Playlist of the Great North Wind

Notes courtesy of Steve Fruitman, host of the Great North Wind a Toronto folk radio program on CIUT-FM, University of Toronto


April 9, 1998
Guests: Tom Nunn & Norm Tellier of
Northern City Limits Bluegrass Band

"Like everything else that comes from south of the border, when something is really good, Canadians latch onto it. So it was with Big Band music, Nashville music, Blues and Rock n' Roll. Bluegrass was no exception.

When bluegrass started being heard on radios from Halifax to Vancouver, listeners got excited by this new sound in country music. Radio signals from Wheeling, WV and Nashville were so strong that they penetrated deeply into the heart of Canada. The rapid fire of banjo breakdowns, sawing fiddles double stopping, the off-beat cutting of mandolins and the nasal blues sung by Bill Monroe and his peers turned out to be no fad: it was a new musical religion!

NCL color logo

Since the late 1940s bluegrass and old tyme country bands started popping up in Canada. Very few of these groups were ever recorded. It wasn't until the latter half of the 1950s that Canada's few music Czars recognized that there was a market for some of this music and started signing a few of these bands to their labels. In Nova Scotia blind Freddy McKenna grabbed onto the Doc Watson style and blended it with shades of bluegrass. While in Toronto the York County Boys lead by Mike Cameron formed and eventually signed with Arc Records, one of the country's country music labels.

Bluegrass languished in the backwater communities for the longest time. But in the late 1960s a new scene was developing around the farming communities of South Western Ontario. London became the centre of folk and bluegrass musics as musicians such as Willie P Bennett, Ken Palmer, Burt Baumbach, and Denis Lepage (to name a few) were beginning their careers. North of Toronto The Good Brothers were beginning to mix long hair, pot, The Grateful Dead and bluegrass. Gordon Lightfoot had a major hit with the bluegrass tinged 'Alberta Bound'. A scene was developing, bluegrass festivals sprouted up in places like Carlisle and Waterford and young and old players traded licks and chops, songs and instruments.

To date, bluegrass in Canada has been mostly hidden, but strong. There are bluegrass jamborees and clubs right across the land, sort of paralleling the old time fiddle scene. So tonight we focussed on this most interesting aspect of Bluegrass in Canada.

THE YORK COUNTY BOYS: Southern Fiddle Medley (unknown)

Blue Grass Jamboree with the York County Boys, LP, circa 1958, Arc 502 [One of the first Canadian bluegrass bands to record, these guys got together back in 1954. Mike Cameron, Rex Yetman and Big John McManaman were the first three in the band who were later joined by Alfred Leger and fiddle ace Brian Barron. Some of these guys are still playing; I just met Barron last year actually and will probably invite him down to do a show soon]

JERUSALEM RIDGE: Just A Little Talk With Jesus (M Christian)

Authentic Bluegrass Music, Cas, 1990, JR010390 [An excellent bluegrass band from Edmonton, these guys sound very authentic, especially with their wonderful vocal arrangements. This comes from their first cassette. They have gone on to produce some might fine CDs since then]

FRED McKENNA, GEORGE BECK and THE MARITIME PLAYBOYS: I Wish I Could Forget You (F McKenna - G Beck)

The Downeast Music of..., LP, circa 1959, Banff RBS 1053 [Freddy McKenna was a legend in Canadian country music. Well known as the blind guy who played his guitar on his lap (a la Jeff Healey) on Singalong Jubilee, he was also a producer and arranger to countless musicians. His singing and playing style owe a lot to Doc Watson. This was his first album, recorded with George Beck and his band from Nova Scotia. The album cover tells you nothing about any of them. While the songs are down home and countryish, they are played in bluegrass style]

NORTHERN CITY LIMITS: Listening To The Rain (D Devanney)

Clear Blue Sky, CD, 1997, NCL002
http://www3.sympatico.ca/tnunn/nclhome.htm Northern City Limits [Like so many of the excellent bluegrass bands from Ontario, this one, which only formed in 1990, is from south-western Ontario, just west of Hamilton. It seems that this region has produced a plethora of bluegrass bands and festivals. While the band may be rather new, its members have been found playing in various other bands over the last two decades. When I showed Tom and Norm the Canadian bluegrass albums I brought in to do this show, they just about knew all the players in every band, shaking their heads with smiles on their faces while reminiscing]

NORMAN BLAKE: Macon Rag (trad)

Whisky Before Breakfast, CD, 1993 (re-release of 1976), Rounder CD0063 [Little needs to be said of Norman Blake, obviously. However my guests were asked about their influences, guitarist Tom Nunn couldn't speak highly enough of Blake. While other guitarists from Bruce Cockburn to Doc Watson helped shape Nunn's style, it was Blake's incredible picking that did it for him. This piece isn't bluegrass picking, but it's one of Nunn's favourite pieces]

CLEAN SWEEP: Misery Train

Paradise Run, CD, 1997, SMCDCS-97
12 Monroe St, Cambridge ON N1R 2C5 [Norm Tellier played in this band for over ten years before joining up with NCL. I can't remember the names of the members of this band, but this song was written by one of them. A great piece that has the rhythm and oomph that drives bluegrass musicians mad with desire to play]

TOM NUNN & NORM TELLIER: Go Hither To Go Yonder

Tom in studioLive in Studio [I asked, for the sake of our listeners, if the guys could display what they do in the band. For instance, what is an off-beat, what does the mandolin do, ditto for the other instruments in the band? So they demonstrated. Norm said that you should consider the bass to be like a bass drum beat while the mandolin plays the snare beat and you'll surely understand then what the off-beat is. The mando plays this pretty much right through a breakdown except when it's his turn for a solo, that's when the banjo takes up the off-beat slack. In this piece they showed how its done with just mandolin and guitar]

BOB PAISLEY & SOUTHERN GRASS: No Vacancy

No Vacancy, CD, no date, Brandywine 1002
RD #4, Box 262, Landenberg, PA 19350 [Another of Tom and Norm's favourite traditional bluegrass bands: "They don't come any more traditional than this." ]

SELDOM SCENE: Wild Kentucky Roan (trad)

The World's Greatest Show, CD, 1987, Sugar Hill SHCD 2201
PO Box 4040, Duke Station, Durham, NC 27706 [The late Jack Duffy was one of the first bluegrass musicians to go for it, bucking tradition, and just taking his approach to mandolin playing one step further. You just never knew what he was going to play nor how he was planning on getting back in with the flock when his solo was over. His ascent through the Country Gentlemen gave him the status required to be a rebel, and along with this now legendary band, lead the way to further changes and fusions of what we call bluegrass. Since then we've seen the likes of Newgrass music, bands covering Beatles and Lightfoot songs bluegrass style, and other very non-traditional things. Bad Livers and Bela Fleck, Tony Trishka and others have taken the genre from the blues and breakdowns to new heights. It's an ever evolving trend and yet, it's very definitely bluegrass]

NORTHERN CITY LIMITS: King of Spades (Joseph & Gina Alexander)

Clear Blue Sky, CD, 1997, NCL002
http://www3.sympatico.ca/tnunn/nclhome.htm [Well after the last song, about a horse, I decided to play this one, about a horse. This version is rather clean and sweet, just a clear voyage on the good ship rhythm, typical of the Canadian way of playing this music]

TOM NUNN & NORM TELLIER: Nine Pound Hammer (M Travis)

HavelockLive In Studio [I asked Norm and Tom the controversial question that has set arguments ablaze in bluegrass circles ever since it became popular in this country. Many critics claim that, while Canadians have certainly mastered the instrumental aspect of bluegrass, they just can't sing it right. They rarely try to imitate that nasal tone or the bluesy vocal patterns of the traditional Appalachian bluegrass greats. Some then go on to knock the entire tradition, or belittle it because of this. But as Tom and Norm explained, Canadians just do sing differently and wherever they play in the US their counterparts admire their style. It's just different, that's all. A different genre of bluegrass music. I pointed out that it goes far and beyond a 'Canadian Sound': You hear an entirely different perspective from Maritimers, Western bands and those from Ontario as well. Like the Canadian Blues tradition, it ain't like the original, but that doesn't make it bad, only different, and in a way, it's better for the whole scene]

NORTHERN CITY LIMITS: B's Tune (P Hurdle)

Clear Blue Sky, CD, 1997, NCL002
http://www3.sympatico.ca/tnunn/nclhome.htm [A neat and crooked breakdown written by Paul Hurdle, banjo picker with the NCL, that features various solos which is something not unusual in bluegrass breakdowns. Bluegrass has come a long way: the infamous Ontario festivals have evolved from rowdy red-neck parties to family events; you no longer have to be subjected to 10 hours of breakdowns to enjoy them since the music is varied and vast. In the second hour we looked at some of the other Canadians who have played bluegrass music through the years]

TAMMY FASSAERT: When The Sun Comes Up (F Koller - S O'Brien)

Just Passin' Through, CD, 1994, Strictly Country Records SCR-36
PO Box 38015, King Edward Mall PO, Vancouver, BC V5Z 4L9 [Now known for her singing Tammy was originally a bass player with bluegrass bands, culminating in her career with Laurie Lewis & Grant Street in the US. While little of what she currently does can be considered bluegrass, there is no mistaking her vocal patterns]

G WHILLIKER'S SIX-STRING BAND: Wind, Haunting Wind (G Saylin)

Cafe Instrumentals, CD, 1996, Sound Acoustic Music! GBS 7536
PO Box 1544, Davis, California, 95617 USA [Not bluegrass but not far off. I used this for background music during announcements. In fact, I most likely played a couple of cuts from this neat solo guitar CD]

JAMES & THE GOOD BROTHERS: Poppa Took The bottle From The Shelf (Bruce Good)

James & The Good Brothers, LP, circa 1971, Columbia C 30889 [As mentioned earlier, this trio merged their various influences into a hip sound, a bit of that folk-rock heritage of the late 1960s and early 70s. James Ackroyd with Bruce and Brian Good, twins from Richvale, Ontario. After hanging around Yorkville they did what a lot of musicians were doing back then: travelled to California to do some gigs. They caught the eye of Jack Cassidy and Billy Kreutzmann and were signed to do this album for Columbia. It went nowhere but The Good Brothers certainly did. Shortly after the release of this album, younger brother Larry was used on banjo for Lightfoot's Alberta Bound. In fact, the Good Brothers, minus James, were opening up for Lightfoot gigs until an unfortunate incident got them fired: flirting with Lightfoot's woman Cathy Smith. The Goods then got down into heavy bluegrass for a while and were very successful, winning countless Junos as Country Group of the Year annually through the late 70s and early 80s]

LADY'S CHOICE BLUEGRASS BAND: Montequma's Revenge (S Holmes)

Bluegrass Is Our Business, LP, 1981, Boot Records BBG-6014 [Margaret Good lived next door to Paul Burton in Richvale, just north of Toronto, where the Burton County Line bluegrass band would practice. In this band were Phil King, Dick Van Raadshoovan (Erin Benjamin), Paul Burton and Skip Holmes. I was best of friends with Burton and would often help them out at gigs with their sound system. One day with the Goods were visiting mom, a couple of them came over to hear this new upstart and to give them advice (Like: should we quit now?). They were deeply impressed with Skip's banjo playing and were totally amazed when told that he had only picked it up 8 months ago.

Since then Holmes moved to Halifax where he joined well known fiddler Gordon Stobbe to form this group with Trish York, Bill Doucette and Walter Jakeman. They recorded two records for the Boot label before disbanding and reincarnating as "Those Fabulous Clichés" in the mid-80s. Stobbe lobbied Atlantic Television and was awarded with his own TV show called Down Home Tonight. His right hand man was Skip Holmes on guitar and banjo]

HUMPHREY & THE DUMPTRUCKS: Jolly Rodger (G Card - M Taylor)

Hot Spit!, LP, 1971, Boot Records BOS 7106 [Not really a bluegrass band, these guys were heavily influenced by it as well as jugband music, country music, prairie wind, groundhogs and of course, dumptrucks. They came from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which any Joni fan can tell you had a nice little music scene happening in the 60s and 70s. They were Humphrey Dumptruck, Michael Millar, Graeme Card and Michael Taylor. Also from Saskatoon was Toronto resident Juri Krytiuk who signed them to his brand new label, Boot Records. This was only the sixth album on the fledgeling label, owned by Krytiuk, current SOCAN treasurer Mark Altman and Stompin' Tom Connors. In fact there is a tribute song to Stompin' Tom on the album written by Graeme Card (Tom's Song) as well as Friend of the Devil]

THE HUMBER RIVER VALLEY BOYS: Rose Tree (trad) / La Bastringue (trad)

Humber River Valley Boys, LP, 1977, Woodshed Records WS-008 [A dye in the wool bluegrass band, using the name of one of Toronto's sewer/rivers for their name. They included Brian Pickell, Don Thurston, John Glover and Dave Harvey. The LP was produced by David Essig at Lanois' Grant Avenue Studio and the cover was by Ian Bell who was later offered a lot of work for Boot doing their covers. This song is not at all a bluegrass piece but showed the direction that the genre was taking at the time, covering any kind of tune and transforming it into a bluegrass style]

THE LINCOLN COUNTY PEACH PICKERS: Niagara Moon (prob. Eric and/or Johnny Harder)

From old 78 recorded between 1952-54, cassette courtesy Ian Bell [The earliest recordings of Canadian bluegrass that I know of are by this band from Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario. While I'm not in possession of the 78s, Ian Bell dubbed a copy of them for me a few years back. The tape includes their 78s from the early 50s as well as a resurrected version of the band jamming at home in 1985. They were Eric and Johnny Harder with Cousin Johnny, however, I have no idea who was in the original Peach Picker band]

DENIS LEPAGE & STATION ROAD: Bowing The Strings (N Landry)

Denis Lepage & Station Road, LP, 1979, Boot Records BBG 6005 [A main ingredient in the success of hip Canadian bluegrass was this extraordinary banjo player who recorded a few albums with Station Road in the late 70s. Linked to the London, Ontario scene, they were big on the bluegrass circuit. They covered  old time fiddle tunes, did an R&B medley and other fusionary ideas. Son of an excellent Québécois accordionist, Richard Lepage, Denis can almost be considered a virtuoso player]

THE DIXIE FLYERS: The Booze Hound (T Body)

New Horizons, LP, 1984, Stony Plain SPL 1077 [Certainly the most popular of all of Canada's bluegrass bands, The Dixie Flyers formed about 25 years ago in London and are still active. This album was recorded by the CBC and leased to Stony Plain, probably at the height of their popularity in the early 80s. Over the years they have seen players like Willie P Bennett (harmonica), b and a host of others in the band, but the mainstays are Bert Baumbach and Ken Palmer (Artistic Director of London's Home County Folk Festival)]

THE NEW COUNTY LINE: Gravedigger (M Hawkins) / Fiddle Medley: Miller's Reel (trad) / Whitefish In The Rapids (trad) / Reel du chat (Andy Dejarlis)

The New County Line, LP, 1980, Windsor Records WL-8002 [While Anne Lederman is well known for her fiddle work with Klezmer bands and Métis music and her work with Ian Bell in Muddy York, she was in this Windsor, Ontario based band.  I played two selections from this rare album to show the bluegrass side, and the Lederman angle with her arrangements of a medley of old time reels]

FRED J EAGLESMITH: Get Your Prices Up (F Eaglesmith)

There Ain't No Easy Road, Cas, 1991, Sweetwater Records FSE 004
Ellen Russell <russell@worldchat.com> [He may be a big thing now - in fact, just about anything he records is destined to be aired on folk radio: he's just that good - but few American djs are aware of Fred's earlier career which goes back to the early 80s. His career can be defined in the following stages: Early Eaglesmith, the singer/songwriter; The Indiana Road Period; The Languisher; The current Period. This song was recorded in the Languishing Period, a quiet time when few were aware of him and his extraordinary talents. A good thing in a way, since this is when he really developed as a songwriter, as a singer, and established the basis of his real identity. This was also a very different concept album! Sold in a hand-made box on two cassettes with a booklet, containing some great material including White Buffalo, this was a sure sign of things to come. The bluegrass was in there too, in the vocals and vocal harmonies, in the instrumentation (again, Willie P Bennett with Ralph Schipper and Scott Merritt). It was recorded at the Town Hall Theatre in Port Dover, Ontario]

RON SCOTT WITH THE SOUTHERN RAMBLERS: Soapsuds

Nova Scotia Calling, Cas, no date, RS4 001
Box 333, Westport ON, K0G 1X0 [Another fine example of the bluegrass edge in Nova Scotia. While this guy is not very well known in these parts generally, his name is known by Tom and Norm, indicative of just how far the bluegrass community goes to assemble its collective pieces. A blending of C&W with Bluegrass, the cassette tells nothing on the liner about the artists. But here's a little soapy breakdown]

ECHOES OF BLUEGRASS: Ralph Stanley Sing On (C Love)

Country Poor & Country Proud, LP, 1985, Sweetgrass KSGLP-0185 [We ended the program with a bunch of LPs that didn't get to see the light of day in my bag: Cody, Steel Rail, Pulse Creek, Tommy Wade & The Country Rebels, The White River Bluegrass Band, Bytown Bluegrass. But I had time for just one cut and it had to be by the late Shin Van Every and her band Echoes of Bluegrass. Shin was a well loved musician who passed away three or four years ago, but lived on the Six Nations Reserve. She played stand-up bass, had stubby, thick fingers but was able to reach those hard to get notes without a problem. Here we end with a suitable tribute to one of the kings of Bluegrass, Ralph Stanley, sung by Shin]


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