Cranbrook's Ethan Askey, one of Canada's top Blues harmonica players, has released his debut solo album. (photo ethanaskey.com)

From Bear Country to the Heart of the Blues

Cranbrook’s Ethan Askey, one of Canada’s top Blues harmonica players, releases debut solo album

One of Canada’s top Blues harmonica players, after decades of standing just at the edge of the spotlight, has stepped into a brighter Blues light with the release of his debut solo album.

Ethan “Shorty” Askey, a son and serial resident of Cranbrook, B.C., currently lives and performs mostly in Calgary, plying his musical trade with bands like Mojo, Jimmy and the Sleepers, Dave McCann and the Firehearts, et al. He presents “Walk When You Wanna Run,” for your listening and grooving pleasure.

“Walk When You Wanna Run” is Blues for the 21st Century, modern explorations of the music, and it features some of Canada’s most decorated musicians on the record’s 10 tracks. It has been getting steady radio play on CBC, CKUA and globally, and has been climbing the charts since its March 20 release. To date it has reached #4 in the Top 50 Canada Albums and #22 in Contemporary Blues Albums worldwide on the Roots Music Report charts, and #20 on the Alt. Country Specialty charts.

“You can call the album a modern Blues album, for sure, but it strays into a diversity of genres — Psychedelic, Roots, Rocks, Latin — there’s even a Funk instrumental,” Askey said in an interview with the Townsman.

From the crisp opening rock guitar riff and harmonica line that kicks off “Stoners” (an ironic tribute to “Can-ganj-ada’s” greenest resource and its most dedicated users), “Walk When You Wanna Run” presents a diversity of music. The hard-driving “Swing Like That” and “One Foot In The Grave,” are followed by by the cool, soul music groove of “Flowdown,” with guest vocals from Yolanda Sargeant. There’s the Funk of “Exuberance,” and Tom Waits even makes an appearance, with an interpretation of “Til The Money Runs Out,” the record’s only non-original.

The album is an eclectic compilation with a modern Blues approach, but in which you can still hear the ancestry of Junior Wells or Little Walter — the Southside Chicago Sound, as Askey testifies in his baritone voice, punctuating with virtuoso harp lines, and backed by a diverse collection of musicians at the top of their powers.

Speaking of Junior Wells: The title song is a true story out of whence comes bona fide Blues mythology: Askey walking through Junior Wells’ Southside Chicago neighbourhood to deliver a fish to the legendary Bluesman — running a dangerous gauntlet (or in this case, making sure you keep to a nice easy walk when your instincts tell you to break into a run). “From Bear Country to the Heart of the Blues.”

(ethanaskey.com)

Askey is an award-winning harmonica player who has performed literally from coast to coast to coast in Canada, and also has played in Chicago and Memphis clubs. The pandemic actually gave him a chance to slow down, look inward — “to lay low and reflect, and put some finishing touches on some songs in progress and write a few more.”

“I’ve had a bunch of songs knocking around for a long time, and I’d never really taken the time to write songs,” he said. “I was busy being a sideman in other projects, and quite happy at the edge of the spotlight.”

Last year, in the third wave of the pandemic, Askey began thinking about virtual production, involving the assembly of an album from musicians playing remotely in different studios. In April 2021 he reached out to his acquaintance Steve Marriner — a Juno Award winning songwriter and multi-instrumentalist with MonkeyJunk and Colin James Band — to start with an EP of just 4 songs with Marriner as producer. Working from Ganaraska Recording Co. just outside of Toronto, Marriner brought on board to the project Jimmy Bowskill, guitarist with The Sheepdogs and Blue Rodeo and other studio musicians to build out the songs with Askey on vocals and harmonica working from a Calgary studio.

“It was a quick process,” Askey said. “But [Marriner] was able to bring the songs to life exactly as I heard them in my head, exactly as I wanted them produced. And on that basis, I said, ‘Okay, we’re going full album.’”

“Over a period of eight or nine months we made this album, from several different studios across the country. It started virtual, and ended up being a face-to-face collaboration.”

In an album where each song is powered by a unique backstory, there is one with a personal, Cranbrook connection.

Ethan’s father, Alan Askey, who founded the Associates Clinic in Cranbrook, was, his son says, a very clinical, analytical kind of guy, but also a great lover of music. He played the saxophone, had a great album collection, and was a fan of his son’s music.

Alan passed away last year, at the age of 93, but left behind the workings of a song. In 2018, as the federal government was getting set to legalize cannabis, Ethan asked his Dad what he thought of that.

“He said ‘I think it’s good that it’s going to be legalized, but at the end of the day, Stoners will still be stoned.’ It’s my Dad’s way of saying nothing will change.”

Askey asked him to write some more lyrics, which he did — three verses which were incorporated in the “Stoners,” the lead track on the album. Ethan wrote a chorus, tweaked some of the lyrics, “and it’s probably may favourite song on the album.

“My Dad, in a long, illustrious career of all sorts of things — bush jobs, medical jobs, and whatnot — his last job, if you will, was as a songwriter.”

Ethan Askey’s debut album, “Walk When You Wanna Run,” can be found streaming everywhere and is available for purchase through his website: ethanaskey.com Stay tuned for details of his live concert appearance in Cranbrook this summer.

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