The Shiftless Rounders
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The Shiftless Rounders

Band Folk Acoustic


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"Placeless and timeless"

If you want insight into what a Shiftless Rounders show is like, last year’s live release, (places), delivers a sepia-toned snapshot of the duo’s hillbilly homage sound.

Frantic backporch banjo picking and thumping acoustic guitar rollicks give way to restrained, mournful dobro slides and moonshine-tinged melodies and harmonies. Re-shaped authentic oldies shine alongside vintage-feeling originals, indistinguishable from one another unless you have an anthropological familiarity with the material of the era.

The obsessions of both the traditional tunes and songwriter Phill Saylor Wisor tend to be similar–a near-equal split of preoccupation between salvation (Jesus; love) and damnation (liquor; shame)–with the final track, from which the album title is drawn, is a place-by-place accounting of particular, hard-won wisdom earned from each of a staggering array of locales around North America and Europe.

The Rounders are no strangers to itinerancy. Wisor himself has a wanderlust that would border on mania if it weren’t structured around a musical odyssey that makes Alan Lomax’s documentary questing look narrow and slackerly. Leaving home in his mid-teens, the eastern U.S. native threw himself to the winds to find weird pockets of Americana.

"I got into folk songs, protest music, old time music..." Wisor recollects. "I would find random circumstances, festivals, workshops, and learn from people. Later, I did a couple years in college, started to get into early American hymn singing, shape-note singing, four-part a capella. It was popular music in New England in the early 1800s. Then I migrated Deep South, and I’d go to church every night and would soak in this old religious philosophy and old songs with these old people. I looked at structure, harmony building, singing, and I transferred it to my songwriting. I got into clawhammer style for the banjo, this archaic style of music that had so much in common with punk rock guitar and slam dancing."

The project has roots in Eli Kaplan’s 2001 stage production Black Eye, where Wisor and guitar-slinging cohort Ben Sidelinger played traveling musicians stuck in a diner during a blizzard. The roles were meant to add musical colour, but Sidelinger and Wisor found they got on well as performers and as pals, and their sonic affinities synched. The restless Sayor reconnected with his friend months later, when transportation gremlins delayed him in Sidelinger’s Massachusetts town.

"Ben was out to my show when I broke down there, and in a very short time we were doing this music together," Wisor relates. "Ben built himself a dobro and we were off." (Sidelinger builds specialty guitars out of a workshop in Washington and Wisor apprenticed with an instrument-maker in England).

As to where the Rounders "officially" house themselves these days (Wisor recently married an Edmontonian, also a band mate in the awesome outfit The Digs), he claims the band’s allegiance rests in their suitcases.

"Wherever we happen to be, that’s where we’re based," he laughs. "At this point Benny and I have these workable circuits–we meet up, work, play music, and hit the road and have fun."

The arrangement doesn’t seem to negatively impact the songwriting. "The more instrumental, banjo/dobro co-writes come through osmosis in a way," Wisor contends. "Ben has some old time tune in his head, I’ve got a different old time tune in my head, and we blend it, spook it out and do the scary harmonies. For the more lyrical, songwritery stuff, I give them to Ben. He has specific ideas about what to highlight. Mood, ambiance, breaks... he’s fantastic. I feel lucky to have him. When we first started playing this music together, we had to search for the dynamic interplay just two people can have. It’s surprising how much space two instruments and two voices can fill." - -Christa O’Keefe See Magazine; Edmonton, AB

"Energetically Old-Timey"

In his recent autobiography "Chronicles," Bob Dylan writes, "Folk music was a reality of a more brilliant dimension . . . and if it called out to you, you could disappear and be sucked into it." Watching The Shiftless Rounders at Jammin' Java on Wednesday night, it became obvious that the duo was probably going through something similar with old-time and mountain music.

The main Rounders approach featured Ben Sidelinger playing slide guitar and Phill Saylor Wisor on banjo, though the latter occasionally switched to acoustic guitar. The two instruments gave the pair's versions of traditional numbers such as "Mole in the Ground," "The House Carpenter" and "Coo Coo Bird" plenty of depth, but it was their mountain harmony singing that provided the real drive.

Saylor Wisor and Sidelinger, who return to Maine when their ramblin' shoes need a rest, were best on the traditional stuff. When they turned to original songs such as "Big Round Moon" and "Junction City," they sounded inspired more by Bob Weir than the Carter Family. Still, the way they nailed their harmonies to resonator guitar and claw-hammer banjo on "Ida Red" would have raised the eyebrows of even the snootiest old-time-music purists. - -Patrick Foster Washington Post Friday, January 14, 2005


2004: "Ghost in the Radio" released on Growlin&Grumblin Records. Phill's "Pirate FM Stations" and Townes Van Zandt's "Dollar Bill Blues" are radio and crowd favorites.

2006: "(places)" released on Growlin&Grumblin Records. The Ben/Phill cowrite "Jackboy" and the traditional "House Carpenter" are popular among independant radio DJs nationwide and online.


Feeling a bit camera shy


The Shiftless Rounders' Story:
Originally, The Shiftless Rounders were characters in Eli Kaplan's 2001 play, 'Black Eye'. The two wayward musicians find themselves in a Midwest greasy spoon, trapped in a blizzard. Strangers among the locals, all of whom suffer from restlessness and heartache, The Shiftless Rounders quickly identify with their serendipitous company. The play enjoyed a successful run in Western Massachusetts.

Years after the run, Phill met again with Ben in and the two young men decided to take the spirit of the characters off the page and into the wilds of the real world. The Shiftless Rounders began touring in late 2003.

Phill Saylor Wisor:
Before becoming a shiftless rounder you could find Phill around East Tennessee restringing banjos and later in Northern Vermont - stilt-walking by day and recording ballads above the garage by night, haunting local church basements in-between. His jumbo guitar is of his own making (a skill he picked up over in England) but his banjo's eighty-one years old.

Ben Sidelinger:
Ben became a shiftless rounder after developing a reputation for two things - driving the most bad-ass Zephyr to ever emerge from backwoods Maine and building top-of the-line guitars in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts(a skill he picked up down in Buenos Aires). His resophonic slide guitar is of his own making.