Country strong

CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER | Updated 9/27/2012

Honky-tonkin' throwbacks the Cactus Blossoms keep it old school.

The Cactus Blossoms are brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey.
Photo by Jeff Wheeler

A year after the fact, Page Burkum can't believe his old-school country band the Cactus Blossoms ever performed without a pedal-steel guitar player.

"It was sort of like a metal band playing without a drummer," Burkum cracked Monday night as his group set up for its weekly gig at the Turf Club in St. Paul.

Many things seemed to perfectly fall into place a year ago for Burkum and his harmony-swapping real-life brother, Jack Torrey. That's when the siblings recruited the best musicians they could find to help record their debut album, not imagining those same players would agree to become full-time members of their band.

Since then, the Cactus Blossoms have quickly turned into the Twin Cities' most beloved new traditional-country act (there's nothing "alt" about them). After a summer of outdoor gigs -- including the State Fair -- they are settling back into bars, including a show Saturday at Merlins Rest Pub in the popular Schlitz Kickin' Country series.

Some of the Blossoms' success can be attributed to the seasoned players in the band. Their overdue pedal-steel man, Randy Broughten, is a Trailer Trash vet who also plays in the Gear Daddies. Fiddler Mark "Razz" Russell has played with Joe Henry and Mark Olson of the Jayhawks, while bassist Liz Draper's résumé includes Black Blondie and currently Lucy Michelle's Velvet Lapelles.

However, the fact that these ace musicians of two different generations committed to playing with a little-known country band is also a tribute to the two guys at the helm.

"When I heard the songs they wanted us to play on, that was more than enough for me," said Broughten, whose dedication is no small feat. He commutes from Northfield for the gigs and rises early to teach phy-ed at Rosemount High School.

The songs he referred to are the eight originals on the Cactus Blossoms' 10-tune debut record. They range from the tear- and beer-soaked, Hank Williams-copping opener "A Sad Day to Be You" to the poppier, Everly Brothers-styled "Stoplight Kisses" to the playful floor-sweeping romp "Cold Foot Boogie." All those numbers have two things in common: a raw, vintage acoustic sound dated to pre-JFK, and the two brothers' crisp harmonies.

Russell said of their harmonizing talent: "I've worked with a lot of people who do that, and these guys just seem to have it in their DNA."

Burkum and Torrey -- the latter adopted a different stage name when he started singing at age 19 -- grew up in northeast Minneapolis in a musical household. However, they did not start performing together until three years ago. Torrey, 26, originally wanted to be the next Bob Dylan. Burkum, 31, played drums in a blues band. When they lived together for a spell, they bonded over the folk/roots music bible, Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Music," and other historic albums.

"We got into singing older music like this just as sort of a thing to do with friends," Burkum recalled. "That's when people were like, 'Hey, you guys go together well.'"

Torrey disputed the rather hard-to-dispute fact that not many music fans their age are discovering classic country and American folk nowadays.

"This music is actually more accessible than it's probably ever been," he said. "You can look up most of these acts on YouTube now."

Aside from the band's originals Monday at the Turf Club, there weren't any songs younger than 50 years old (the best of the oldies included Ray Price's "Crazy Arms," Jimmie Rodgers' "Traveling Blues" and Lefty Frizzell's "A Little Unfair"). But between the two dapper brothers' fresh urban-cowboy look and the Turf's hipster cachet, it certainly felt like a youthful affair. Or at least it felt nice that kids in the Twin Cities can still go out and hear country music played this convincingly -- and not have to rely on YouTube.

THE CACTUS BLOSSOMS

Saturday: 9 p.m., Merlins Rest, 3601 E. Lake St., Mpls. Free. Every Monday: 7-10 p.m, Turf Club, St. Paul. $5.