From the free-spirited country rock of the Eagles to the blended vocal bliss of so many trail blazing bands like Poco, Pure Prairie League, Alabama and America… you can instantly tell if an act has history by giving their harmonies a good listen. Those soaring, heart-yanking harmonies are like musical tree rings, revealing the stories shared by those layered voices raised in jubilant major chords or plaintive minor-key intervals. You know when a group’s got it, that elusive chemistry that only comes from years of bickering, bonding and really understanding each other, when their harmonies ring out clear as bells; in Canadian country trio Doc Walker’s case, their fantastic harmony-laced new album Beautiful Life leaves no doubt – these boys have it and then some.
Today, Doc Walker may be on their way to becoming one of the hottest country acts in North America, but the core guitar-playing threesome of Chris Thorsteinson, Dave Wasyliw and Murray Pulver have known each other since they were just scrappy kids fooling around with guitars in small-town Manitoba. Schooled by the best axeman in town – guitar virtuoso Pulver, who’s three years older than his band mates – Thorsteinson and Wasyliw first started making music together at the ripe old age of 14. From the sounds of it, their atrociously-named group Freedom made the fellas the rock gods of ninth grade – feathered 80s hair and all.
“It was one of those bands where you had a band name and a band jacket long before you had a song,” Thorsteinson laughs. “I remember the drummer writing FREEDOM on the back of his jean jacket in pen during our boring grade nine math class.”
They stumbled upon the name Doc Walker by accident, when Thorsteinson’s good buddy and sometimes roadie Jason Walker forgot to bring the sniffly lead singer’s cold medication to a gig. “I was like, ‘Nice going, Doc Walker,’ explains Thorsteinson. “Freedom was such a bad name that I decided to change it – right after the drummer made his jacket. He was so mad that he kicked me out of the band! You know how most lead singers figure they’ll never get fired? It happened to me at age 14, so I’ve been on my best behavior ever since.” (For the record, Wasyliw seems to remember Thorsteinson’s ejection having something to do with the fact that the singer “couldn’t stop kissing the drummer’s girlfriend.”)
Luckily, Thorsteinson wasn’t deterred. He kept playing music, recruiting Wasyliw to help him perform country tunes and covers at Manitoba socials and local campground shows. Originally paralyzed by stage fright, Wasyliw claims his fears vanished after Thorsteinson’s mom dressed him up in a vest and a pair of cowboy boots. “I was probably even wearing a stupid Garth Brooks t-shirt or something,” he recalls. “But I remember feeling like it was Halloween. I had a big grin on my face.”
They called up Pulver, their technically gifted pal who’d studied music in college (he originally wanted to be a pro soccer player, a tall order in Canada), to fill in on guitars; first on their albums, and then onstage. Pulver’s dazzling guitar lines fleshed out tunes on 2001’s Curve, 2003’s All Aboard and 2006’s self-titled disc. By the time they got to Beautiful Life, Pulver had been a de facto member of the band for some 4 years and is now certainly an official one. “I think we needed to hire him cuz he played stuff that was super-hard,” Wasyliw jokes. “I bet he did it on purpose.”
To achieve these results, Doc Walker took a new approach to recording Beautiful Life. Instead of wearing themselves out through an exhausting process of over thinking, extensive rewrites and excessive tracks (they wrote close to 120 songs for their last album, over a two-and-a-half year period), the trio trekked down to Nashville for a condensed, fruitful three-week session. It was an intense time for all of them – Pulver uprooted his family and searched for a new home in Nashville; Thorsteinson was struggling with brutal personal loss. They set up camp on a ranch they dubbed the “song farm” and teamed up with producer Justin Niebank, a country music ace best known for his work on Vince Gill’s recent Grammy-winning These Days album).
Uplifting lead single and title track “Beautiful Life” was the first song all three band mates wrote together. “It was one of the first times Murray, Chris and I sat down and things really started clicking,” Wasyliw recalls. “I came up with some chords, then Murray started spewing out lyrics, and the other two of us immediately came up with lyrics. I remember we called our wives and girlfriends back home in Manitoba. They were all together having what they call a ‘spaghetti pot social’ – they basically fill big pasta pots with hot water and soak their feet – and they put us on speaker phone so we could play it for them. They were blown away. After ‘Beautiful Life,’ we had the confidence and were inspired to keep rolling, but we had a lot to live up to after writing that song.”
They delivered. From the plaintive narrative ballad “Echo Road” to the pedal steel-enhanced “One Last Sundown,” a beautifully bittersweet look back at first love at the country fair, from the delectably dirty swamp blues on their cover of the Genesis track “That’s All” to the elegiac Hammond organ that sweeps through album-closing lullaby “Stay Brave,” the members of Doc Walker have outdone themselves. In a singles-driven world, these three lads have created an album in its most classic sense, a collection of songs with a solid throughline reminiscent of legendary releases by the Eagles and Bob Seger, a flashback to a different time. Buoyed by harmonies and heart, Beautiful Life is one of those records you’ll want to listen to while driving with the top down on a late summer night.