The Cactus Blossoms: Sweet Harmonies, Mellow Melodies, and a Ray of Hope

The Cactus Blossoms play at Gabe’s in Iowa City on June 16.

Audiences often compare Minnesota’s Cactus Blossoms to Iowa’s Everly Brothers because their vocal harmonies sound alike. The Blossoms’ music shares the same grace and freshness as those early country rockers—and it’s intentional. The Twin Cities-based band has a deep and abiding love for the Everlys and music from that era.

Like the Everly Brothers, the two lead singers (Jack Torrey and Page Burkum) are blood brothers who share the same parents. However, Jack and Page didn’t sing together as kids. That did not happen until much later, when they were in their 30s. Previously, the two had different musical identities, which included Page taking Burkum as his stage name during the first part of his career.

But as Jack noted over the telephone from his home, what’s in a name? Page was also on the line from his residence. The two spoke about their lives and art from separate locales, but never spoke over each other. Some kind of magical rapport allowed them to contribute to the discussion without stepping on each other’s lines. The two somehow sensed whose turn it was to speak and made room for each other to talk without interruption.

“When we first started out, people were confused by our name,” Jack explained. “Why Cactus Blossoms? After all, we are from the Midwest, not the Southwest. But we just liked the name, and we thought cacti were cool. And there was something Western—as in country and western—about the music we made.”

The Cactus Blossoms (photo by Jacob Blickenstaff)

The Cactus Blossoms began by covering obscure songs they found on old records. Jack said it never occurred to him that the band’s name would have a regional identity. Minnesota’s official state flower is the Showy Lady’s Slipper, and Page said that name never seemed appropriate for them and the music they make.

The Blossoms first started singing and playing guitars together around Minneapolis as a lark, but soon realized there was a kind of special chemistry happening. The band self-released its first album in 2011 and has put out four more since then, including its critically acclaimed recent disc, One Day.

One Day was recorded at Page’s house as a direct result of the pandemic. They did not want to risk traveling with all the restrictions. “I called our longtime engineer Alex Hall and asked if he could set something up in my basement,” Page said. “He did a great job creating a mobile recording studio that was a comfortable environment to play in and had good audibility.” Page said that it worked out so well that they may continue to record there, although they have no current plans to do so. “It would be great to get back in the studio again,” he explained, “but this time without masks.”

The band is currently on the road promoting their new record. The Cactus Blossoms will play Gabe’s in Iowa City on June 16 and xBk in Des Moines on June 17. Their touring band includes their older brother Tyler Burkum (guitar), their cousin Phillip Hicks (bass), Jake Hanson (guitar), and Jeremy Hanson (drums). The songs on One Day feature a mix of acoustic guitars and honeyed harmonies. Several of the tunes are bittersweet and sad, with titles such as “Is It Over,” “Lonely Heart,” and “I Could Almost Cry.” Jack, who is the lead songwriter, said that wasn’t intentional. “I think this is one of our happier albums. We certainly had fun making it.” Page agreed.

Jack pointed out the song “Everybody,” in which singer Jenny Lewis contributed vocals. In the lyrics, one can hear the couple trying to make their relationship work. It’s not a breakup song, but one of hope. “Everybody tryin’ to do what’s right,” goes the chorus. “Everybody waitin’ for the light.” There’s a gentleness in their voices as they try to make their love last.

“Writing songs is like the Big Bang,” Jack said. “You start out with almost nothing and then an idea pops into your head. The ideas start themselves. You don’t know where they come from, but if you’re lucky, something emerges and then turns into a song.” The first notion could just be a word, a phrase, or a snatch of melody. The important thing is to remain true to the original inspiration.

The Cactus Blossoms are happy to be touring again. “We spent the winter of 2019 not playing out-of-town gigs,” Jack said. “We took it easy, expecting to go back on the road and hit it heavy in the spring. As a result, we spent almost two years not performing before an audience.” He explained that initially they were a bit rusty, but like riding a bicycle after a long layoff, it all came back.

“There were a couple of moments that I realized I had forgotten the words or missed some notes,” Page added. “I have played some of these songs for five years and played them hundreds of times. I never thought I would have trouble remembering them.” But like Jack, Page said it all came back to him, too.

The band has performed in Iowa many times, but they have never been to Shenandoah, the childhood home of the Everlys. “Maybe sometime in the future we can head there,” Jack said, “but Iowa is a big state.” He remembered the long car rides of his youth through the Midwest and had no interest in replicating them.