Gone Country: Canadian Country Music Week 2013, Edmonton

Songwriters’ Café on Friday. Credit: Mary Kapusta

Before the lights, cameras, and sparkly western wear hit the big stage at Rexall Place, several days of incredible programming took over Edmonton’s downtown arts district as part of Canadian Country Music Week. This collection of events for industry delegates and the public is produced annually by the Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA), which then culminates in the CCMA awards broadcast.

NMC and CCMA have a national partnership that inducts, collects, and exhibits the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame and its collection. The CCMA inducts new members every year at the Canadian Country Music Awards, the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in Merritt, BC displays the official induction plaques, and NMC is home to the Hall of Fame Collection.

I was armed with a quick tutorial on how to use our NMC camera, a media pass, and dog-eared schedule, but I wasn’t prepared for the depth of content, the stellar production of every event and the genuine warmth of the Canadian country music industry that makes this annual pilgrimage a big family reunion.

Workshops, industry events and smaller performances took place primarily at the Citadel Theatre Centre, while the Shaw Conference Centre hosted the annual industry gala and several large scale events for the public like the free Jiffylube Fan Fest and the late night Rockin’ Country Cabaret, which transformed a giant hall into a raucous country dance hall where a blend of country stars performed their hits with some rock covers thrown in too.

The quality of the programming is in no small thanks to the skill and generosity of the artists that perform during the week. The Songwriters’ Café series offered an intimate look into the songwriting process with established and emerging stars like Lindi Ortega, Eddie Eastman, David Leask, Wes Mack, and Caeland Garner, talking about everything from the happy and sad stories behind the songs, to what it’s like to be a Canadian songwriter in Nashville. Their strong voices against a sole guitar were powerful mix and the room for these events was always packed.

Friday night also featured a new addition to the annual programming, the sold-out Legends Show. This tribute to today and yesterday’s biggest hits and artists featured performances by over a dozen artists, including Johnny Burke, Dick Damron, Jaida Dreyer, Brett Kissel, r. Harlan Smith and Joyce Smith. The stand-out of the evening for me was Jason Blaine’s duet with CCMA hall of famer and recipient of the Order of Canada Caroll Baker. The evening was so successful that CCMA President Don Green promised that it would be back as an annual favourite.

Legends Show finale. Credit: Mary Kapusta

In the Citadel Theatre lobby, NMC presented artifacts from three trailblazers that have strong ties to music in Alberta. The exhibit featured objects and textiles once owned and used by Wilf Carter, k.d. lang and Terri Clark.

A second special exhibit was at the Shaw Conference Centre where NMC displayed a stage costume worn by 2013 Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Rita MacNeil. This exhibit was part of the Saturday night industry gala that celebrated MacNeil and Ed Harris as the 2013 hall of fame inductee. NMC is the home of the CCMA Hall of Fame Collection, which will have a place of prominence in the new NMC building.

Jackie Rae Greening, Edmonton Host Committee Chair, standing in front of NMC’s exhibit. Credit: Mary Kapusta

The gala was preceded by a cocktail reception where industry peers felt more like family as people from Toronto, Atlantic Canada, Nashville, Alberta and many other places reunited for the night.

As the guests moved into the dinner area High Valley, the Ken doll country group, took on hosting duties and offered the audience a little low German (from their Mennonite roots) and more than a few Miley Cyrus jokes. Apologies for not capturing the teddy bear costume on film.

It’s safe to say that the most stirring part of the night was Jimmy Rankin’s tribute to Rita MacNeil, which featured an incredible rendition of “Working Man.” Rankin was supported by a chorus of up-and-coming country singers that were featured in the CCMA Discovery Showcase.

Rita MacNeil’s family with CCMA President Don Green next to NMC’s Rita MacNeil exhibit. Credit: Mary Kapusta

Following the gala I trailed Corb Lund to the Paquin Entertainment private show at the Brixx Bar where an intimate show with Lund and the reunited Jr. Gone Wild capped an amazing day.

Sunday kicked off with me sitting in on Tom Jackson’s Performance Workshop Session. Jackson is a Nashville-based live music producer who helps artists create memorable live shows and inspires them to create visually and emotionally impactful shows. You can learn more about his highly in-demand process at onstagesuccess.com.

Tom Jackson leads a performance workshop. Credit: Mary Kapusta

Then I was off to the CCMA Great Guitar Pull. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this event, but everyone kept saying, “You gotta see that!” which could’ve been said for everything I saw in Edmonton. Well, it was a great way to end my CCMA week, as I sat in the dark theatre and felt privileged to see and hear Byron Hill, Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Brett Jones, and Canadian icon Ian Tyson open up about their careers and songs, and share some beautiful music.

CCMA Great Guitar Pull. Credit: Mary Kapusta

It was this event that drove home what made each of the events so powerful—respect. Whether the young performers at the Legends Show who paid homage to the stars of the 60s and 70s, or the genuine mutual respect and friendliness that rolled into the audience from the Songwriters’ Café, you could feel it in each audience and every artist I saw.

Then it was off to CKUA’s brand new home for the final installment of the Points North documentary series, a radio program NMC partnered with CKUA on to share the strong influence Alberta has had on Canadian country music. The live broadcast was a great collection of anecdotes, music and humour. You can listen to the series on CKUA’s website.

I look forward to going back to Edmonton for the 2014 edition, before the awards head to Halifax in 2015. I would like to thank the volunteers that handled the crowds, artists and drizzly rain with big smiles and great attitudes. See you next year!

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