Canadian Bluegrass Interview

The following article appeared first in the Bluegrass Music Association of Canada’s quarterly magazine for Winter 2024. Penned by our very own Rhonda Shippy. Good to have some Western Canadian content in there!

The Doggone Brothers Band

Playing together as a duo, Mike Hepher and Clay Parsons of the Doggone Brothers have established themselves as a musically talented and entertaining pair.  Hailing from Fernie and Cranbrook respectively, they’ve released two EPs and several singles, and are currently working on a new album. 

Along with the new album, the Doggone Brothers are expanding their family and have been playing festivals and venues throughout Alberta and BC. Authentic and uplifting, this now 4 piece band is distinctly grassy, with a dash of classic country and a side of old time music throughout their set of original, traditional and cover tunes.

Along with expanding the band, Clay and his wife Joelle have expanded their family with their baby girl Miriam, so Mike is fielding the questions for this article.

You both live in the Kootenays, how did you two meet?

Mike: We met at a birthday party. Our mutual friend Joel rented a little cafe in Kimberley and invited all his friends to come and play music. Clay and I played together all night and had so much fun that when it was over we decided to just keep going. 

I heard there’s a good story about how you found a name, can you tell us about it?

Mike: Haha… well, we stole it from my son. We drive down to Wintergrass sometimes to get out of the deep-freeze of Fernie winters, and one year when the kids were small we travelled with some friends who had kids the same age as ours. Wintergrass has a great youth academy, and our son Finn and his buddy Wes came home from that inspired to play in a band, and they even had a name: The Doggone Brothers. I thought it was a great name, but that was long before Clay and I started playing together. Once Clay and I started jamming we needed a name, so I checked with Finn to see if they were using the name, and he said we could use it—but he didn’t check with Wes. Wes found out the hard way: when he saw our posters up around town. Apparently he was a little miffed, but we gave him some stickers and it’s all good now. It’s a great name, and we are happy to have it… though it doesn’t fit as well now that we have a couple ‘sisters’ in the band. 

What is it that inspires you to make music with each other?

Mike: For me it’s about trust… playing with Clay is knowing that he has my back. At first that was just in a musical sense, there’s an amazing feeling when you ‘vibe’ with someone and know instinctively where they are going—you can play with confidence and explore ideas on the fly—you can end up in some pretty cool places, have a lot of fun together, and people respond to that. Now Clay feels a lot like a real brother so our friendship has caught up with our musical connection. 

What brought you to bluegrass, do you remember when you first heard this music and wanted to play it?
Well, my dad played in a bluegrass band and they would rehearse in our basement. Cabin Fever was the ‘house band’ at Shady Grove starting back when that event was held at Wishart’s Hollow in Nanton. I of course had my own journey and didn’t even own an acoustic guitar until I was in my 20s. I had to go through the rock n’ roll and blues phase first. In 2001 I married into a folk/grass band called As The Crow Flies and we played a few standards there. It wasn’t until 2011 or so when my friend Steve Jones dragged us to NimbleFingers that I actually got hooked on the authenticity of the music. 

Who are your bluegrass inspirations, both classic and modern?

Mike: I love almost anything Tim O’Brien does. I recall my dad spinning Hot Rize on vinyl, and Dan Crary and some Grisman. I’ve always liked all of the melodic stuff, but the flat-seven feel stuff took a while—I always thought it sounded corny—but there’s something mystical about playing a minor scale over a major chord that is pretty cool sometimes. For the more modern stuff I like almost everything that Andrew Marlin touches: Watchhouse, Mighty Poplar, and his instrumental stuff. I think he’ll go down as one of the more innovative mandolin players and brilliant songwriters of our time. Also, you can’t go wrong with Gillian Welch & David Rawlings. 

You’ve both been writing original songs for many years, what inspires you to sit down with a pen?

Mike: Because my life is all about creating (I’m a letterpress printer and oil painter as well) I have a professionally jaded relationship with ‘inspiration’. Inspiration is great, but you can sit around and wait for it for years and it may or may not show up, so sometimes you just have to start writing. I always have a journal with me to jot down ideas, and the Voice Memo on my phone has been great for capturing musical ideas, but you still have to take the time to hammer them out, and honestly the best inspiration for that is having someone to play them with. We play some songs with the Doggone Brothers Band that I wrote 20 years ago but they didn’t find a voice until this band. 

You’ve spent some time writing together recently, can you describe that experience?

Mike: Sure. Until this year, we haven’t really written anything together. We play a bunch of originals in our sets, but they’ve been songs that one or the other of us have brought to the band. Last spring we carved out a few days to head up to my family cabin with the express intent of working on songs for a new album—we had a bunch of half-finished ideas and melodies to flesh out. We left with a whole album of new material that we tested and refined over the summer at festivals. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Clay and I wrote well together, but I was. I found it really good to have someone to suggest words when I couldn’t think of the right ones, or find interesting musical ideas that complimented my words. 

Tell us about the new songs you’ve been working on.

I think the big thing for me is to write something that has some authenticity. It’s easy to write something that sounds like it’s from the genre, but I feel like it’s important to have a personal connection so I can feel good about singing it, even if the metaphors mean something different to me than to another listener. One of the new songs that came out of our writing session is called ‘Oldman River Clay’. I grew up along the coulees of the Oldman River in Lethbridge, Alberta, and if you go down the edge of the river and peel up some stones there you’ll find them stuck in this thick clay. So when I say ‘Thought I’d find my way back to Oldman River clay’ it means something very powerful to me, but a viewer in the USA might imagine a completely different river. I’ve never been down to the Mississippi River so I can’t sing about it authentically, but that doesn’t diminish the authenticity of that symbol for me or for anyone else who might think something different. 

You’ve added some new band members this past year, has that changed how you approach your material?

It’s opened up our arrangements quite a bit. The impact you can have with four is significantly larger than you can have with two. We’ve been adding different textures and instrumental bridges, really having fun with arrangements. In the past we’ve leaned heavily on our banter, connection to the audience, and sometimes surprising deliveries of tunes that have what we call a ‘doggone feel’, but I think with the 4-piece band we are delving into a much more mature and nuanced sound that has a sonic presence we struggled to achieve before. The fiddle is this beautiful ribbon that binds the staccato mandolin and percussive clawhammer banjo together, and the upright bass anchors everything from this deep place, and can add the growl of a bow too. It’s been amazing to grow the sound. 

What recordings have you done together, and are you planning a new album?

We have two EPs so far. ‘Salty Dogs’ was released in 2018 and re-released in 2021, and ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ was released in 2021. We recorded both live-off-the-floor as a duo, engineered and mixed by Clayton. We are working on a new recording with a hopeful release of summer 2024, but we are looking to step up the production and do a full-length album with the full band, and mostly original tunes. 

What are your musical aspirations moving forward?

For me, I just love to play music with good people. One of the best things about bluegrass and old-time music are the people you meet going to jams, fests, and camps. My jam buddies have become my good buddies, and my good buddies have become my band-mates. Making music together on stage or off is the purest form of joy I can think of, so I hope to continue to do more of that—I hope the Doggone Brothers Band gets the chance to show off our musical ideas and friendships to people all over Canada. 

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