Elnora family band Off the Rails performs in Red Deer

Concert is Friday afternoon at The Hub

The family that sings together, stays together — at least that’s the case for the Cheek family of Elnora.

Two sisters — Melanie Cheek and april irwin — have been crooning with their cousin Judy ever since the early 1960s, when the three were little girls growing up in a community of 200 people across the river from Big Valley.

The trio were then known as The Cousins, and word soon spread about their smooth vocal harmonies.

“Whenever there was a special event in our town, someone would say, ‘Hey, let’s call The Cousins…’” recalled Melanie, who remembers performing at the Huxley talent show as an eight-year-old. “We also sang in Innifail, Trochu, Rimbey…”

Fifty years later, Melanie, april and Judy are still singing together — only now they also have instrumentation by Melanie and april’s brother Brent Cheek, and by Judy’s husband Lloyd Jackson.

The five-member family band is called Off the Rails, and will perform a mix of cover tunes and original folk-pop songs on Friday afternoon at The Hub on Ross Street in Red Deer.

The three girls still weave rich harmonies into songs by the Eagles, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, James Taylor and The Beatles — as well as contemporary artists such as Indigo Girls, Mike Plume and Fred Eaglesmith.

Some of the lyrics and melodies written by Melanie are also on the program — as are piano instrumentals composed by her brother, Brent.

The younger male Cheek never got the formal piano lessons given to Melanie and april, because Elnora’s one and only piano teacher moved away by the time Brent was old enough to sit at the keyboards. But Melanie said “He’s a better piano player than all of us, and he learned by ear!”

The family members are now spread out between Elnora and Edmonton. Although they hadn’t performed much while they were each busy raising their children, they decided in 2012 to refocus on music.

Off the Rails, which rehearses in Red Deer, is now playing across Alberta with plans to record an album this fall. Melanie said the band will be working with Miles Wilkerson, who played guitar for Anne Murray, and later engineered albums for a multitude of singers, including Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson.

As to what’s kept the family members creating music together for so many years, she believes it’s their shared love of harmonies — and a democratic approach. “We take turns singing lead vocals, so there’s no lead singer. You can check your ego at the door!”

Melanie feels one of her biggest childhood influences was the late Keith Mann, who started his music teaching career in Elnora. He eventually taught at Red Deer College.

There’s no admission charge for the 1 to 3 p.m. concert.


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