
“I love watching an audience regard them for the first time. You tend to see lots of stunned faces: ‘Where did they come from?’ ”
British songwriting legend Nick Lowe also fell for the Minneapolis twangers when they opened his holiday show at First Ave on a moment’s notice in 2014 after the scheduled opener, Faces legend Ian McLagan, died. Lowe enlisted the Blossoms to open the rest of his tour, and did so again this past December.
“When you get to work with and be around musicians like them, you learn so much to make you a better musician,” said Burkum, 34, the more congenial and businesslike of the duo.
“You want to get better when you’re around them, because you want to impress them,” added Torrey, 29, whose polite snark, pompadour haircut and pointy nose might suggest he’s a long-lost “Leave It to Beaver” character.
Both lanky, always clean-shaven and often dressed in classic Levi’s and plain button-down shirts — as opposed to a lot of throwback country acts’ vintage attire or faux rodeo gear — the brothers similarly didn’t dress up their sound too much for their first album on a national label.
Issued two weeks ago on St. Paul’s Red House Records, “You’re Dreaming” offers a cleaner, crisper but also consistently raw and straight-ahead interpretation of what the Cactus Blossoms do live. Torrey and Burkum’s uncanny harmonies are always out front no matter the genre, of which there are several on the record.
They bounce from pedal steel-dripped country ballads such as “Queen of Them All” to poppier, sock-hoppy ditties such as the single “Stoplight Kisses” to a couple of knee-slapping rockabilly nuggets, including the record’s lone cover tune, “No More Crying the Blues,” from Sun Records duo Alton and Jimmy.
Pointing back to his first taste of the band, McPherson said, “Even in that early stage, their stuff was shadowy, sharp and genuinely romantic, peeking through this traditional country thing they were doing. I always wanted to hear their music match the moodiness of their material.”
McPherson raised the idea for the cover — “He just suggested we try it and see if we like it, and we did,” Burkum said — but otherwise he just played a little guitar, did some coaching and cheerleading and left them to their own devices, the brothers said. Most of the recording was done in Chicago with musicians McPherson knew there, including pedal steel player Joel Paterson, who’s coming up for the Cactus Blossoms’ album release shows next weekend at the Turf Club.
“It was a big step up from our first record, which really was just a demo,” Torrey said, referring to a self-titled LP now out of print. “We recorded it in a day because that’s all we could afford, and we didn’t really plan on it getting written up in the newspaper or played on the radio like it did.”
Three of the songs from that debut have been rerecorded here, including “Stoplight Kisses,” “Traveler’s Paradise” and the especially old-timey, folky nugget that first caught McPherson’s ear, “Adios Maria.” One more track, “Change Your Ways or Die,” was also heard on the “Live at the Turf Club” album, which featured a lot of the classic country tunes the Blossoms used to play on a weekly basis at the St. Paul bar (think Ray Price, Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills).
The brothers’ stellar backing band from those records — with Gear Daddies slide guitarist Randy Broughten and Original Harmony Ridge Creek Dippers fiddler Razz Russell — is also a thing of the past. That’s partly because they had to revert to a duo when they started to tour more in 2014, and partly for a sometimes rockier sound. Their new lineup includes a drummer and bassist, Chris Hepola and Andy Carroll, and on electric guitar is the siblings’ older brother Tyler Burkum, who used to live in Nashville and has recorded with Mat Kearney and Glen Phillips.
The younger Burkum brothers — Torrey adopted a new stage name when he started performing — took different, separate musical routes for many years. Jack wanted to be like Bob Dylan. Page played drums in a blues band.
Finally, when they became roommates in the late ’00s, they started singing old folk and country tunes together off their record player. They only partly credit their knack for natural-sounding, precise harmonies to their blood ties.
“I think the harmony part is musical, but there’s a similarity of voices and timing and expression in the voice that makes it a little different sounding,” Burkum said.
Finishing the other’s thought, as they often do, Torrey added, “There are times we’ll respond to somebody using the exact same words and same timbre. It’ll sound like a complete jinx.
“Musically, that comes in handy. Socially, you’ve gotta feel sorry for people hanging out with two brothers.”
Shakin’, rattlin’ nerves
With the harmonies left intact, the songwriting on “You’re Dreaming” might be the most noticeable step up. Torrey wrote a majority of the new tunes, including “Mississippi,” where those harmonies turn a wee bit chilling as a man contemplates suicide in a bar near the river: “Go on in and take my seat/There’s a lot of friends I’ll never meet.”
“That was kind of written with Dusty’s in mind,” Torrey said from a seat at that very bar, where he and Burkum played some early gigs together.
The most personal turn on the record is the one Torrey cited as his happiest one yet, “Queen of Them All,” which he said is the one he’s always most nervous to sing. He wrote it about his wife, Sarah Jean, a week into their courtship: “You’re the queen of them all,” he sings. “That’s what makes it an easy fall/When you call me with your charms/You’re the end of my scheme.”
With an aw-shucks demeanor befitting a “Leave It to Beaver” episode, Torrey remembered, “I don’t think I ever played or sang anything for her in that time, and then I wrote that song for her and played it for her.
“I basically told her I was in love with her through a song. I remember now how terrified I was at that moment, like being on a ladder and your knees start shaking.”
Comparatively, Torrey and Burkum seem very coolheaded about their album’s national release. They’re happy to have a label in their corner so they can focus more on performing again. They have a short headlining club tour in the coming weeks and some spring dates lined up with hip young Nashville star Kacey Musgraves. They’re also awaiting word on other jaunts as an opening act — which suits them well.
“No one is there to see you, and you don’t expect a response,” Burkum said. “You just have to sing and play your best and hope to win people over.”
Clearly, they’re good at that. Even when the songs aren’t so happy.