Hillbilly Highway – Gordie Tentrees hits the road

by Sheldon Birnie

Gordie Tentrees is a singer-songwriter from Whitehorse, Yukon. For the past ten years, he’s been honing his craft in the land of the midnight sun, and spending months riding the Hillbilly Highway across North America and beyond. He’s currently cranking out dates across Canada to launch his latest album, North Country Heart, which hit the streets this week. Stylus caught up with Gordie at the World Famous Alaska Hotel in Dawson Creek, B.C. (my hometown) at the beginning of his tour that takes him into Winnipeg Thursday, August 9th.Stylus: Your new record, North Country Heart, has a lot of themes about the north. How has living up in the Yukon affected your songwriting?

Gordie Tentrees: Well, I live in a place where there’s a lot of great songwriters. We’ve got Kim Barlow, and a real history of great music and a great music scene. So, it’s definitely affected me. It actually kicked me off songwriting. So, you know there’s a lot of songwriters that aren’t playing live or have any recordings, so there are a lot of people just sharing songs. And writers in general. So that community has really fostered that acceptance, that it’s OK to write songs and be a writer in general. As far as this album, this is the first album that I’ve written where a lot of songs are about the north. I’ve been up here for 14 years. I sort of realized that it’s OK to write songs about where I live. I probably wouldn’t have done that if I lived here for only a year or two, but I feel like it’s OK to do that now, that it’s OK for me to have an opinion because I’ve been here so long.

Stylus: I’m curious about the recording of this album. You’ve got a really cohesive sound going on. I find you’ve really improved on your sound since [2009’s] Mercy or Sin.

GT: This is the second album I’ve made with Bob Hamilton at Old Crow studios. Bob is a real good friend and a real good mentor. It’s good to have people call you on your bullshit. Like, “Hey, this is no good.” Or, “This could be better.” He’s sort of been that guy for me. I have a couple guys like that who I really respect, who’ve been like mentors to me. The Bob Hamiltons, the Fred Eaglesmiths, the Rick Finds, a couple musician friends who are really good at telling me like, “Hey this isn’t gonna cut it. You need to be better.” I trust them. They don’t tell me things unless they mean them. They’re very reserved in their opinions and they’ve been doing this a lot longer than I have. This album, performance wise… it feels like I had the idea of doing this, of being a musician, before I really knew what I was doing. I sort of did it backwards. I didn’t start playing music until my mid-20s. Before that I was an athlete. I didn’t think of playing music at all, the complete opposite in fact. I kind of got into it as a writer, wanting to write songs. Then I realized I had to play music too. So I learned to play instruments, and to sing and to perform on stage. All that stuff, performing and writing were already happening for years before the musical part of it came into play. So I’ve been working on that. Every year I try to improve, whether it’s my harmonica playing or dobro or whatever. I’ve been concentrating a lot more lately on exposing my voice, knowing it had to be stronger. I think, as far as vocals and singing go, I think I’ve definitely stepped up a notch. That’s from playing so many shows and paying more attention to it. I still think there’s tons of growth. A big part of this album is I wish it was the first that I’d made. I had to make the other four to learn how to record and be in a studio and write songs. But this album feels like the first, it feels like the start of something. The whole experience has been great for me. It’s an opportunity to learn new things. I got a great group of friends, artists and musicians, who’ve helped me a lot. It’s open ended, it never ends. That’s the beauty of it.

Stylus: You played over 200 shows last year alone. How does travelling as much as you do affect your writing?

GT: Sometimes I can write them on the road. I’m getting good at challenging myself. I can write on the road, I can write at home. Sometimes I don’t write for a month or two, then sometimes it’s all I’ll do for a month or two. I try not to push myself. There’s a lot of idea sharing going on constantly. I’ll vocalize, talking about it with other people, then all of a sudden I’ll finish two songs in a day. This album, North Country Heart, I had been moving since I put out Mercy or Sin, and it felt like two years just went by so fast. Last album opened a lot of doors and created more problems with more opportunities to tour, to perform and stuff, and sort of expanded on what I was doing. When I finally stopped touring, I was wondering “What am I going to write about now?” I had some songs floating around. I just sat still in my cabin. I got a cabin on nine acres in rural Yukon. I just started writing all these songs. I’m always talking about my home, always making jokes about it. Next thing I knew they were coming out like crazy. Once I started getting my mind around it, it just kept coming.

Stylus: Coming up here on your Winnipeg show. You’ve been through Winnipeg a bunch of times over the years. What do you think of when you think of Winnipeg?

GT: I think about all the great music. I think about Scott Nolan, Romi Mayes and the D-Rangers. Those are three acts I think of when I think of Winnipeg. The Perpetrators as well. I think of all my friends there. It’s a great community. I love Winnipeg, it’s one of my favourite places to go. The Times Change(d), I’ve played there many times. It’s one of my favourite venues to play. I’m at the Park Theatre this time for the first time, really looking forward to the show. I got my whole band with me. I’ve got my friend Roger Marin playing pedal steel. He’s well known to Winnipeggers. Scott Nolan’s opening the show, which is great. I’m really looking forward to reconnecting with those guys and sharing these new songs with people at a nice venue like the Park Theatre.

Catch Gordie Tentrees at the Park Theatre Thursday August 9th, with Scott Nolan. Tickets are $15 and the show starts at 8pm.

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