|Dirt Road Opera members includes, from left, Barry Mathers, Jay Swetlishoff, Gary Smyth and Rachel Matkin â€” a new roots band that performs both covers and original music. Missing from the photo is Chris Stanford, who just happened to take the picture.|
After all, they've played together in one form or another, either as members of the same group, or sitting in on each other's recording sessions and live performances.
Dirt Road Opera is more than an appropriate name for the roots band, considering all four can sing, blending vocals to produce incredible harmonies.
"Rachel is one of my favourite singers in the world," said Mathers. "I first heard her many years ago when I did sound for the Matkin Family Band in Winfield and I was amazed at her talent.
"She has sung most of the harmonies on the Cruzeros albums."
Matkin recalls the first time she sang with Mathers.
"Right away, it was apparent our voices meshed beautifully," she said.
"I don't know that I ever thought that we would end up in a band together, but I always hoped we would," Matkin added. "It's cool to be in a band with someone who's musical talent I've grown up admiring."
Although Mathers and Matkin are the main singers, Smyth and Swetlishoff join in to round out the kick-ass harmonies.
Mathers already knew Smyth could provide harmony when Dirt Road Opera first began rehearsing - both were members of the Cruzeros - but he didn't know Swetlishoff could sing.
"I would say the vocals are the highlight of the group and it's quite rewarding when we get it all figured out," he said.
Swetlishoff said when he was a drummer for Steelwater, a country band Matkin fronted, when he first expressed his interest in singing.
"Both Rach and Barry gave me their support and helped to get me in the singing circle," said Swetlishoff . "This was a huge deal for me, and to have two of my favourite singers there beside me, what more could a drummer ask for?"
Anyone wanting to hear those harmonies can catch Dirt Road Opera at Rocky J's Beach Hut in Peachland on Aug. 31, where they play from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The band does covers of songs by artists such as Lucinda Williams, John Prine, Gillian Welch, Buddy and Julie Miller,Â and Fred Eaglesmith.
Of course, there will be plenty of of originals as well, considering Mathers' songwriting skills. The Cruzeros had many hits and won numerous awards for songs he wrote over their 26-year history.
He has written songs for Canadian country star Julian Austin, had many of his compositions recorded by artists in Europe, and had three songs featured in the movie, The Barber, starring Malcom McDowell. His tribute song, November 11th, dedicated to the soldiers of the Second World War, is played on many Canadian radio stations directly after the moment of silence on Remembrance Day.
So what finally brought the four musicians together?
"Rachel and Jay had been playing
together with another group which split up, and Jay suggested I join them," said Mathers. "They have both been involved with the Cruzeros in the past, recording on our
albums as well as performing live, and we all have the same musical interests and been friends for a long time.
"It was a great idea," he added. "We needed a guitar player, so we called up Gary Smyth, also a Cruzero, and he was into it."
But the sound was not yet complete. The four versatile musicians could already provide guitars, drums, mandolin and harmonica, but a bass player was needed.
"We found Chris Stanford, who plays electric and stand up bass," said Mathers.
Stanford, who has played bass for many years, is also a photographer whose photos often appear in The Daily Courier and eVent. He also writes for the publications.
"It's very special to have a group that is so tight-knit right from the get-go," said Matkin. "And completely on the same page musically.
"I think that's hard to find, so when it happens it.s pretty exciting."
As with Mathers, Matkin also boasts a strong musical history, first performing in front of audiences at the age of 13, singing lead vocals for the Matkin Family Band. The group also consisted of father, Dave, and brothers, Seth and Judd.
At age 14, she won a British Columbia Country Music Association (BCCMA) junior vocalist contest.
She recorded an album for Cross Road Records in 1995, Living Beyond Our Dreams, which produced five chart singles. At the 1996 BCCMA Awards, Living Beyond Our Dreams was named Album of the Year and in 1997 she was nominated for Best Country Female Vocalist at the Juno Awards.
This caught the attention of MCA Records and they signed her to a distribution deal. However, although Matkin was on the verge of stardom, she quickly soured of the business side of music. She quit singing for nine years, before joining Steelwater, a new road that eventually led to Dirt Road Opera.
Smyth, meanwhile, not only plays with Mathers, but another former Cruzero as well. He plays acoustic guitar with Cowboy Bob, fronted by Curtis Tulman.
So will the Cruzeros ever reunite?
"Curtis and I formed the Cruzeros in 1983 and devoted our lives to the band for 26 years," said Mathers. "We mutually agreed it was time for a break and now get together occasionally when we're asked to do a benefit.
"We never did officially call it quits, though, so you never know - we both love playing music and have gone in slightly different directions, hence the new bands."