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Maverick 51

I have just returned home from a family holiday in Canada (this column was almost late as a result!), staying in the Muskoka region of Ontario, a couple of hours north of Ontario, in a beautiful, old-time village called Port Sydney, close to the bay and the shores of Mary Lake, with spectacular views across three miles of water. It was a very tranquil and civilised setting (yob culture is unheard of) and great for the kids to get a taste of the more laid-back Canadian lifestyle…’America Light’.

We were staying with Larry Le Blanc and his family. Larry is the Toronto bureau chief for ‘Billboard’ magazine and has been described as the glue that holds the Canadian music industry together. He has a deep knowledge of music going back through decades, knows everyone and was a key figure in setting up the interviews for the Canadian music documentaries I broadcast on Radio 2 last year. His wife Anya and I are old friends, having first met when she was a record company plugger in the early 70’s, working a portfolio that included Marc Bolan, David Bowie and later Paul McCartney. She was a regular visitor to ‘Whistle Test’ and the old ‘Sounds of the 70’s’ programmes I used to do for Radio 1. Inevitable, then, that they would link us with the Canadian music industry at various stages of our two-week break, experiences that retuned me to the warmth, enthusiasm and modesty of so many of the people there.

We met Linda McLean, who records at home, in a woodland studio, overlooking Mary Lake. Her music is infused with the sun-dappled atmosphere of this beautiful place. The cover photo of her latest release ‘No Language’ is of her swimming in the lake…an activity not recommended in winter time, when the water is frozen and packed with several inches of snow in temperatures around -20. I’ve played her music on my programmes, next to artists such as Shawn Colvin and Mindy Smith.

Linda’s husband, Andy McLean, arrived in Canada from the UK in 1982. He is a recording artist, record producer and Man Utd fan and, with the help of the SXSW organisers in Texas, co-founded the Canadian equivalent NXNE in 1995.

The NXNE music and film festival is one of the major summer events in Toronto, bringing in more than 60,000 fans and hundreds of bands, to play at 33 venues across the city. The emphasis of the festival is the showcasing of new talent. The backbone of the festival is the Toronto music scene itself, and I continue to be struck by the supportive nature of the community in Canada. There may be an element of ‘grass is greener’ about my view, but my strong impression is that the mix of financial support offered by FACTOR (the Facility To Assist Canadian Talent On Record) and other funding bodies, alongside Canadian government acknowledgement and the shared experiences of road and hardship, bond the people who are trying to make a living in this huge, sparsely populated country. They know that they are not going to sell a million copies of their records in Canada alone, so there is more small-label infrastructure, more awareness of the concept of building a following one fan at a time.

We visited Toronto in the middle weekend of the holiday and met Sylvia Tyson, one of the key figures in the history of contemporary Canadian music. Her first ever composition was ‘You Were On My Mind’, an international hit for Crispian St Peters and the We Five, while ex-husband Ian’s first ever song ‘Four Strong Winds’ was memorably covered by Neil Young on his ‘Comes A Time’ LP in 1978. Not a bad start.

Together, Ian and Sylvia were a potent and prolific force, recording thirteen albums from the mid sixties to the early seventies, including ‘The Great Speckled Bird’, which helped lay the foundations for what was to become known as Country Rock. Produced by Todd Rundgren, the album featured Amos Garrett on guitar, Buddy Cage on steel (later with New Riders of the Purple Sage) and future Gram Parsons drummer N. D. Smart. Emmylou Harris, Gordon Lightfoot, Linda Ronstadt and Judy Collins are among the artists who have acknowledged the huge influence of this album.

Sylvia is a stunning woman of 65…broadcaster, writer, member of the Order of Canada, and Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee. Two years ago she was given the Estelle Klein award ‘to honour her immense and significant musical legacy’ and she is currently performing with three other female singer / songwriters in the Country Music Award winning group Quartet (new album just released). When we spoke she told me she is completing the writing of a nine-chapter historical novel and accompanying songs. ‘I just love to keep working’ was an understatement of her achievements. I got back home to find, amongst a mountain newly-arrived CD’s, a copy of Ian and Sylvia’s 1968 ‘Nashville’ album, featuring guitar picker Jerry Reed, recently re-released by Ace records.

The post turned out to be particularly exciting, with a host of strong new Canadian releases, among them ‘Songs of the Wild West Island’, an alt-country gem from Loomer (country music is broken but we aim to fix it), the exciting new solo album from Blue Rodeo vocalist Jim Cuddy called ‘The Light That Guides You Home’ and a glorious and melancholy new recording from Oh Susanna entitled ‘Looking Glass’. Look out for all of them, as well as the fragile beauty of ‘Long Island Shores’ by Mindy Smith.

But the best of all is the latest from Chris Knight called ‘Enough Rope’, an album that confirms him as a writer and performer on a par with the very best…Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen and Robert Earl Keen included. He’ll be playing a session for ‘Bob Harris Country’ during our coverage of the Americana awards in Nashville, from where I’ll be reporting for my column in Maverick next month…and I’ll try not to be late next time!

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