Whether you call it a comeback or a continuation, the Allen Family Reunion is back with a multi-generational album, Strawberry Social.
It’s the first full-length album put out by the bluegrass band, featuring two generations of Allens in its lineup. Paul Hickling – the only non-Allen surname in the group – says the album name carries a special meaning.
Strawberry socials are traditional, community-centred functions, where people would get together and make merry through fellowship and music. The talent-show aspect of it was what inspired the name.
The band consists of John, Joe, Julie and Bev Allen, as well as Hickling. In the 1980s, John, Joe, Julie and Jane Allen were a regular bluegrass staple, playing the festival circuit and developing quite a name for themselves.
To that end, the Allen Family Reunion is less a new group and more of a continuation of a long-standing family tradition. (Side note: John – who later played with numerous touring acts including Prairie Oyster – played his first show at a Pie Social in Kilworth.
The Reunion’s music provides a modern twist to the traditional bluegrass sound, reflecting the multi-generational aspect of the family band. The family’s roots go back a couple centuries.
“We’ve been in the area for a while now,” quips Hickling. His family is the sixth generation to work the Allen family farm, which was built in 1871. The family connection is a definite strength when it comes to making music, he says.
“It helps to have so many different people from the same family,” Hickling says. “We’re all comfortable with each other, whether we have ideas for covers or songs we write to pull from.”
The new record features several guest players, and was about two years in the making. Some of the tracks never made it past the cutting room floor. However, it wasn’t because of quality. Hickling explains that some of the tracks were just better to save for their live show. It’s a mix of traditional standards and new songs written by the band.
Long time coming
The goal wasn’t to push out an album in one go, but rather to take their time and record great songs that are rich and full. The song Lonely and Blue is a great example of a rolling, banjo-led bluegrass standard, led by Bev’s crystal-clear vocals, building up to a great harmonized chorus with Hickling and – you guessed it – a high energy banjo solo.
Strawberry Social was recorded in a church sanctuary by Randy Rector and Alex Baerg of London’s Studio B. The setting provides a perfect acoustic atmosphere for the music itself.
The family is freshly returned from playing a bluegrass festival in Ireland, Hickling says some of the most rewarding shows are also the most intimate. The festival also represented a family reunion of sorts, as Omagh in Northern Ireland is where the Allens emigrated from in 1849.
The release show is this Friday, Sept. 14, at the Aeolian Hall. Tickets are $20 at the door. Doors open at 7 p.m.
Feature photo by Emmy-Lou McMillan.