Written by Debra Lynn
I am surprised how a musical genre strongly associated with the American South has figured so prominently in this year’s roster of the North Island Concert Society. Perhaps it was somewhat accidental? Jackson Hollow was originally supposed to perform last season, but the show had to be rescheduled due to a family emergency. It ended up scheduled next to another bluegrass band, The Bills, this season. Nevertheless, I think, the presence of bluegrass in the Great White North is a testament to this musical style’s capacity for resonance.
Interestingly, Jackson Hollow, who obviously spends a lot of time touring the southern United States where their main audience resides, are all British Columbians.
The Bills, who performed for us back in November, were a more eclectic representation of the bluegrass style. Jackson Hollow, on the other hand, represents a very traditional country branch. They are led by a husband-and-wife team, Mike Sanyshyn and Tianna Lefebvre, with Charlie Frie on bass and Eric Reed on guitar and mandolin. For this performance, the group’s producer, Tom McKillip filled in for Reed.
Lead singer Lefebvre, a four-time BC Country Music Association Award winner and nominee for the 2023 Momentum Vocalist of the Year award, has a very “Southern Belle” kind of singing voice that is certainly the perfect fit with a countrified version of bluegrass. And, oh, what a voice.
Lefebvre’s voice grips you. She projects without looking like she’s even trying. She sings as naturally as others breathe, while knocking the audience off their feet in the process.
In my years of being immersed in the arts world, I have noticed that there are two types of artists: the kind who develop their careers through rigorous training and study, and those for whom talent comes almost completely naturally. Right away it struck me that Lefebvre is likely of the latter. I surmised that she likely had her idiosyncratic bluegrass singing voice straight out of the womb. I later sought to confirm this after the show with her. She said she only discovered her voice when she was 12, but a mere three years later, when she was 15, she had already started recording. She confirmed that she didn’t spend a lot of time training as a vocalist.
Lefebvre’s band mate and partner in life, fiddle and mandolin player Sanyshyn, is another similar kind of tour de force. Winner of four provincial championship fiddling titles and in the top three of the Canadian Grand Masters Fiddling Championship, there is an impeccability to his fiddle playing, but not at the expense of energy and spirit.
His performance of an instrumental medley of the tunes of fiddling greats like Don Messer and Al Churney, brought a wave of cheers from the audience. Not only was he able to capture the spirit of the music of those famous figureheads—bringing feelings of nostalgia to those of us who are old enough to have been around when they were in their heyday—but it was also masterfully arranged, becoming something slightly new in the process.
McKillip held his own as a vocalist and instrumentalist among the stellar talent in the group. Lefebvre and Sanysyn credited him with being at the helm as producer during their “breakthrough year” of 2021 that lead them to sign with Mountain Fever Records in Virginia. Thereafter, many of their singles rose to the top of several streaming charts. The group has also won the BC Country Music Association Gaylord Wood Traditional Country award four times and garnered numerous other accolades.
Toward the end of the show, the very tall and smiley bass player, Frie, added an acrobatic element to the performance. Making some adjustments to his gigantic stringed instrument, he climbed on top of it. He played it teetering three feet above the floor to a shocked and ecstatic audience.
I haven’t considered myself an aficionado of bluegrass in the past. Recent events, however, seem to have made me into a fan. Thanks, in part, to the talents of Jackson Hollow, bluegrass is alive and well in the 21st century.