September 12, 2014
When you are about to experience something for the first time, you want to do it all. In my case, I wanted to see Nudie suits, Rhinestone Rembrandts, big LOOK-AT-ME cowboy hats with protruding feathers, and bask in the sounds of steel guitar and twang-drenched country. This was my first Canadian Country Music Week, after all. And I wanted to soak up all stripes of country music and over-the-top fashion.
For the uninitiated, Canada has an exceptional legacy of country music. Having produced greats such as yodeling cowboy Wilf Carter, Hank Snow, Lucille Starr, the dynamic duo of Ian & Sylvia, and Corb Lund, this country’s got a whole lot to be proud of.
With my media lanyard and camera in tow, I cruised through the Westin Hotel’s lobby, looking for familiar faces, rhinestones and new musical discoveries. I found Edmonton’s Jay Sparrow strumming away on his guitar to onlookers and hurried travellers in the lobby, playing past a series of radio hosts interviewing up-and-comers and industry people (myself included).
As it turns out, Jay Sparrow plays real catchy roots jams, has a great set of pipes, and a beautiful beard to match. I was off to a very good start.
If I was going to experience what Canadian country has to offer, I figured I would probably find it over at the CCMA Legends Show, which brings together the past and present of Canadian country music. So off I went.
Over the course of the show, I watched as legends passed the torch to younger generations. Be it when Eli Barsi, wearing a flashy getup given to her by Ronnie Prophet, sang alongside elder Bev Munro, who teased Barsi about her name. “Isn’t Eli a boy’s name? Munro prodded. “What kind of name is Bev, anyways?”
Then there was when fresh-faced 24-year-old Brett Kissel joined Gary Fjellgaard to perform “No Heroes Anymore,” and the ultra sweet combo of MacKenzie Porter playing fiddle on the Rodney Crowell cover “The Answer is Yes” with country heavyweight Michelle Wright.
If I had to choose a favourite pairing, however, it would have to be 2014 CCMA Hall of Fame Inductee Wendell Ferguson and house band the Western Swing Authority with siblings Amanda and Tyler Wilkinson of Small Town Pistols. Performing the Pistols’ “I Only Smoke When I Drink,” and a lovely rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again,” the collaboration was beautifully punctuated by the soaring vocals of a very pregnant Amanda Wilkinson, who jestingly referenced her bulging belly with jokes about drinking too much beer.
There were lots of jokes. Most of which came from host Danny Hooper, who kept the laughs coming all night long, and gets kudos for wearing the best western wear ensemble I saw all weekend.
I embarked on Saturday’s events, hopping into a cab around noon to make my way to the West Edmonton Mall where the JiffyLube FanFest was being held. After taking in a few acts—including Calgary’s Lindsay Ell, who can absolutely slay on the guitar—I met up with CCMA Award nominee Codie Prevost, who told me about the Canadian country star that inspired him to start making music.
“When I was growing up I was a huge fan of Paul Brandt,” Prevost said. “I remember when he came out with his album, Small Towns and Big Dreams… I grew up in a town if 300 people, so I just really connected with it. I thought all of those songs were written about me.”
For the record, Prevost was one of nicest people I’ve ever met. Humility is a common trait among Canadian country music’s brightest talents.
At the CCMA Gala Awards cocktail reception later that evening, I rubbed shoulders with more of Canada’s country elite, and even chatted with a few artists as I moved through the crowd.
Tim Hicks talked about his love for Blue Rodeo, and the time that he got to meet Jim Cuddy. “I had a fantastic moment at the JUNOs backstage,” said Hicks. “I got to play with Randy Bachman, and after the show we were all hanging out having a beer, and in walked Jim Cuddy. He came up to me and said ‘Hi Tim, I’m Jim Cuddy.’ As if I couldn’t sing all of his songs back to him.”
MaryLynne Stella of The Stellas recalled her introduction to country music through k.d. lang. “My father was a Southern rock musician, so that was the stuff I heard,” she said. “The first time I heard k.d. lang’s “Hanky Panky,” I was like ‘What is that?!’”
All of the artists and industry people I talked to were kind and generous, making me feel like I was part of the family, which is exactly how CCMA President Don Green described the community.
“Country music artists are so accessible and so fan accessible,” he said. “They support each other, they celebrate each other—this is a real family.”
When I arrived at the CCMA All Star Band Awards, I got there just in time to see Wendell Ferguson plant a big smooch on Brett Kissel as Kissel congratulated him on his induction into the CCMA Hall of Fame, followed by a foot-stomping set by The Stellas, who, by the way, are a tremendous band to see live.
The Stellas are definitely a Canadian Band You Should Know. Credit: Grant W. Martin Photography.
After the show, I meandered over to Paquin Artists Agency’s showcase, featuring Winnipeg-band-on-the-rise The Bros. Landreth. Their smooth country-laced harmonies channeled bands like The Eagles and the Allman Brothers. I left convinced that I would be seeing much more of them very soon.
The Songwriter’s Series closed out my weekend on Sunday, and the intimate setting provided the perfect come down to three whirlwind days of music.
Legend Tom Cochrane played “Big League,” a standout, and quintessentially Canadian moment. But nothing could top Nashville songwriter Jeff Copeland singing the Tim Hicks song “Stronger Beer” as Cochrane followed along on the harmonica and the audience shouted out the chorus.
The respect and admiration each of the artists showed for one another throughout the weekend was endearing to say the least. Whether it was the newcomers paying tribute to their forbearers or icons praising their younger counterparts, there was a lot of reciprocal love happening everywhere I went.
When you peel away the cowboy hats and bravado, the Canadian country music scene is just one big, and very talented, extended family. A humble community of musicians that values its past, nurtures its future, and makes even outsiders like me feel a certain sense of home.
Wanna talk music? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow me on Twitter @thejulijanaruin.