Blue Cactus
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Blue Cactus

Chapel Hill, NC | Established. Jan 01, 2016

Chapel Hill, NC
Established on Jan, 2016
Band Country Americana

Calendar

This band hasn't logged any future gigs

May
17
Blue Cactus @ High Point Area Arts Council

High Point, North Carolina, United States

High Point, North Carolina, United States

Apr
21
Blue Cactus @ Hardywood Park Craft Brewery

Richmond, Virginia, United States

Richmond, Virginia, United States

Mar
30
Blue Cactus @ WDVX Blue Plate Special

Knoxville, Tennessee, United States

Knoxville, Tennessee, United States

Music

Press


"Top 10 Things to Do This Week"

“Everybody loves Blue Cactus. Nobody doesn’t love them. And that’s because this hipster country outfit from Chapel Hill makes so-called Americana so-called country that doesn’t sound like every other “alt-country” act that’s come in the wake of Uncle Tupelo. Blue Cactus plucks from the best ’50s honky-tonk to the best ’60s countrypolitan to the best ’70s Gram Parsons teardrop, but doesn’t copy any of that stuff…” - Creative Loafing


"Blue Cactus is Helping Keep Classic Country Alive"

In their recent self-titled debut album, the duo Steph Stewart and Mario Arnez conjures the classic country sounds of Patsy Cline and Hank Williams. Stewart grew up listening to country icons with her grandfather and has always been fascinated with the songwriting style of country music. With the help of Arnez, the duo infuses wit and personal storytelling into its music - WUNC- 91.5 FM


"Steph Stewart on Blue Cactus, the Two Souths, and Raleigh’s Musician Activists"

“Together they conjure a sound that will take you back to the best duets from Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons .. the twangy, deep vocals of Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, and the true grit of Willie Nelson or Johnny Cash… For those of us clinging to the past of country music but desperately looking to the future, Blue Cactus gives us hope to fight another day.” - Unsweetened


"Record Review: Blue Cactus Mends Prickly Heartache With Country Crooning"

Blue Cactus's tagline, "one prick, and you're stuck," feels like cheesy country kitsch. But it's fitting for the duo, whose new-meets-old country blend will beckon the listener back again. Steph Stewart and Mario Arnez, operating as Blue Cactus, fully embody the love and heartbreak of honky-tonk without completely abandoning their Americana roots on their debut.

Blue Cactus is filled with sweeping ballads that depict the trials and tribulations of relationships, infusing classic country with an acutely personal sensibility and modern instrumentation. The album stems from the winding down of two significant relationships—the duo's previous string-band endeavor, Steph Stewart and the Boyfriends, and Stewart's marriage—and the beginning of another (Stewart and Arnez are also partners).

The album begins with a few upbeat ditties before shifting to longer, softer ballads. Delicate drums, electric guitar, fiddle, and more layer upon one another throughout, and each track seamlessly flows into the next. "So Right (You Got Left)" becomes an easy sing-along as Stewart's sweet Southern accent bounces alongside easygoing instrumentation.

Even through a set of speakers, Stewart and Arnez's dynamic chemistry is delightfully apparent. They trade off the responsibility of lead vocals and harmonizing, their voices weaving together with the ease of natural conversation from track to track. But tucked between the discourse, two instrumental tracks shift the scene from last call at a country bar to the subsequent loneliness of a distant, empty home—literally or figuratively.

Elsewhere, that emptiness becomes increasingly palpable. "You put all our pictures in the closet/All my clothes in a suitcase by the door," Stewart croons on "Forever (Never Happened For Me)" over a weepy guitar, and "Not Alone ('Til You Come Home)" hits even harder. Stewart's strong voice and her striking lyrics cut deep, while delicate instrumentation and Arnez's haunting harmonizing only add to the song's intense emotional pull.

At its root, Blue Cactus speaks to a sense of collective heartache, but one that isn't permanent. On the album's closing track, Stewart sings, "Cause the present that's happened/Just became the past." Blue Cactus sings of a brokenness that also inspires, in songs that imagine the bright days that lie ahead. - Indy Week


"Blue Cactus Entice Our Ears with Self-Titled LP, Out Today"

I usually imagine Country and Americana music artists going to some huge well and drawing out albums contrasting the same things: beer and babes. But then I am blessed with both the honor and pleasure of listening to the latest record from Blue Cactus which changes everything I thought I knew. Hitting the ground with their album debut, Blue Cactus, they make a bold and strong impression right from the start.

Drawing attention with their latest video and single for “I Never Knew Heartache (Then I Knew You),” front-woman Steph Stewart's voice aches with a broken heart. As the vocals gorgeously drift throughout the piece, she is accompanied by her partner in crime, Mario Arnez.

On the release, we hear many different sides of the group, which highlights their music-driven emotions. Pieces such as “So Right (You Got left),” is more than just a clever play on words; the music is bluesy, and Stewart’s voice accommodates the honky-tonk song with a slightly aggressive “twang like,” tone. The song is a little less traditional but that’s what makes it work. There’s a nice break down which allows a great opportunity to strut her vocal prowess, which is a solid performance piece.

“Not Alone (Until You Come Home)” is an absolute stand out on the record. This track stood out immediately as one of my favorites, as the narration is told by more than just words. The lead is passionate, the instrumentation is pure and concise it’s a ballad coupled with a more modern country tone. The harmony on the track is beautiful as the duo complement one another in such a distinct way you can’t help but fall in love with the heartache. This amazing duo have yet to disappoint, and we don’t expect them to. - Paste


"Blue Cactus Take Center Stage with Debut LP"

There’s a subtle but beautiful elegance in the music of Blue Cactus, which sometimes takes their authentic tunes to unexpected places while remaining firmly in the wheelhouse of their chosen genre. Today the duo releases their highly-anticipated debut, Blue Cactus, and the timing is just right.


The first single, “I Never Knew Heartache (Then I Knew You),” is a touching song in which Blue Cactus guides the listener on an emotional rollercoaster of loving and losing. The lyrics coupled with vocalist Steph Stewart’s convincing tone paint a picture of pain and heartache. The instrumentation is classic country; there’s a beautiful sforzando guitar strum throughout the song that really tugs at the heart strings (pun intended). A quiet piano accompanies a relaxed drum cadence, while accent instruments dance softly in the background creating a melancholy sound of beauty.


“From The Bottle To The Floor,” allows musician Nick Vandenberg the opportunity to take the lead, and he doesn’t disappoint. His voice is smooth and consistent as he proves he has great range. His tessitura is perfect and he encompasses each note with tremendous emotion. With the help of vocalist Chessa Rich and Blue Cactus bandmate Mario Arnez joining him for harmonies, the piece is perfection.


Just like the other tracks I had the pleasure of experiencing, once again the group does not disappoint in the instrumentation department. The guitars are blended perfectly with the sentimental piano, a strong drum cadence, and the background vocals which harmonize effortlessly.


Jumping over to “Forever (Never Happened For Me)” we experience a smorgasbord of sound. It’s a little bluesy, a little country, and a lot of passion. Steph’s voice is beautifully modulated, her tone passionately controlled, and the pitch is perfect. The song itself is tells a story, draws a line, and has that certain “twang,” you can feel deep down in the soles of your feet. The track is narrated so well vocally it draws the listener into a bevy of emotion. A part of you will get angry, a part of you weepy, but you will enjoy the beautiful riffs, vocals, and strums presented on this track and the record as a whole.


If you’ve ever wondered about the beauty of where Country and Americana music is going, look no further, Blue Cactus, is painting beautiful pictures of limitless possibility. - No Depression


"With Blue Cactus, Steph Stewart and Mario Arnez Embrace the Gaudy Trappings and Heavyweight Emotion of Classic Country Music"

How the West Was Worn sits among the books on the coffee table of Steph Stewart's small, mid-century Chapel Hill apartment. The place has aged to a state of well-worn comfort, and Stewart's additions, such as the vintage guitars that hang on one wall, add to its character.

Inside the book, the relationship of age to glitz is inverted. How the West Was Worn demonstrates how western wear has gone from practical and hand-hewn trail garb to the flashy cowboy chic of the Nudie suits popularized by country singer Porter Wagoner. If they had their way, Stewart and her partner, Mario Arnez, would own half the outfits in this book.

"There's not enough money on Earth, I think," Arnez laments.

With their duo, Blue Cactus, Arnez and Stewart have found a place of comfort in the pomp and fashion of mid-century country music. The band name derives from an unlikely colored saguaro on one of Arnez's western shirts, and the duo's blissful embracing Nashville kitsch has become a hallmark.

"It's so aware of its flamboyancy, and it just doesn't have a problem with that," Stewart says.

Previously, Arnez and Stewart were half of Steph Stewart and the Boyfriends. After releasing its second LP, 2015's Nobody's Darlin, the string band began to wind down, yet the two continued writing songs together. Stewart's marriage deteriorated and she moved out on her own. She and Arnez are now more than just songwriting partners, and they'll release their debut as Blue Cactus Saturday night in Carrboro.

After two string-band records with the Boyfriends, the switch to classic country and exploration of new sonic frontiers felt natural. Arnez and Stewart have became a nimble creative unit, adept at exploring heartbreak and hope with time-tested honky-tonk humor.

"With this record, there was no preconception necessarily or limitation we felt we had to deal with," Arnez says. "We didn't have to put a ceiling on any of these arrangements."

He and Stewart love acoustic music, but as they moved past the string-band format they realized Blue Cactus could sound like anything: there could be electric instruments, such as Arnez's electric guitar intro on "Opening," which briefly invokes Neil Young's Dead Man soundtrack; there could be protracted sprawls, such as the orchestrated, seven-minute "Years Are the Minutes" which closes the record. Stately horn sections, as on "Pearl," and Opry-esque choral backing, as on "I Never Knew Heartache (Then I Knew You)," also had a place.

Arnez and Stewart remain good friends with the other two members of the Boyfriends, both of whom contributed to the record. Omar Ruiz-Lopez played violin, while Nick Vandenberg coproduced, played a half-dozen instruments, and wrote the down-and-out barroom ballad "From the Bottle to the Floor." Stewart makes certain to point out that her former band isn't necessarily finished, even if it isn't gigging or recording.

"That might happen again," she says. "Nick moved to Boston recently and that was part of the reason we started to create a new project."

The sessions for Blue Cactus, recorded in Vandenberg's Chapel Hill house before he moved, were organic and personal. Mandolin Orange fiddler Emily Frantz, who lives down the street, would just walk over to make her contributions. The players packed into a 12-by-12-foot bedroom that had been converted to a sound room. It was the heart of summer, and the air conditioner was turned off to aid the vocalists. That bothered Stewart less than one might expect.

"I think it's nice to have a little bit of discomfort," she says.

Considering the heavy emotion in these songs, it made sense to record them live so the music could ebb and flow naturally. And Stewart knows that country music purveyors translating physical pain into powerful music amount to a historical precedent.

"With Patsy Cline, she had just broken her ribs, which is forcing her to kind of be present," Stewart says, referring to the storied recording session where Cline sang Willie Nelson's "Crazy" with fractured bones. "She's feeling literally every painful thing she sings."

For Stewart, the pain is just as real. "My marriage fell apart in the past two years," she says. "I don't think I could write anything else."

For all that upheaval, Stewart says her songwriting dynamic with Arnez hasn't changed, now that they're a couple. They've tried new approaches—writing songs title-first, say, which led to cuts like "So Right (You Got Left)"—but the way these two talk about songwriting has remained consistent. In a 2015 interview ahead of the second Boyfriends release, they were reading books by songwriting coaches and trying to start a meet-up group for songwriters. Two years later, they're still reading songwriting books, and their sights are set on a few retreats this summer, where they'll hone their craft and get started on the second batch of Blue Cactus tunes. If these cuts are anything like the ones they've just completed, they'll be lonesome and sad overall, a little hopeful, and laced with silly wordplay and gallows humor. Even in the toughest times, Stewart points out, it's important to remember how to laugh somehow. Spangled garb certainly helps.

"It's like moths to the flame, I guess," Arnez says. "It's just so bright and beautiful." - Indy Week


"INTERVIEW: BLUE CACTUS"

“The older folks have a nostalgia for what we’re doing, it’s familiar to them. The younger people will tell us they don’t like country, but they really like our music,” laughs Steph Stewart, who, along with Mario Arnez, comprise matching Western gear-wearing classic country duo Blue Cactus. Stewart, who credits her grandfather for influencing her love of the genre, grew up idolizing country queens like Patsy Cline. She put those musical leanings to work in her previous band, acoustic Americana string band Steph Stewart & The Boyfriends, where she met Arnez.

“Mario and I started playing music together about four years ago, in our former band. The other members in the group had gotten busy with other things; Mario and I were consistently available, so we started playing duo shows, and realized it was easier to coordinate,” she recalls. “A series of fortunate circumstances led us to form Blue Cactus.”

The duo calls Chapel Hill home, a small North Carolina town with a rich and burgeoning music scene. “We’ve talked off and on about relocating, but we love our community,” explains Stewart. “We have access to everything here—great recording studios and engineers, other artists for collaboration, so much support. There are amazing venues that have been here for a really long time that care about our community and making music available. You can walk down the street here and pass by five venues, and for a small town like Chapel Hill, that’s a lot.” “There’s always an opportunity to be seen and heard here, and I feel like in another community, that might be a struggle,” adds Arnez. “We’re fortunate that there are great venues around here that we have the chance to get into.”

Blue Cactus will release their self-titled debut on February 24th; from gritty honky-tonk to heart-breaking balladry, the band’s album encompasses everything that made country music matter. The pair recorded the album in a little bedroom studio, in the midst of a hot North Carolina summer. “It was so hot, and we had to turn the air-conditioning off to record because it was so loud. We became a lot closer after that experience for sure,” she says with a laugh. Stewart revealed that the band is already working on another album, has a tour on the horizon to spread their classic country love, and looks forward to scouting out new Western wear treasures. “We do have a lot of fun with our stage attire, Western fashion is a big part of our influence and sound as well. If you’re going to do it, you might as well embrace all of it,” she laughs. “We’re a little different.” - Mother Church Pew


"Featured Song and Video: BLUE CACTUS – “I Never Knew Heartache (Then I Knew You)”"

I’m not a big fan of what is generally referred to as ‘Bro-Country’, however I am quite partial to classic old-school country music of the 50s and 60s. I’m talking about Patsy Cline, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Marty Robbins, all of whom could do no wrong. They wrote and sang songs about life and love that tore at your heartstrings, and their music strongly influenced a multitude of artists in other genres, including folk, rock, rockabilly, R&B, soul and the blues. I fondly remember a fantastic album my parents owned by the legendary Ray Charles called Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, which was a huge hit in 1962, but I digress… Thankfully, there are still artists around today who make country music that stays true to the classic form. The duo who call themselves Blue Cactus are such artists. Hailing from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Blue Cactus are singer/songwriters Steph Stewart and Mario Arnez.
The pair played music together for three years as the Americana string band Steph Stewart & the Boyfriends, releasing two pretty decent albums, Over the World Below in 2013, and Nobody’s Darlin’ in 2015. They’ve now recorded their first full-length album as Blue Cactus, which is set to drop in late February. In advance of the album, they’ve released a lovely single “I Never Knew Heartache (Then I Knew You)” along with a compelling video.

The song is about a woman whose man is being unfaithful, causing her heartache. With sorrow in her voice, Steph croons “Heartbreak will find you, wrap his arms round your waist. Hold you tight through the night, in his lonely embrace.” Musically, the song features many signature elements of a classic Country song – a pretty slide guitar riff, gentle piano keys, acoustic guitar, sweet violin and light percussion, all played at a languid pace. The lovely but rather mournful chorus adds to the overall sad vibe of the song.

The interesting video, produced by Roxanne Turpen, juxtaposes footage of the couple performing the song (in which Steph wears a short white-blonde wig) with other scenes of them acting out the story told by the song lyrics. Steph sings directly into the camera while her man spends time with another woman, unaware of her presence. Happier times are recalled in other scenes of them sharing tender moments together. - Eclectic Music Lover


Discography

Still working on that hot first release.

Photos

Bio

BLUE CACTUS makes country music for people who think they don't like country music and people who love what country music used to be. Based out of Chapel Hill, NC, Blue Cactus is led by Steph Stewart and Mario Arnez who create songs that range from gritty honky-tonk to heartbreaking balladry.

Coming off the release of their self-titled debut album, Blue Cactus has given life to the future of "modern classic country" and received praise from music critics across the nation. Inspired by the iconic vocal harmonies of the Everly Brothers and dynamic twang of great singers like Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline, Stewart and Arnez conjure a sound that will take you on a familiar journey into uncharted country, expanding tropes and breathing hope into the genre's limitless possibilities.

They are currently booking both duo and full band tours for 2018.

Band Members