The Golden Age of Canadian Country Music
Family legend has my mother Laura, an aspiring young country singer, advertising
for a back-up band. My father, Lynn Russwurm, answered the ad.
Back in those days Dad’s country band was called the Pine River Troubadours. When my parents hooked up, Lynn and Laura became The Pine River Sweethearts. Not that either of them had ever been anywhere near anything called the “Pine River”. Just a little creative license (not to be confused with Creative Commons license.)
As a kid I remember thinking it odd that my parents would “go playing”. After all “playing” was supposed to be the province of us kids. It was particularly galling that we couldn’t go along.
It was only later that I realized my folks weren’t suffering massive bouts of immaturity but out working… playing musical instruments.
Before I was born my brother had his stage debut. As I got older I was thrilled to have my own opportunity to sing onstage with my sisters every summer when our parents played regular summer park gigs.
But in my teen years my natural inclination to hamminess evaporated under the onslaught of adolescent insecurity. Suddenly nothing in the world would get me up on that stage. Ever.
One of my favorites that they played was actually a popular White Swan toilet paper jingle. Hey I was a kid; kids are supposed to like bathroom humour. But I wasn’t the only one laughing — playing that jingle always got a big laugh.
Nowadays they would probably get charged with a copyright infringement, but back then any company would have welcomed the free advertising.
By the time I was ten I pretty much knew the words to every country music song ever written. (At least it sure felt like I did.) But the first song that truly captured my attention was Bobby Goldsboro‘s sad ballad Honey. The first time I heard it I was supposed to be asleep, not crouching in the hall illicitly watching the country music TV program my parents had on in the mistaken belief the kids were safely down for the night. (Hah.) I do remember crawling back into bed and crying myself to sleep (quietly, so as not to incriminate myself) because the story in the song was so sad.
Another song I love to this day is the Marty Robbins ballad El Paso. Oooh… still get chills. The song tells a good story, and I guess I’ve always been a story person. Probably why I’m a writer not a musician.
I was star struck when Dad took me back stage to meet Marty Robbins. Finding myself face to face with my hero my heart skipped a beat… and I promptly buried my face in Dad’s pant leg and refused to look at the poor guy. Sorry Marty.
When I was much older I went out and bought my own copy of Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs on vinyl. I still have the shocking pink album on vinyl, because I still love the song.
My dad was always an active and prolific song writer. When the kids were little, Mom stayed home while Dad played with other bands on weekends. There was often back stage schmoozing at concerts to make contact with musicians and recording artists who might want to record some of his songs. And his music did get recorded.
As we kids got older, Dad dusted off his ambitions and started a new band both parents could be part of. It wasn’t long before my brother was old enough to join the band.
Eventually Dad produced a The Hummingbirds debut album “Play It Long and Lonesome” on his own Flora Records label. My brother Lance Russwurm did the cover illustration, and I’m happy to report that the music still holds up nicely today. If anything, the production values may have been too slick for the country music genre at the time.
Recently the song was covered by Martin L. Gore on his solo album Counterfeit 2. Dad can’t quite connect with the Depeche Mode singer’s interpretation, but it certainly tickles him to have one of his songs performed in such a different way.
There were lots of country music TV shows on air back then. Exposure is a key ingredient in finding an audience. Whenever any country music program was on TV whatever we kids wanted to watch was over-ruled. The Gary Buck Show. The Tommy Hunter Show. The George Hamilton the Fourth Show. No matter what great adventure show was on the other channel. Living in rural southern Ontario at the time we only got two channels, so I imagine there was a great deal of country music programming elsewhere in Canada too. At least Hee Haw was funny.
My father began his love affair with music as a kid on a farm listening to CKNX Barn Dance radio broadcasts. The cutting edge technology of the time allowed radio broadcasts from Wingham to be heard all around the world.
The story of how Doc Cruikshank built the original Wingham radio tower by following a Do It Yourself article in a 1926 issue of Popular Mechanics Magazine was documented 30 years later in the 1956 Popular Mechanics story The World’s Tiniest Town with TV.
When CKNX launched its radio station they only broadcast part time. The big problem was the need for content. Cruikshank solved that by enlisting local musicians to play music over the airwaves. It wasn’t very long before performers were clamoring to appear on the CKNX Barn Dance broadcasts.
A guest performance on the CKNX Barn Dance was the Canadian equivalent of performing on The Grand Ol’ Opry. The studio had a glass window wall that allowed passers by to watch the performers do their broadcasts from the street.
The technology made it possible to reach an incredibly large audience. This was the golden age of Canadian Country Music. When everyone performed in black and white… Just kidding!
a brief look at technology, politics and the music business
Between the 1920’s and the 1950’s, radio and recording technology was still pretty new. Performers had places to perform and were able to access the technology. Certainly cutting a record was expensive, but anyone could do it. There were many small recording companies and many successful performers, singers and songwriters. The world of culture was rich and varied.
By the 1950’s, though, the world shrank. It isn’t that there were fewer performers, but that there were fewer companies. As the media companies merged, and merged again, and again and again, control of music distribution was distilled into a tiny handful of corporations.
Which is why today, Warner Music Canada, Sony BMG Music Canada, EMI Music Canada, and Universal Music Canada, four American “branch plants”, are the primary members of the Canadian Recording Industry Association. That translates to a big four chances for creators to record their music.
In a misguided attempt to ensure Canadian performers would have access to Canadian airwaves, our government implemented “Canadian Content” legislation. Unfortunately the effect was to introduce a quota system. Had the government stood firm it might not have been so bad, but they caved in when the big recording companies fought tooth and nail to have the quotas reduced. The end result is the absolute least Canadian content these companies can get away with.
The result for Canadian culture has not been pretty. Because of the lack of opportunities for Canadian artists, a great many have been forced to leave home, incidentally enriching American culture at the expense of Canadian culture.
In the 1980’s it would have cost tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars to outfit a professional recording studio. Over the past few decades computer technology has brought enormous innovation to the equipment. Prices have dropped so that just about anyone can set up a home recording studio. The Internet has provided artists with an amazing inexpensive way to promote and distribute their own media.
As a result, more and more Canadian artists have chosen to market their own music, rather than giving some or all of the copyright to their original creations to corporations who continue to operate like a “company store”. Small businesses are springing up to handle the 21st century support modern independent artists require. If left alone, the large media corporations that refuse to adapt will go out of business like the buggy whip manufacturers before them.
Michael Geist discusses Canadian Digital Music Sales Growth Beats The U.S. For the 4th Straight Year
The Canadian music industry has now come full circle. We’re back to where artists have choices and freedom, and cannot be coerced into giving up their copyright.
A great deal of pressure is being applied by the American Copyright Lobby on our government especially the department of Industry to force them to introduce legislation beneficial to the large media corporations and copyright collectives at the expense of our creators and our citizens. Failing that, Canada is one of the countries negotiating the secret A.C.T.A. copyright treaty, and if Canada signs it, at the end of the day the new Canadian copyright laws we would be implementing would not be “made in Canada” but made in the U.S.A.
The copyright lobby is also trying to convince citizens that personal use copying and file sharing is the same thing as commercial bootlegging, so they will be able to clamp down on supposed “piracy” as an excuse to lock down the internet. Like the early days of radio and recording, independent media artists have the ability to disseminate their own work. If they succeed in convincing us that what we have purchased doesn’t really belong to us, suddenly our freedom will be gone. And that would be the end of the new golden age of music.
Right now it could go either way. I vote for freedom.
Dad discovers YouTube
How about that…. videos of people performing one of his own songs. Contrary to what the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) would have people believe, only rarely do artists push for laws to extend copyright in perpetuity.
Although a “rights holder”, the last thing Dad wanted was to bring charges of copyright infringement. As an artist, a creator, Dad was just thrilled to have his work appreciated and interpreted. And most especially, kept alive.
For any artist, this is immortality.
This is why artists create art.
They have to.
When you’re an artist, the most important thing is being heard.
If you can get paid too: bonus.
Dad liked this one of the band West Coast Turnaround performing I Cast a Lonesome Shadow live, even though it’s missing the first bit. It was quite probably recorded by a fan with a cel phone in a bar. Glad they weren’t arrested.
My personal favorite of the many recordings made of I Cast A Lonesome Shadow would be my brother Lance singing it on The Hummingbirds album. (Don’t tell him I said that.)
Play It Long and Lonesome is scheduled to be released on CD this year.