Heartworn Highways :: Outlaw Country Workshop continues at Park Theatre

photo by Matt Duboff
photo by Matt Duboff

by Seamus Hamilton-Pattison

If it ever made sense for a Canadian city to tip its trucker hats to outlaw country music, it’d make sense in Winnipeg. The mixture of “good ol’ boy” congeniality and whiskey-and-beer soaked brazenness that defined the greatest works of Cash, Nelson, Jennings and many more distinctly parallels our gritty little underdog of a city.

Heartworn Highways is a concert series the Park Theatre kicked off in the dead of this past November and is billed as an “Outlaw Country Workshop.” Conceived by the Park Theatre’s own Kevin Mozden, Micah Erenberg and the Buffalo Band, the series has been an exploration into the rawest side of the country genre, with our local artists sharing the bill and mixing their own brash, outlaw-inspired originals with numerous covers of old country classics, all backed up by the Buffalo Band themselves and hosted capably by Erenberg. According to Kevin Mozden, the “diverse and talented pool of country musicians” in Winnipeg were perfect to bring back “the nostalgia of outlaw country.”

The shows have served as a melting pot of many prominent local musicians and songwriters. “It’s really beneficial for everyone involved,” says Kieran West, one of March’s featured performers and regular frontman of the Buffalo Band. “[Everyone] gets to play songs they don’t normally and people coming out to the shows get to hear them play something they might never play again.” Furthermore, you’ve got to keep in mind that these boys and girls are covering country LEGENDS – if you’re a fan of the genre, you’ll know the classics and might get to hear your local favorites put their own spin on ’em.

Not only did the series double its attendance from the first event to the second, they’ve even managed to draw in some of the biggest local names in country music for their latest workshop. “We’ve been really lucky, as we’ve just been picking whatever we think are the best country musicians in Winnipeg.” Mozden says of the Heartworn’s selection process, “everyone seems excited about the event itself, so it hasn’t really taken a lot of convincing everyone to sign on.” The lineup for the third and most recent concert in the series is proof enough of it’s appeal – the workshop managed to gather together the cream of Winnipeg’s outlaw crop in soulful folk veteran JD Edwards, no-frills axe slinger/Lonely Vulcans frontman T.J. Blair, femme fatale/vocal powerhouse Romi Mayes and the gravelly-voiced Buffalo Band leader himself, Kieran West.

United, the quartet lead the Park Theatre once more through a bourbon-soaked aural outlaw history reminiscent of a daytime Folk Festival workshop, with each artist taking a turn to explain and share the personal sentiments behind their song choices. Prominently featured was JD Edwards’ impassioned delivery of The Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See,” TJ Blair’s homage to the great David Allen Coe and West’s closing rendition of the oft-requested epic Free Bird.

However, this small resurgence of honest outlaw country isn’t just confined to Winnipeg. With artists like Daniel Romano and Lindi Ortega bringing back the no-frills side of the genre and gaining some serious exposure across Canada while they do it, Heartworn Highways might just represent the attitude of music-seeking Canadians all over. “The real country music had never gone, it was just completely underground,” says Kieran West of outlaw’s mainstream absence. “In the 80s there was this surge of rock and pop country artists and they just took over the scene. Real country music was still being made, just not paid much attention to, so it’s awesome that it’s coming back.”

The next Heartworn Highways workshop at the Park Theatre is scheduled for Thursday, June 26th and hosts yet another eclectic lineup of Winnipeg’s finest thoroughbred country junkies.

JD Ormond is one of the artists featured this time around, founder of JD and the Sunshine Band, a group formed as an extension of and through, inner city drop-in center Sunshine House. He’s joined by Pat Alexandre (of F-Holes and Little Miss Higgins & The Winnipeg Five), up-and-coming country singer and leather worker Cal Austin Jr. and local folk/country veteran (and Buffalo Band/Heartworn Highways regular) Micah Erenberg.

Mozden couldn’t have said it better, “People are getting smarter, they can pick up on what’s authentic. That [pop-country] market’s not going to go away, but there will always be people who love good, honest music and if we can be the place people find that… it’s why I’m happy to be doing it.”

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