The John Henry’s | A Rollicking Romp in the Country

cd_john-henrys.jpgI really enjoy Sabatin’s voice and admire how he can sound soothing and then immediately gritty.







The John Henry’s can’t wait to get on the road. The band is getting ready to tour in support of their sophomore album Sweet as Grain. The follow up to the band’s self-titled 2004 debut, Sweet as Grain, is a rollicking, frolicking good time filled with country licks and pure songwriting.

In 2004, after the release of the debut, the John Henry’s played live shows supporting the record and obtained a following in Ottawa, their hometown. Having topped the charts at Ottawa‘s main campus radio station (CKCU), the band received regular playing time on local radio and was invited to play Canada‘s top music festivals, including Canadian Music Week and North by North East. Known for their a lively live show, the John Henry’s have shared the stage with some of their favorites contemporaries, such as The Sadies, Cuff the Duke, The Golden Dogs and Elliot Brood.

When it came time to for album number two, the band really wanted to feel at home and have some control over the recording process. "This record was low maintenance. Our rehearsing studio was at home and we just rolled out of bed and made it happen," says lead vocalist Rey Sabatin. "Our first record was great fun, recorded in Ottawa at the Little Bullhorn studios, but this time, if felt different and easier."

Sweet as Grain is a little new for the John Henry’s. Finally comfortable with a successful lineup, Sabatin is really excited about the songwriting on this album. Although he admits to usually starting the writing process on his own, the overall sound of Sweet as Grain is credited to "four other great songwriters in the room." The others are Doug Gouthro on guitar, Darryl Quinlan on bass, Geoff Ward on drums and the multi-talented Steve Tatone.

Sweet as Grain represents a new confidence in the John Henry’s. That indelible live sound is apparent in the recording, funded by playing to their faithful fan base in Ottawa. With an energetic sound that carries over each of the 14 tracks, these songs are meant to be performed live in front of a throbbing audience.

"I am particularly proud of the first track, ‘Truth Be Told,’" says Sabatin. "I also love ‘Lost in the Canyon’; it is one of our favorite songs to perform and was one of my favorites to write and record."

And Sabatin should be proud. "Truth Be Told" is a gorgeous song full of mandolin and banjo, arguably the strongest track on the album. Beautiful both lyrically and in composition, "Truth Be Told" tells a bittersweet love story, conveying as much through the music as the lyrics: "Truth be told, I was a puppet on her strings/ Truth be said, I’d be better left for dead/ and she’d be better of without me/ The lies I’ve sold almost everyday/ in these hours we’re gonna let them slip away."

Reminiscent of alt-country gods Uncle Tupelo and Whiskey Town, the John Henry’s are getting it right. And "Lost in the Canyon" seals the deal. It is a standout track that sounds a little like Tom Petty with intense guitar and a bluesy, no-bullshit rhythm that does not quit. "Come on little darling I put the top down just for the ride/ We’ll push straight out of the city. And you can meet me on the other side/ And if we don’t make it, we can say we tried/ I’m going up to the cabin on the river/ Gotta get this lonely heart delivered."

When asked who influenced the John Henry’s widely varied sound, Sabatin pushed back. "You tell me," he said. "Obviously, we listen to a lot of old R&B, like Motown, and country music is important to us. We’re also very into the roots scene. But you tell me what you hear."

I hear everything in this record, from the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson and the Allman Brothers to Uncle Tupelo, the Jayhawks and Old 97’s. I really enjoy Sabatin’s voice and admire how he can sound soothing and then immediately gritty. The band also has a very tight sound, managing to bypass the overproduced sound of some of today’s top country artists.

Sweet as Grain is already enjoying some critical success, but the album has yet to be fully road-tested. The John Henry’s hit the road after playing in Toronto and head to U.S. cities Memphis, Nashville, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and beautiful Buffalo, N.Y. "We love playing live," Sabatin admits. "We are known for a really energetic show and are excited about heading to the States for the first time."

Don’t miss the album that the Ottawa Sun calls "[A] glorious romp through country lanes with the occasional detour into the garage." Even though you can’t pick up Sweet as Grain until March 25, you can check out the band right now at or | Raymee Holshouser

You can catch the John Henry’s at PLAYBACK:stl New Music Tuesdays at Cicero‘s Feb. 26 at 9 p.m. with Ten High, Fuller and Aaron Mitchum. Tickets are $5 ($8 if you are under 21) and doors open at 8:30 p.m.

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