When one thinks of country music these days, it’s usually dirt roads, alcohol abuse, and cheating lovers.
It’s easy to forget that Canada has a longstanding country tradition of its own, woven through wheat fields, ocean waves, and the snow-tipped Rocky Mountains. Before the outlaw movement when country music in America headed in the direction that defines its place in popular culture today, Canadian country stood strong on the side of tradition, taking cues from maritimers like Stan Rogers, the socially conscious chansonniers of the Quiet Revolution, and the legendary Wilf Carter.
Rooted in simplicity, often performed solo, we tend to call it folk to distinguish it from the popular country music of today.
An evening with Amy Nelson and Carter Felker could very well be an essay on this topic, with every Canadian-crafted lyric standing testament to the integrity and deep roots of country music in Canada.
Calling Calgary home, the couple are both incredible songwriters in their own right, releasing individual solo albums and touring together in support of one another. Carter walks the line between classics like Arlo Guthrie and modern day troubadours like Ryan Bingham, while Amy channels the spirit (and voices) of Appalachian folk heroes like Lily May Ledford and Olla Belle Reed and country legends Loretta Lynn and June Carter. Both sing of the state of everyday life from unique, but parallel perspectives.
Opening last Friday’s show at the Gate House Theatre in Port McNeill, Nelson is touring in support of the release of her debut album “Educated Woman”. Donning a ten gallon hat and pink dress, she’s a sight fit for the Opry and once you hear her sing, it’s a wonder that she hasn’t graced that hallowed stage already. Her lyrics are confident and insightful and refreshingly unapologetic. She’s a feminist in rhinestones, thundering through life with strong rhythm. Whether singing about her partner’s short attention span in ‘Good Natured Man’, or the more forlorn lyrics of ‘Where the River Bends’, Amy’s voice is powerful and emotive, pulling you into the moment with her like sonic osmosis. Driving her words is the aggressive, fingerpicked rhythm of her vintage 50’s hollowbody guitar— reminiscent of delta blues players— and lightning-fast frailing on her banjo.
Between songs, she speaks to the audience like dear friends and perhaps after sharing so much of herself on stage, in a way, you kind of are. Carter is undoubtedly the more modern-sounding of the two, though equally timeless in his own right. Singing of the mundane life of a grocery store clerk and the ups and downs of life in an oil patch town, his lyrics are straightforward and bereft of vanity. Like Hemingway, he willingly trades away poetic luxuries for simple honesty in return. Poet laureate for the salt of the earth-type folks. More melodic and folky than his counterpart, he fingerpicks his way through the arrangements gently, with patience befitting of the prairies he comes from. His sense of humour is evident both lyrically and in his stories between songs, telling of friends married and divorced in a month’s time, or singing about robbing a credit union or, rather, failing to.
Carter’s the kind of guy who’s just happy to be here and to tell his stories, genuinely enjoying what he does. That’s what makes his album “Everday Life” so good, and his live shows even better. He’s that family member with a guitar at the kitchen table— albeit much, much better— and that makes his music more than approachable— it’s already familiar. The two songwriters trade in authenticity, with simplicity as their currency.
That’s not to say they aren’t talented and capable. It’s just that you get what you get, because that’s who they are. It’s something that this genre of music (and probably the rest too) could use a little more of these days. In fact, I think ever facet of our lives could do with a little more of Nelson and Felker’s spirit.
The last live music show at the Gate House before renovations will be Small Town Artillery from Vancouver, BC (opening is Afro-Cuban rhythm band Kutapira) on Friday, June 14 at 7 p.m. Advanced tickets will be on sale soon.
– Chadwick Green article