The Country Craze

Down-home music has gone up-tempo and uptown, winning over a new urban audience


The Country Craze

Down-home music has gone up-tempo and uptown, winning over a new urban audience


The Country Craze

Down-home music has gone up-tempo and uptown, winning over a new urban audience



The muffled sound of country music drifts up from the basement of a discount shopping mall in Quebec City’s lower town. It emanates from what was once a fast-food restaurant—until amplifiers and wagon-wheel light fixtures were installed three years ago. Now, the Bar Les Etoiles Country is a haven for line dancers. Local singer Odette Potvin and her country band are playing for the Saturday-night crowd of 200. On the dance floor, about 30 people in two lines stamp their feet, sidestep and pirouette in unison. Scores of other men and women watch from the cafeteria-style tables, applauding wildly for each song. At a table with a group of her women friends sits 61-year-old widow Jeanette Blanchette, who goes to the Bar Les Etoiles four or five times a week. “An hour on the dance floor is a real workout,” Blanchette says in French. “I’m in better shape now than I was when I was 40.” But the crowd has come for more than just aerobics. “I like to listen to country and western music,” says Russell Doiron, a 41-year-old hospital attendant. “I understand only a few words in the English songs, but you don’t really need to understand because the music’s fun.”

From coast to coast, country music is speaking the language of the Canadian mainstream. A decade after the last mechanical bulls of the urban-cowboy craze were put out to pasture, city slickers are getting all gussied up again in their blue jeans and fancy belt buckles, tapping the toes of their cowboy boots to the country sound. It is not that old-style artists like Buck Owens and Loretta Lynn have suddenly won over a vast new audience. Instead, a generation of “new country” performers has stormed the stage, dropping the twang and speeding up the beat. And to an urban audience that has long associated country with grizzled guitar pickers, the current stars have an aura of youth and sexuality—a phenomenon incarnate in 32-year-old Garth Brooks. He has sold 36 million albums in the United States in the past four years, more than any other artist in any genre during that period (page 41). Overall U.S. sales of country albums hit $2 billion last year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Although rock and so-called urban contemporary records enjoyed bigger sales, country is the fastest growing category in both the United States and Canada.

The biggest country star to have emerged here, Alberta-bom k.d. lang, abandoned the genre with last year’s Ingenue. But she takes a trip back to her old stomping grounds in the new soundtrack collection Even Cowgirls Get The Blues. Michelle Wright, meanwhile, is coming on strong with her revisionist country sound (page 42). Charlie Major, Cassandra Vasik, Shania Twain, George Fox and Patricia Conroy are also gaining ground both at home and internationally. “It’s pretty obvious that country music is becoming the pop music of the 1990s,” Conroy said in an interview. “Everyone is looking for a place to hang their musical hats, and it looks like it’s country. What country is doing now is becoming a melting pot of a lot of melodic music, something with a beat you can dance to and words you can sing along with—the words mean something.”

With the current country craze, a number of stalwarts of the Canadian scene are enjoying renewed popularity. Ian Tyson, a folk star in the 1960s who now sings cowboy music, enjoyed domestic sales of nearly 50,000 copies of his latest album, And Stood There Amazed (1991). Toronto-based Prairie Oyster, formed in the 1970s, broke up, reconstituted in 1982 and won its first Juno Award in 1986 as best country group. But only recently has the group won popular acclaim—its latest album, Everybody Knows, sold more than 100,000 copies in Canada.

The five-man, one-woman band was working last week at a rehearsal space called the Jam Factory, once an actual plant for making jam in industrial east-end Toronto. Graffiti, none of it fit to print, covers the walls, and wires and equipment clutter the room as Prairie Oyster prepares a new tune for an upcoming album—an upbeat love song. “You know I love you anyhow/It’s ancient history to me now,” runs the refrain. Prairie Oyster, in fact, has much to be upbeat about. “Even up to a couple of years ago,” says Russell deCarle, the band’s 40-year-old lead vocalist, “we’d go play in bars that would be half full. Now, it kind of amazes me. We drop into a place and see the parking lot full and you wonder what’s going on? Is there a hockey game next door? But they’re actually there to see us.”

Prairie Oyster is riding high on a country boom that is driven not only by a new wave of artists, but by demographics as well. Many classic rock fans and aging baby boomers feel abandoned by modem pop music. Seattle-based grunge rock and the urban rap sound are “too hardedged for me,” says Don Curtis, the 52-year-old co-owner of a Toronto advertising agency. “I’m from the Elvis era. And in the 1960s, I was into things like the Beatles and Chicago. So it’s a logical sort of flow.” Although he always liked country music, “I didn’t really listen to it regularly until the last couple of years. Now, my wife and I go out country line dancing a couple of times a week.” But a younger crowd has been turned on, too. “I grew up in high school listening to rock,” says Dion

Burlock, a 20-year-old student at Lakeland College in Vermilion, Alta., where he rides on the rodeo team. “When rap came in, I gave up. We were all rock fans but now everyone is swinging to country.”

That swing is reflected on radio and TV. In the United States, according to the New York City-based Simmons Market Research Bureau, country radio reached more adults last year than did any other format—67 million weekly listeners, up from 56 million in 1990. The Canadian scene is a few steps behind, but closing in fast. The CRTC is considering five applications for a country-music television channel—the United States already has two networks. And the number of full-time country radio stations in Canada has increased to 95 in 1993, up from about 65 in 1988. The most dramatic radio debut has been that of CISSFM, which, backed by a major publicity campaign, went on air last January in Toronto, a city long considered one of Canada’s most countryhostile markets. Last June’s BBM radio survey—the first since CISS-FM’s arrival—ranked it an astonishing number 3 among Toronto’s 17 stations, with 770,000 listeners. A later survey found that while CISS’s portion of the total market had fallen slightly, its share of the coveted baby boom market had grown.

CISS’s morning-show hosts Cliff Dumas and Jane Brown were at the station before sun-up one day last week, reading the news and weather and fielding phone calls about the Liberal election victory—and about Blue Jay Todd Stottlemyre’s dirty language at the World Series victory parade (“a little uncalled for,” says Dumas). Between songs, the duo also announced local events for children, as they do every morning. It was all in tune with the station’s efforts to capitalize on the baby boom connection to new country, which Dumas calls the “family music of the 1990s.”

Over lunch at a nearby restaurant, Doug Pringle offers an elaborate explanation for the station’s success. Pringle is director of programming for Rawlco, the Calgary-based company that owns CISS and 10 other non-country stations across Canada. He argues that new country is the logical heir to Elvis, to the Bob Dylan folk-rock era of the late 1960s and to the Eagles and other country-rock bands of the 1970s.

The only thing that has been holding new country back, says Pringle, is old country—the good ol’ boys of the TV show Hee Haw,

the southern U.S. twang and the redneck culture it represented. “While Janis Joplin was fighting for the emancipation of women,” he adds, ‘Tammy Wynette was singing Stand By Your Man. It was totally out of step with what was going on in the world.” In order to attract the old rockers, Pringle says, CISS-FM had to distance itself from that hokey history. “There’s not much twang in the music we play,” notes Pringle. “We’re very market-specific. Most of the people who listen to us work in office buildings, not on farms. Perhaps we’re even overly sensitive now—but we purposely keep off the radio things that sound like the old, stereotypical Hee Haw stuff.”

Not everyone is thrilled with the new CISS format. Purists have complained that much of the music it plays is not real country. In fact, the station often features the Eagles and occasionally even songs by such mainstream pop artists as Rod Stewart and the Barenaked Ladies. But concerns about CISS go far beyond the format of a single station to a growing schism between old and new country—between the bandwagon-jumpers now crowding western bars and longtime boosters like Larry Delaney. The 50-year-old editor-publisher of the Ottawabased Country Music News, Delaney complains that “a lot of the country stars who actually opened the doors for the popularity that country now enjoys are being shunned by radio. The Merle Haggards and Tammy Wynettes simply don’t get airplay any more.” That, he claims, is “the real danger with the boom in country music. I’m a traditionalist at heart. I enjoy the contemporary sound of country music, but not at the expense of traditions.”

If old country is under assault in Toronto and elsewhere, it has found a haven in a house in tiny Blue Rocks, N.S. Inside is a dusty, comfortable room that serves as both a studio for seascape artist Graham (Buz) Baker, 58, and a shrine to his idol, Clarence Eugene (Hank) Snow, who grew up in a small wooden house less than two kilometres away. The product of a dirt-poor broken home, Snow worked on Grand Banks fishing schooners before starting his professional musical career on a Hali-

fax radio station in 1934. He went on to sell about 70 million records and become a country legend. Now 80 and living in Nashville, he continues to perform almost weekly at the Grand Ole Opry. Snow’s photographs, posters and album covers are plastered over the walls of Baker’s studio.

“There have been lots of great songwriters, singers and guitar players,” Baker explains as he sifts through his record pile,

“but Hank is great at all of those things.”

As afternoon sunlight filters into the room, Baker, his wife Linda Lou, 44, and Sherman (Little Buddy) Hirtle, 60, from nearby Big Tancook Island, strum and sing Snow hits that they play at dances, bars and festivals in the area.

The trio is part of the Friends of Hank Snow Society, which holds annual summer tributes to the star—although Snow himself has not yet come.

The society has also mounted a fund-raising campaign to build a museum in his honor in Liverpool, N.S. Says Linda Lou Baker: “We just want to make sure that he isn’t neglected in his home province.”

Little chance of that. Country music has never really been out of fashion in Nova Scotia. Both Hirtle and Graham Baker grew up on the province’s south shore, and both heard their first strains of country on a West Virginia radio station that reached Canada’s East Coast.

“Hard times breed an interest in country music,” says Hirtle. ‘When people don’t have the money to go out and do anything else they have to entertain themselves.” And entertain they did. During the 1930s and 1940s, the Maritimes’ hardscrabble economy spawned some of the best-known country artists to ever strum a chord. Among them: singer Wilf Carter, now 88, who was bom in Port Hilford, N.S., and Don Messer, the shy fiddler from Prince Edward Island who became one of the best-known entertainers in Canada before the CBC cancelled his weekly television show in 1969. None, however, achieved the mythical status of Snow. “I know at least 375 people around here,” says Baker, “who claim to have taught Hank how to play the guitar.”

Even for people who can’t play a lick, there is always country garb. Western wear is in fashion, as Winnipeg Mayor Susan Thompson will attest. A picture of Thompson presenting Garth Brooks with a Winnipeg Jets jersey hangs prominently on her office wall. But beyond her civic duties, the mayor has a personal reason to thank the country star—his popularity is selling boots, pants, silver buckles, shirts and bolo ties in her store, located just two blocks from city hall. When Jack Birt founded Birt Saddlery in 1918, it sold saddles, stirrups and other horse accessories. Later, when the mayor’s grandfather, W. J. Thomp-

The current stars have an aura of youth and sexuality

son, purchased it in 1932, he introduced farm clothing. And then, in the early 1950s, actor James Dean popularized blue jeans and the mayor’s father acquired the western Canadian franchise for Lee jeans. By the time Susan Thompson took over in 1980, clothing made up half of Birt Saddlery’s sales. She soon dropped saddles from the store’s stock.

Thompson fondly remembers the autumn of 1980. With the release of the movie Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta, she sold 2,000 western hats in three months—more than the store had sold in the previous five years. The latest round of country stars has given sales yet another boost. The store displays pictures and posters of many of the top acts: Randy Travis, Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakam, Travis Tritt and, of course, Garth Brooks. There is even a rack of black-and-white shirts just like the one Brooks wore on the cover of his album The Chase. Shop-

ping for boots at Birt’s last week, Rosanna Guarino, a 16-year-old Grade 11 student, explained: “When you’re dancing, you want to look like what you’re listening to.” Don Kinash, 33, a heavy rocker turned country fan, was picking out boots, too—but he has not yet mastered the dancing part. “I’ve tried after a few beers,” he admitted, “but even then I couldn’t seem to manage it very well.”

Real cowboys, of course, have their own dress codes. Most importantly, they never buy belt buckles—they earn them in rodeos, says Bob House. A former steer wrestler and the Canadian Professional Rodeo Association’s 1985 rookie of the year, House manages the Ranchman’s nightclub in Calgary. It is the apex of country cool in a city where, as in Nova Scotia, the music never went out of style. Ranchman’s, with cow brands burned into its tables and trophy saddles slung over the rafters, draws its authenticity from the ranch men and rodeo riders

who have patronized it since it opened in 1972. Now, they often show up wearing cowboy boots for dancing, says House, but they prefer ropers—lace-up, softleather boots with low heels. And they starch their jeans, says

House—“it’s a certain look they want when they go out” Cowboy hats are important, too, quality felt ones that can cost upwards of $300, or straw ones. But many cowboys are inclined to wear ball caps instead.

Of course, most of the people who pack the 800-capacity bar are city folk like Murray Perrett. A 45-year-old Halifax-born paramedic, Perrett goes to listen to both old and new country stars—everyone from Haggard to Brooks and Travis. And he takes two-stepping lessons at the Ranchman’s with his wife, Nancy, every Tuesday and Wednesday evening. Once, at a dance, he even met an Anglican bishop and his wife. “It’s for all walks of life,” says Perrett. But the cowboys are the ones who set the tone, and they have decreed that line dancing is out, two-stepping is in. “The two-step’s a real cowboy dance,” says instructor Jeff Jackson. “They like to have a real hold on their woman and control her.” Jackson’s instructing partner, Delina Contois, laughs. “Yeah,” she says, “the only time they can control her is on the dance floor.”

On the dance floor, maybe; onstage, not likely. Among the new country stars are such strong women artists as Mary-Chapin Carpenter and Wynonna Judd. The top acts in Canada include many women, as well. Vancouver-based Patricia Conroy, 36, won the 1993 best album award from the Canadian Country Music Association for Bad Day for Trains. She was playing last week in Penticton, B.C., at the south end of Lake Okanagan. The outlandish pink and fuchsia exterior of Chaparal’s Country Nite Club sported a marquee announcing her appearance in large purple letters. Inside the 350-seat honky-tonk, neon Budweiser signs and a sun-bleached longhorn skull welcomed the sold-out crowd. “This is just the beginning,” insisted club owner Jim New, who bought the establishment four weeks ago. “Country is already big in [the nearby Lake Okanagan community of] Kelowna. But it’s really starting to catch on here.”

Among the couples dancing around the Chaparal’s oval parquet dance floor— twirling and spinning, full skirts billowing—were some ardent Conroy fans. Hairdresser Terri Worth, 34, says that she has been a fan ever since Conroy autographed a record for her daughter, Amber, six years ago. “She was such a sweetheart,” says Worth, “I had to come out and see her again.” But perhaps truck driver Timm Lepischak was the most smitten of all. ‘We listen to her all the time,” he said, nursing a beer at the bar. “Every truck driver on the highway—in the late hours, driving at 3 or 4 in the morning—she’s the one we listen to. That’s what keeps us going.”

It is the love of the music that keeps a lot of country artists going as they soldier on far from the glow of city lights. Georges Hamel, a 46-year-old guitar player

from Drummondville, Que., has 19 French-language country albums to his credit and says that he sells a respectable 30,000 to 40,000 albums a year. He divides his time between recording at home and travelling to small towns in Quebec, Northern Ontario and the Maritimes. “I don’t have a fan club,” said Hamel last week, just before a show in New Liskeard, Ont, 130 km north of North Bay. But there are a man and woman from Montreal who follow him to all his shows, he noted proudly, while another couple plans their vacations around his tour.

Still, the travelling can get lonely. “I remember one time last winter,” said Hamel. “Me and the band were travelling to a show in the town of Nakina in Northern Ontario. We were lost in a big snowstorm, travelling down little back roads, trying to find our way. I could see families inside the houses we passed, sitting together around the dinner table or by a fire. I couldn’t stop thinking about my wife and kids—I would have given anything to be at home with them. But hey, this is the life I have chosen.” It sounds like perfect raw material for a song. But while the lyrics may still be about hurtin’, the country music business—uptempo and uptown—is feeling no pain.