The Wardens – Sold Out At The Ironwood
Independent – 30 April 2022
The Wardens are three Canadian National Park wardens who patrol on horseback and live in remote cabins. Bradley Bischoff, Ray Schmidt, and Scott Ward augmented here by Scott Duncan on fiddle, have another custodian sideline making acoustic western music in the old tradition, focused on cowboy life and, as such, share a musical affinity with fellow Canadian Ian Tyson. Sold Out At The Ironwood is not, as the title might suggest, a live album, but while recorded under Covid-restrictions, it does have that sort of spontaneity.
It heads out of the corral with The Code offering accordion, and twangy guitar backed instructions on how to live the modern cowboy life and “keep the west alive”, such as, “Wear a straw in the summer, a felt in the fall/Iron your shirt, leave your boots in the hall” and “Push on the reins, let the horse have his head/Walk down to the river before heading to bed” always remembering to “Ride one like Ian, sing like Corb Lund”.
Featuring fiddle, whistling and all three on harmonies, the jog-along The Legend of Wild Bill tells the story of a legendary warden who lived in “a cabin built of larch, made to hold the snow up”, on Simpson Pass, “elusive as a cat, ready for attack/Wiley as the fox and cagey as the crow”, who fought in the war before returning home to resume his job, “patrolling in the country where he’d trapped and mined before”. More of a ballad note, again featuring fiddle and their harmonies, Shining Mountain offers a greeting to the landscape and all its beauty, “The richest trees grow old/Silver’s but a dewdrop/And the grizzly is our gold”. Meanwhile, the chugging rhythm of Timberwolf Reprise addresses pest control from the perspective of the wolf (“Cyanide and strychnine genocide/Predator control, exterminating goals/Fifteen dollars for that bloody hide/Grey wolves they were gone, silenced of their song/Nothing but their scent upon the land”) and the hope for four pups in a litter, off to return them to their natural habitat.
Again with a border country flavour, The Last Cowboy In The Outfit returns to storytelling as it relates to the bittersweet nature of a warden’s retirement (“My keys are on the desk, I handed back my shield/I had no idea, how that was going to feel/Turned in my uniform, signed off on my gun/Then sorta drifted off, into the setting sun”) as he reflects on the glory days “High up in the mountains, where the eagles play”.
It’s not all a solitary life out there, and romance in the wilderness is explored in the jaunty fiddle folksiness of Half-Mile Honeymoon, as a couple join their fates to eke out a living together on his small dirt farm, knowing “That what we reap is what we sow”.
Returning to the life of a warden, Thousand Rescues narrates the story of Tim, a veteran climber who scaled El Capitain and the peaks of Nepal, who travelled all over, risking his life over and over rescuing those stranded on the mountains. Then comes the title track, Bischoff’s homage to the great Tom Russell, channelling his sound, namechecking his songs and remembering the night he called him up to share the stage (“That Friday night in Calgary just might be my only claim to fame/Sold out at The Ironwood the night I heard Tom Russell call my name”) and sing Navajo Rug.
The quietly strummed and sung Coming Home relates the life of a third-generation warden returning to his true roots (“My home is a cabin, made up of tall trees/Where the wood fire’s burn, and the smoke’s in the breeze/When I get lonely for my mountains once again/I’ll gather all my things and set to go back in”) where “There’s daddy’s old stories, they’re flowing from the creek/I see grandma’s face in the knotty pine tree/I can smell her sweet pitch as she rocks me to sleep”.
The studio tracks end with frisky mandolin, banjo and fiddle instrumental hoedown Selkirk Snow, the album rounding off with two live numbers, the near six-minute Neil Colgan that has Ward telling about a young warden who, kicked by his horse, died in the line of duty (“Tried his best to walk a spell, lay down by the trail/Wrote a letter to his folks, told them of his tale”), his spirit still patrolling the Rockies. On a lighter, playful note, it ends with Bischoff’s talking-folk-blues Supper On The Trail that amusingly contrasts the fare for today’s wardens (“Lentils, chickpeas, artisan bread/Whole wheat flour that’s gluten-free …Goji berries, caraway seeds/Veggie chili and a quiche Lorraine” with the good old days of “steak and potato and a can of corn…Cowboy coffee and a couple toothpicks/Jerky in your saddle bag”.
A simple, unfussy album, but hugely appealing to a way of life and a musical genre that is too often forgotten in today’s hyperactive world and the onslaught of processed Nashville country. This is as organic as it gets. As they say, keep it western.