For local band Off the Rails, music is certainly a joyful family affair.
The band performs July 28th at West Stettler Park as part of the ongoing Entertainment in the Park summer series.
“The band is made up of three siblings – myself, my brother Brent Cheek and my sister April Irwin. Also, our first cousin Judy Jackson, who we grew up within about half a mile of, and her husband Lloyd, too,” explains Melanie Cheek.
“We all grew up on farms just south of Elnora.”
During their growing up years, Judy, April and Melanie sang as a trio from the time they were about six or seven years old.
“The three of us were known as The Cousins in our elementary and junior high years. We would travel around to different talent shows,” she explained. “That’s how we got most of our experience – in preparing for these shows,” she added.
Over the years, family members would play with various groups around the community, eventually joining forces as Off the Rails about seven years ago.
“As a big family, though, we would do weddings, funerals and reunions. Then, we siblings were asked to sing for a town Christmas party in Elnora. I asked Lloyd and Judy if they would run the sound and record it for us,” she recalled. “They said, ‘Well, we would rather play with you instead!’
“I said, really! Okay, then – let’s do this!’
“So we did a Christmas show the next year in Elnora, and different fundraisers, and we expanded out from there,” she said, adding they also opened for folk singer John Wort Hannam in Red Deer during one of his shows there as well.
Looking back, influences over the years have ranged widely, as did their individuals tastes in music. Melanie recalls members enjoying everything from the Beatles and Elvis to the Beach Boys and the Everly Brothers.
“We got more into the popular music when we were in our teens,” she explained.
“I also have a bit of a leaning toward the jazz standard type of material, too.”
These days, Off the Rails does about six shows per year – which suits the members just fine as they are also busy keeping up with their families and such.
“Our songs are mostly chosen based on our audiences and what we feel they would like to hear, or what they are familiar with,” she said. “If we find something that we really, really like that is new, we will also do that.”
They also like to take cover tunes and put their own creative stamp on them.
Or, there are times when they stick pretty closely to the original ‘feel’ of a given song as well. Again, the diversity is striking – they will serve up well-crafted selections from such artists as Miley Cyrus and Fred Eaglesmith to Steve Earle and Neal Young – just a name a few.
“What I love the most is the collaboration – when you are creating a sound,” said Melanie, reflecting on the joys of making music.
“Harmonies actually bring me a lot of joy,” she explained. “I also find that it’s really hard to get that quality of blend outside of family voices. It’s just powerful.”
Audiences will certainly be struck by the vocal intricacies that truly set this group apart from gentle tunes like Alberta Blue to Love & Happiness to the sweeping, classic grandeur of Cohen’s Hallelujah.
In terms of style, Melanie said much of their music could be described as ‘folk noir’. “We tend more towards the ballads and serious songs – but we are trying to incorporate more fun and upbeat songs, too!
“But we do tend towards the more somber, bluesy tunes. Also ‘folk pop’ is something we also do,” she said.
Ultimately, they have been having a blast working and singing together all of these years, and that creativity and passion is as strong as ever.
“Music just speaks to so many different emotions – and it’s something that draws people together. It’s that universal language. I also have a penchant for music as a healing modality, too.”
As for hitting the stage, Melanie said the energy from the audience is constantly inspiring.
“I love being able to give something and get a smile back in return. I also really feel like we have been given a gift, and I think we need to share it.”
Next up in the Entertainment in the Park series is The Wheatland Band scheduled for Aug. 4th.
And rounding out the season are TEN02 on Aug. 11th, Tap 9 on Aug. 18th and Ryan Langlois on Aug. 25th.
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