Sex in the heartland
What makes Carroll Baker different? Listen to the words
The trouble starts after Carroll Baker, vanilla ice cream hair bobbing across her forehead as her tiny, five-foot frame bends into the agony of singing Kris Kristofferson’s Why Me Lord, sets off a standing ovation. Then someone says: “Baker should have been the headliner on this show, not Ronnie Prophet.” And who should overhear that but Ronnie Prophet himself, a diminutive, 42-year-old country singer who has played everything from county fairs to Las Vegas lounges, and who now hosts his own weekly CTV series, Grand Old Country. He gets angry, curses, and the next thing he is back in Carroll’s dressing room, his voice reverberating off the mustard-colored cinderblocks, demanding that she cut down her part of the show so that it does not run so long. He stomps off muttering that Baker is trying to upstage him, an accusation that does not sit well with the four-man band,
Whiskey River, all of whom love Carroll and have little use for Prophet. They stir angrily, launching dark threats against Prophet’s person; threats which they are careful not to let him hear.
Carroll’s husband, John Beaulieu, a thin-faced scrap metal foreman oddly dressed for this occasion in white shorts and sneakers, hearing of Prophet’s demands, is further convinced she is being mistreated. He thinks Carroll has already been ripped off once this evening, agreeing to do one show for $1,000—her usual fee is $2,500—only to discover there are two shows, and no extra money. On top of that she is getting second billing to Prophet, an arrangement that could be dismissed politely as laughable. At the moment, Carroll Baker, at the age of 28, is, quite simply, the biggest name in Canadian country music. Her last six singles all shot to number one on the national country music charts, and the first album she recorded for RCA, after years of being ignored by the company, went “gold” (it sold more than 50,000 copies in Canada), a success no other
Canadian country performer has achieved.
“In this country she is the superstar, as big as Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton or any of them,” says Joe Lefresne, music director of Toronto’s CFGM, the largest country music radio station in Canada. “No one else here has reached the status she has. She is
much bigger than Ronnie Prophet or Ian Tyson, anyone you can name. If we had a queen of country music, it would be Carroll.” At country music stations like CKEN in Kentville, Nova Scotia, CFAC in Cal-
gary, and CKWX in Vancouver, request lines buzz with demands for Baker hits: Little Boy Blue, Ten Little Fingers, One Night Of Cheatin ’ and her biggest seller to date, I've Never Been This Far Before. CFGM averages four requests a day for One Is One Too Many (And A Thousand’s Not Enough), supposedly one of her lesser-known songs.
The record sales plus 200 personal appearances each year earn her well in excess of $100,000. Not bad for a Nova Scotia girl who grew up disliking country music, who originally did not want to sing professionally, and for a long time was plagued by doubts about her ability, doubts that were hardly assuaged by the major record companies that could never quite find time to listen to her.
But that is all behind her now, part of the folklore that makes her so beloved by fans like these in Stouffville, a town of 10,000 30 miles north of Toronto. They have turned out 3,500 strong for two shows, causing a traffic jam on Park Drive, the street that runs past the arena. This is Baker’s kind of audience: unpretentious, conservative, a little self-conscious about having a good time. What she calls “classy crowds,” smart urban people who tend to regard country music as a rather amusing expression of the blue-collar angst—drunken nights, cheating wives, wayward husbands, sour romances—make her uneasy. “I like audiences who come because they want to hear country music,” she says backstage where she sits chain-smoking Craven As, sipping an orange soft drink between the cigarettes. “Or maybe because I’m from a little fishing village, a girl who came to the big city to make the big time.”
But because these people are her kind— she has been able to divine that from the standing ovation following the first show— the coughing jags that usually accompany her nervousness before a performance are absent. If she is upset by Ronnie Prophet’s demands, she gives no sign of it in her ex-
citement to get on stage and open up with that voice. The voice is part Brenda Lee, part Ethel Merman, all husky power, erupting suddenly out of the red vinyl mouth of this little blond girl who looks like an ex-cheerleader gone nicely plump. The voice lunges at the audience, and you can see the tears practically dripping from it, full of the anguish that is a necessary part of any female country performer’s baggage.
And the lyrics. You realize after a few moments they are not the stuff of lonesome trains and old faithful dogs. Carroll Baker is up there in front of these straight, middle-aged burghers singing about sex. Pretty blatantly, too:
Well, I don’t know what I’m say in’,
As your tremblin ’fingers touch forbidden places,
Well I only know I’ve waited for so long for this chance that we are taking.
Well, I don’t know and I don’t care what made you tell her you don ’t love her anymore,
And as you taste my tender kisses
Can you tell I’ve never been this far
No one in the audience moves; not an arm unfolds, not an eye blinks. If anyone here is shocked by a song recounting the night a lady’s virginity is lost, they are polite enough not to show it. Still, Ronnie Prophet has his way and Baker cuts her show short. Standing backstage he can perhaps take solace in the fact that for the second show of the night, she has been able to draw only half the audience to its feet.
Nobody is sure exactly how big the Canadian country music market is, perhaps because no one can say anymore where country music ends and pop begins. Walt Grealis, editor and publisher of the music weekly RPM, says up to 40% of the Canadian radio audience is tuned to country music stations these days. Recording industry sources say that country music accounts for about 15% of record sales in Canada, but Grealis disagrees. “That’s wishful thinking,” he says. “I doubt if it’s anything higher than 3%.”
Country enthusiasts like to point out the similarities between the Atlantic provinces and the American south where country music as it is known today was born: both regions attracted French, Scottish, and Irish settlers, resilient, self-reliant people isolated from the rest of the world who developed their own musical styles and a talent for entertaining themselves with songs about their problems and frustrations.
That’s true, except that the Atlantic provinces were not cut off from outside radio signals. Hugging against the sea, the Maritime region is bombarded by American stations, especially at night. Although Canadian country music has in the past developed something of its own style—most notably in the fiddle playing of King Ganom and Don Messer—this has been lost in the years since World War II in the rush
to imitate American singers broadcast straight into Canadian living rooms via WSM’S Grand Ole Opry, and all-night disc jockey Doc Williams on WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia. Hank Snow grew up in Nova Scotia listening to Jimmie Rodgers, the first American singer to take country music out of its rural environment and set it on the road toward the multimillion dollar industry it has since become. Snow was so influenced by Rodgers that he quickly headed south where he had no trouble assimilating himself into the American country music community, and becoming something of a legend in his own time.
Canadian performers believe they can become big stars by trying their damndest to sound as if they were bom within spitting distance of the Mason-Dixon line. Tommy Hunter, certainly the most popular country singer on television, grew up in London, Ontario—yet affects a drawl he surely developed listening to the recordings of his boyhood idol, Roy Acuff.
Carroll Baker has tried hard to escape the imitation that plagues Canadian country music mostly by making her performances more dramatic and heartfelt than anyone else’s. And also by writing song lyrics that are sexier than those of any other country performer. Manager Don Grashey claims this sort of thing devel-
oped almost by accident. Carroll had recorded I’ve Never Been This Far Before, and it had been tremendously successful for her, despite protests from its writer, Conway Twitty, that the song had nothing to do with sex. “Well, hell he’s got ‘fingers touching forbidden places,’ ” Grashey says. “What’s he doin’, hittin’ her on the head? Naturally, we wanted something to follow it up. We didn’t see anything wrong with it, just more up-to-date country lyrics. But really, Carroll’s not that type at all.”
Just the opposite, in fact. She is a homebody who does not like to leave her unpretentious townhouse in Burlington, between Hamilton and Toronto. She loves her husband and her four-year-old daughter, Candace, consumes large quantities of Chinese food, hardly ever touches a drink, and still gets misty when she speaks of her father who died nine years ago of a heart attack, without ever hearing her sing professionally—the only real unhappiness she has ever experienced. She believes in fidelity—“there are no morals left today, and I think people would be a whole lot happier if they did have some morals”—and although her songs sometimes make fans think she is worldly wise, she is not.
She was the youngest of six children and she grew up in Port Medway, Nova Scotia, a tiny fishing village 25 miles outside Bridgewater, dearly loved and terribly spoiled by her parents. Her father, Gordon
Baker, played the fiddle at Saturday night dances, and weekdays worked at a number of jobs.
A teen-ager in the 1960s, Baker was a fanatic about pop music, listening to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Barry McGuire singing Eve Of Destruction. She did not like country music. While everyone else in her family tuned in Grand Ole Opry, she lay in the darkness of her room, ear pressed against the radio trying to pick Murray the K’s voice out from the static. Murray the K was the most popular disc jockey at WINS in New York, and he was labeled “the fifth Beatle” because he acted as master of ceremonies at their North American concerts. Her father would catch her listening to Murray the K, sigh, and say: “When you grow up, that’s when you’ll like country. You grow out of rock and roll and into country music. And country music always stays with you.”
Carroll did not quite make adulthood before she proved him right. By that time the family had moved up to Ontario so Gordon Baker could take a job at an Oakville yacht club. Carroll had quit school and at age 19 married John Beaulieu, a young man from New Brunswick whom she met when he dated her best friend. The couple was honeymooning in Pennsylvania when Carroll heard a song on the radio called Almost Persuaded. It was country music, but she loved it, began listening to more, loving everything she heard. John
liked her voice, and even though she had once been rejected as a vocalist in her high school glee club, he thought perhaps she could sing professionally. Not that he knew much about singing, being something of a jock, too preoccupied with sports as a teen-ager to even turn on a radio. One night at an Oakville bar, John persuaded Carroll to sing with the band. The group liked her and hired her to perform three times a week for $20 a night. She lasted three weeks. “Then they fired me because they didn’t think I was progressing or learning new material.” She could not have cared less, since her real ambition was not to sing above the boozy din in a bar, but to be a housewife. So no one was more surprised than she when, after she performed casually at a country music jamboree north of Toronto, a song writer named George Petralia introduced himself and whisked her off to Thunder Bay and into the arms of a veteran music promoter named Don Grashey.
Grashey’s life had been one long blues song, choked with missed chances, unfulfilled promises and broken dreams. In 1955, when he was only 28, he discovered a 14-year-old named Myma Lorrie and teamed her with a singer, Buddy DeVal, to record a song called Are You Mine that unexpectedly climbed to the number two position on the country charts. Grashey thought he had it made until—he claims— Lome’s family started to interfere and
everything fell apart. He got into a partnership with a Vancouver record producer named Chuck Williams, and together they found a girl who they thought sounded like Kitty Wells, and recorded her singing a song called I’m A Honky Tonk Girl. The girl was Loretta Lynn, a Kentucky coal miner’s daughter who went on to much bigger things—but without Grashey or Chuck Williams. At the last minute their financial backers got cold feet about taking Loretta to the States, leaving her to hunt up someone else with the necessary bankroll. Needless to say, she didn’t have to look for long.
Grashey was pretty disgruntled by this time, sitting around Thunder Bay thinking things like “the breaks I’ve had are enough to break your back,” when Carroll Baker walked in. “She was new, eh? She needed work, voice development—it hadn’t built up power and there were a few problems with phrasing. But I thought I could do something with her.”
Reluctantly—she was still bent on a career as a housewife—she recorded a song for Grashey’s label called Mem’ries Of Home, which eventually struggled to number 14 on the charts. It was a good start, considering that Baker had never before cut a record, and Gaiety was a minor label, one of dozens in country music, and therefore experienced great difficulty getting decent distribution or radio play.
After that she began playing what she calls “the toilets”—bars where the boys come in to get drunk and play rough and only by-the-by listen to music. She did all right though, and soon realized that she was enjoying herself immensely. Yet she was worried about her ability. “I didn’t think I had any talent,” she says. “I didn’t know why people bought my records or came to see me. I thought the only reason
radio stations played my songs was because I helped them fill the 30% Canadian content requirement.”
Then in 1975 she recorded I’ve Never Been This Far Before which was written by an American, Conway Twitty, and cut in Nashville, which meant it didn’t qualify as Canadian content. So if the radio stations did not like the song, they would not play it. They loved the song, and so did the country music fans who bought I’ve Never Been This Far Before in such numbers that it became Carroll’s first number one record. In quick succession there followed a show-stopping performance at the Juno Awards, which finally led to a contract with a big record company, RCA, and a CBC television special last year, which, although it was produced on a shoestring budget of $10,000 and aired during the summer when supposedly no one is watching, attracted nearly two million viewers.
“Now I don’t have any doubts about my talent,” she says. “I don’t want to sound as if I’m boasting, but if it’s in the cards for me to become a superstar, then it will happen. I’m a pusher, I want to try out new things.” Translation: she is now setting her sights on the American country music market, and that has some of her supporters concerned. “It’s so difficult to become an American star that I’m afraid she won’t do it,” a friend says. “The Americans have Dolly, Tammy and Loretta, they don’t need Carroll.”
Already there are problems, RCA in Nashville is not enthusiastic about some of the songs she has recorded for a new album released in August, and has decided to go with two hard country numbers for a single that will play on the country radio stations. Don Grashey does not think Carroll should be promoted as a hard country performer, in the same vein as Kitty Wells, but
rather as an uptown country star, a little more cosmopolitan to appeal to a wider cross-section. But he is afraid of being robbed of yet another shot at the big time and against his better instincts is going along with RCA.
As for Carroll Baker, her thoughts at this moment are a long way from Nashville. She sits in her living room on a shamrock green couch that clashes loudly with the burnt orange carpet, surrounded by lamps with parasol-shaped shades and little glass baubles dangling from them. A portrait of Christ walking on water, done on black velvet, dominates a far wall, RPM, the weekly bible of Canadian music, has arrived bearing bad news: her latest single, It’s Late And I have To Go, after several weeks remains anchored to the number six spot on the country chart. “I almost cried when I saw that,” she says. “I don’t know what I’ll do if it doesn’t make number one. You know, after having six of them in a row...” her voice trails off as her daughter Candy, one of those Love Is cartoons come to life, enters the room making loud noises about going to bed. “She’s got a temper just like mine,” Carroll says. She turns to the little girl. “Pancake, you’d better not be crying when your daddy comes home. You know what he’ll do.” Then the discussion turns to a concert she had performed the afternoon before in Thunder Bay. She is smiling now, the slow progress of her single momentarily forgotten. “I had such a good time up there,” she says enthusiastically. “I was only supposed to do two 45minute shows, but the audience was so much fun I did an hour.” A visitor remembering Ronnie Prophet asks: “Didn’t anyone try to cut your show?” She makes a face. “Are you kidding? Of course not.” And, as she usually does, Carroll had received a standing ovation.1^!?