By Brenda Hillegas
[W]hen listening to the self-titled debut album from Fairground Saints, you’ll think you’ve heard every track before…but in a good way. The self-titled release plays out like a greatest hits compilation featuring all of the trio’s number one songs from years’ worth of top-selling albums. It’s incredibly impressive to realize that this is not the case.
The album’s 12 tracks all have serious Top 40 potential, with the band’s ability to blend pop, bluegrass and southern charm with whatever other genre they please. One minute you’re listening to a poppy, upbeat sing-along and the next you’ll hear a song filled with heartbreak.
“Ain’t Much for Lyin’” is the solid album opener which “seemed like the one that best describes and introduces Fairground Saints immediately as a unit,” says Mason Van Valin (vocals, guitar). Van Valin explains that the song gives Megan McAllister (vocals, guitar, dulcimer), Elijah Edwards (vocals, guitar, mandolin, keyboards, Dobro, accordion) and himself an equal opportunity to show up in succession.
“That really prepares the audience for the rest of the record. On top of that, it’s not a song that acts like it’s trying too hard to impress you with a pop hook or really intense production. It kind of just says, ‘hey, let’s ease into getting to know each other…no rush right?’ Hopefully at the end of ‘Ain’t Much For Lyin,” you feel like you can let your shoulders down and really enjoy the ride.”
That ride began a year ago when Fairground Saints started the writing and recording process of this album. One song, however, has been in Van Valin’s head much longer. “I wrote [“Can’t Control the Weather”] when I was 14, and it just kind of stuck around. It ended up standing the test of time so it was really cool to see that it made it onto the final product, but a lot of the songs were written during the recording process.”
Most of the material heard on the debut album was created just after beginning the real recording process. That was the time in which they really found themselves as artists. “Being with Megan and Eli was so inspiring in so many different ways that we all really blossomed as artists simply by being around each other,” Van Valin said.
Their producer, Matthew Wilder (No Doubt, Christina Aguilera), pushed the group to excel in every way possible. “Specifically as lyricists,” Van Valin explained, “and I’m forever grateful to him for that. We needed someone like him pushing us to never settle for something that was ‘acceptable,’ as he put it, so he really got all of our pistons firing on full.”
“Sunday Lover” easily stands out on the album and shows off how hard Wilder pushed the three musicians. “‘Sunday Lover’ was my first attempt at doing a ’70s style rock song. I thought initially that it was a little outside the box for this particular album, but we ended up having such diversity between tracks that anything outside the ‘norm’ became, well, the norm.”
“Sunday Lover,” Van Valin said, affords Fairground Saints the opportunity to surprise people with whatever they choose to do with any record they make in the future. “I’d call it a calculated strategic move in some ways; I mean it was the first time that I attempted to write lyrics that weren’t entirely about something I myself had encountered before. The vibe and inherent funk of “Sunday Lover” was so intense that it was easy to come up with a storyline based on the overtly potent theatrics of the melody. I will say that the lines, ‘My Sunday lover, my dancing gypsy queen, in size 25 new blue jeans, my one day lover, these eyes ain’t never seen something pretty as you have been, under my covers,’ were specifically about an ex-girlfriend of mine. Suffice it to say she wasn’t too ecstatic about the direction the song took after that, but you kind of have to be disavowed to that sort of thing if you are going to be a songwriter.”
People recognize honesty in songs, and Van Valin and his bandmates shudder at the idea of shying away from that as their primary motivator. “I’ve also noticed that occasionally I get complaints from women about the mention of a jean size being ’25’ in the songs as if I’m attempting to define beauty. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m simply describing a specific person who happened to be that size in jeans. It’s my earnest nightly prayer that no one takes that the wrong way. I’m not at all interested in the misogynistic business of trying to define what makes women beautiful, I’m simply talking about someone from my past.”
Van Valin gets a lot of songwriting done on the road. “The more traveling we experience, conditions we endure, and places we encounter, the better the records are going to be, so that is a primary focus for all of us.” Out on the road is where he feels most satisfied and fulfilled as a person. He hopes that the band will be able to tour for a full year. For now, they are taking things one day at a time. “We are really pumped about the upcoming dates we have going with Marc Broussard and then with Striking Matches, but we don’t have any immediate plans for what happens after.”
Right now, they’re making their way along the East Coast in their tour van. Van Valin is hoping for a tour bus one day, but enjoys the camaraderie that comes along with a tour van. “You have a lot less personal space in a van, which makes it challenging and a whole hell of a lot more entertaining!”
The Fairground Saints’ final show currently scheduled takes place in Charlotte, NC on October 31st. If they weren’t performing that day? “I’d rent one of those movie quality Storm Trooper costumes and wear it. The next time we do a show on Halloween, I can guarantee you’ll see me in full Imperial regalia.”
Instead of Halloween treats, though, the band tries to eat right on the road. “Megan keeps us really healthy, she’s always shoving a water bottle in my face and keeping me hydrated. Ranch sunflower seeds, beef jerky, Kombucha and Bubbalicious are my guilty pleasures so Eli and I will be indulging in some contraband when Megan isn’t watching. I’m beginning to wish I had some healthier alternatives right now; check in with me at the end of the tour because I’m sure I’ll either have updated my nutritional technique or have gained 20 pounds.”
After the tour ends, be sure to keep an eye on Fairground Saints, because this band will surely be sticking around for a long while.