Bucking for stardom in country’s corral

BOB LEVIN April 7 1986

Bucking for stardom in country’s corral

BOB LEVIN April 7 1986

Bucking for stardom in country’s corral


Country music is a state of mind and a tug at the heart. It is trucks and trains, work and whisky, pride and patriotism. It is true love, hard luck, lonesome nights, faithful dogs, God and family, steel guitars and honky-tonk bars, Mama on the back porch and cheatin’ on the mind. Country is collective memory, a pining for a simpler time when right was right and lyrics could be understood. It has its roots in old Celtic folk tunes and its modern commercial capital in Nashville, Tenn. But country is a decades-old tradition in Canada as well. And now, while some Canadian musicians celebrate down-home country, others are pitching a contemporary sound to a more urban audience. But nearly all, with increasing determination, share a common pursuit: the struggle to hit it big, which generally means in the United States.

If the story of the Canadian country music industry were a country song, it might be titled I Got Hopes as High as My Troubles Are Deep (And a Pile of Records ITl Sell You Cheap). It would be the tale of performers who love the music and are ambitious besides, but who happen to live in a nation with a small country market. According to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), Canada has an estimated 6,000 country musicians, part of a pervasive and colorful subculture of 1,500 clubs (page 56), 75 full-time country radio stations—up from about four stations in the mid1960s—and 500 independent record labels. But that country community is hardly large enough to make Canadian musicians rich. And, said Tommy Hunter, whose country music TV show has been a CBC fixture for 21 years: “I don’t think there is a Canadian artist who is being honest with himself who doesn’t want to make it on the international scene.”

Among Canadians, singer Anne Murray is in a world class by herself, although with her up-tempo new album, she has, at least for the moment, forgone country for pop (page 54). But other talented artists are also striving. “Canadian country music,” said independent record producer Michael Francis of Mississauga, Ont., “is at a point where it’s ready to explode if somebody can just break through on the world market.”

A Canadian invasion of Nashville is hardly imminent. But country enthusiasts point to the glossy new album of

the Ottawa-based Family Brown—who will be touring Ontario next month— that features a duet with American superstar Willie Nelson. Optimism also surrounds such singers as Ontario’s Carroll Baker, the gutsy reigning queen of Canadian country, and Alberta’s K.D.

Lang, the upstart princess of country punk. And Canadian production and management have improved, a change embodied in Mississauga-based, independent Savannah Records, which won seven Canadian Country Music Awards last fall, including six for Ottawa singer-songwriter Terry Carisse. Said Carisse, 43, who plans to release a new al-

bum this spring: “We are making records for the world.”

Despite such high hopes, the main market for Canadian artists remains the country strongholds in such regions as the Maritimes, the Ottawa Valley and the Prairies. Beyond those areas

some of the brightest stars in Canadian country—the Mercey Brothers, Kelita Haverland, Eddie Eastman, Terry Sumsion, Marie Bottrell and Dick Damron, to mention a few—are relatively unknown artists. In January the CBC launched a new Regina-based show, Country West, which is trying to raise the profile of Canadian artists. The

show emphasizes the uptown, pop-influenced sound that many Canadians have adopted over the past few years, a sound aimed at younger city folks raised on rock ’n’ roll who flocked to country in the early 1980s. But that boom period, which followed the release of the movie Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta, has long since gone bust. Said Frederic Koch, head of Vancouver’s Rana Records: “Somewhere there must be a corral full of those mechanical bulls.”

Now trying to make a comeback, country music in the United States is torn between two opposing trends: the contemporary sounds of Kenny Rogers and Alabama, and a new wave of such traditionalists as Ricky Skaggs and The Judds. Some observers say Canadian artists may be jumping on the wrong bandwagon. “It seems to me,” said Ted Daigle, program director of CKBY FM in Ottawa,

“that we are just catching up to the contemporary country sound that was big, say, 18 months or two years ago.” On the other hand, some Canadian radio station executives complain that there are not enough good contemporary records to fill the 30-percent Canadian content requirement.

Such debates seem a long way from the days when the rich folk-music traditions of Canadian settlers found new shape in commercial “hillbilly” music, which was introduced over American radio stations in the 1920s and 1930s. Soon, Canada had radio shows and singers of its own, notably Nova Scotians Hank Snow and Wilf Carter (also known as Montana Slim), who became stars south of the border. In fact, beginning in the 1950s the mellow-voiced Snow became a legend on Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. The United States is still where the money lies: according to the CRTC, an average Canadian country musician now earns only $6,000 to $10,000 a year, mostly from club dates. And unlike rock fans, Canadian country enthusiasts are not big record buyers: although Canadians last year bought 70 million records overall, the second-highest total per capita in the world, only about seven per cent were country. Many musicians are so cash-poor that they do not even distribute their singles to stores. Rather, they send them to radio stations,

where they earn writing royalties from airplay—enough, they hope, to cover costs while they perform in clubs.

Life is better at the top of Canadian country. The Family Brown had its own Ottawa-based, nationally syndicated TV show for 13 years and won a Juno award last year—although the Mercey Brothers ended the Browns’ nine-year reign as the industry’s top country group of the year. But the Browns had grown stale, and RCA hired Sam Durrence, an American singer-producer now based in Toronto, to coproduce their new album, Feel the Fire. Said Durrence: “Their records sounded sort of bland.” Durrence took the Browns— “Papa” Joe and three of his children— to Willie Nelson’s Pedernales Studio in Austin, Tex., last April. While they were recording, Nelson came in from a

round of golf—and joined 27-year-old Tracey Brown on a ballad called Wouldn't You Love Us Together Again. RCA is trying to work out contractual arrangements to release the song as a single. But the album and two other singles have been released, and Roy Tessier, the Browns’ U.S. booking agent, says, “We feel within a year they are going to be well-known artists in the States.”

With the exception of RCA, small, independent labels produce most Canadian country records. Prominent among them is Savannah Records, a four-yearold outfit run by Brian Ferriman from his Mississauga townhouse. Ferriman, 35, also manages Canadian artists who include Carisse and Matt Minglewood, and last year he won Canada’s Academy of Country Music Entertainment

(ACME) manager-of-the-year award. A former rock producer, he favors a contemporary sound. “You have to blend a sense of originality with fashionability,” he says, stressing the details of production and packaging.

While Canada’s recording industry is centred in the Toronto area, its country stars are widely scattered—and decidedly diverse. K.D. Lang, a native of Consort, Alta., has a buzz-cut hairdo and an eclectic repertoire, and she sometimes claims to be the reincarnation of country legend Patsy Cline. That combination has earned her the resentment of some country traditionalists—and a recording contract with New York’s Sire Records. Onetime folksinger Ian Tyson lives on a ranch in Longview, Alta., and now plays pure cowboy music on the festival circuit, while in Manitoba a native group called the C-Weed Band has a loyal following. Maritime stars include New Brunswick’s Lee Marlow and Prince Edward Island’s Ellis Family Band. And in Quebec Jerry Robitaille of the Lennoxville-based couple Jerry and Jo-Anne, who sing in both French and English, said that the way to succeed among country-shy Quebecers is to play down the country connection. “The secret,” he said, “is to do it but don’t say it.” Many Canadians retain their dreams of big-time success. Said three-time Juno winner Carroll Baker: “It’s a building process. It doesn’t happen overnight.” Ronnie Prophet, a singer from Quebec now living in Nashville, has his own dream—of Canadian country artists breaking en masse into the U.S. market, like the Beatles-led British invasion of the 1960s. And Tracey Brown has another success fantasy: “To pick and choose like Anne Murray,” she said wistfully. “To take the summer off and go to the cottage, get into the canoe and fish.” That is the stuff of country music: the yearning for something better, even for stardom. And while it could all end in heartbreak, in a lonesome beer-swilling song about what might have been, it might—just might—end at the top.