Hillbilly Highway – Afternoon drunk with Mag 7s

by Sheldon Birnie

I had a couple beers with Matt and Andy from the Mag 7s this afternoon — hard traveling troubadours if ever there were any — interviewing them for an upcoming feature for Stylus. Keep your eyes peeled, friends, it’s a gooder! The problem is, though, that I have yet to transcribe the SOG, and the clock is ticking down to load in for the One Hundred Dollars show at Pop Soda’s.

Maybe if we’d drank less beer, maybe if I’d eaten more food, I wouldn’t be sitting here typing up excuses on the Hillbilly Highway when I should be transcribing a half hour of interviewee gold. But there is always tomorrow, and the deadline is at least a day away. Plenty of time for a professional to get his shit together and deliver the goods. Live fast, live free!

Right now, I’m listening to the new Mag 7s disc, All Kinds of Mean, courtesy of Transistor 66, and it is solid, partner! I’ll review the platter in good time, never fear, but for now I’d like to reflect on some personal memories I hold of one of my favourite local acts…

I first heard of the Magnificient 7s back in 2006. At the time, I was living in a house in South Osborne, playing in a couple shitty punk bands. One of those bands used to host basement shows at our place, and one of the groups we used to get to play were called the Ponys. The Ponys soon changed their name to the Ex-Girlfriends, and made a name for themselves on the local punk/garage circuit. It was a pretty sweet band, three babes who partied hard and weren’t half bad at rocking out.

During one of these gigs, Ida told us we should check out her other band, the Magnificent 7s, who were playing some street-fest later that week. Sure, sure, we said, half-assed committing to do so.

But me and my pals ended up checking them out, and I was blown away. Here was a band that was perfecting the ideal mix of old time, traditional country/bluegrass with contemporary punk rock ethos, and having a blast with it the whole while.

Since that fateful day, I’ve seen the Mag 7s play plenty of times, and even shared the stage with them more than once — at the Albert, the Park Theatre, and the Shine On! festival out near Steinbach. During the latter, me and a few of the other Gad Guys had downed a hearty helping of zoomers, and dug their set on an ethereal plane beyond anything witnessed up to that point. Beautiful shit on a starry night out in the sandilands, just beautiful!

The Mags are hosting a CD release in Winnipeg in December. Stylus will be profiling them in our upcoming issue, and I urge you heartily to check them out, if you have or have not already. You won’t fucking regret it. Pick up their new disc when you get a chance, too. Toe tapping good time drinking music! Bottoms up!

Hillbilly Highway – One Hundred Dollars

by Sheldon Birnie

“I think of [Winnipeg] as a really tough city, a city that has survived a lot,” Simone Schmidt, lead singer of Toronto based country band One Hundred Dollars, told me when I had the opportunity to chat with her on CKUW last week. Currently on the road supporting their latest release, Songs of Man, the band will be passing back through Winnipeg on Tuesday, November 15 after playing the West End Cultural Centre earlier this fall with Elliott Brood.

“I feel like there’s a grittiness to Winnipeg that I really dig. When you come from a city like Toronto, where I’m from, where there’s just so much new money pumping into it that it sort of allows people to deny history, and deny the past because buildings are always being torn down and built up new.”

Our conversation was cut short a couple times, as the band was driving the Crow’s Nest Pass between Fernie and Nelson, B.C. The mountains were wreaking havoc with Simone’s cell reception, but we managed to have a great conversation about country music nonetheless. I also caught up with her a few days later, exchanging text messages as the band boarded a ferry from Vancouver to the Island.

“Country music in particular makes more room for explicit story telling than most other genres and in that sense it’s relatable to people,” Simone says of country music’s appeal. “And it is generally tragic music, hurting music. Most people feel that.”

“I think I first fell in love with country music when I was about 15,” Simone explained to listeners last Friday. Visiting her brother, who is a bluegrass musician in Nova Scotia, Simone stumbled upon the voice of George Jones in a cabin with electricity, but no running water.  “[The cabin] had a 5 CD disc changer. I started playing, by chance, George Jones on the CD player. A song called ‘Just One More’ came on and I freaked out in my mind. I didn’t ever know that anyone could sing with that much emotion. After that I was obsessed with George Jones for years, I listened to him all the time, and I kind of taught myself how to sing by singing along to George Jones.”

From that first introduction to country, Simone explained that she quickly “got into blue grass music because that’s what my brother was into and I look up to him a lot and loved the harmonies and the virtuosity of the musicianship. I got really into the 70’s era of grass players who were sort of rejected by the purists, like the Seldom Scene and Old & In The Way. They picked the best songs and crossed out if bluegrass quite a bit.”

“Because I was born in the 80’s, I had so many distinct eras of country to sift through and find my favorites,” she continued. “Jones’ catalog was expansive and I just sort of got deep in it. Later I got into Tom T. Hall’s writing and so I’d listen to whoever was recording his songs. I was really struck by Bobbie Gentry too, but her career was so short. And then I got into Dolly who I think was the most courageous writer in terms of certain stories she was telling, like ‘Down from Dover.’ A true feminist.”

I asked Simone whether she felt any contemporary country artists were doing similar work to One Hundred Dollars. Not really, she replied, but directed me to some of her favourite contemporary acts.

“There’s a band out of Toronto called the Pining who’s got a great writer in it, her name’s Julie Faught who’s writing some really beautiful songs,” she said. “There are six members in that band, and they’re all writing great stuff. You should check them out for sure. I’ve been listening to a lot of Dwight Yoakam lately. I also really like the Foggy Hogtown Boys, which are a bluegrass band in Toronto. They’ve really inspired me over the years. And everyone should check out John Showman, who’s a great fiddle player from a band called New Country Rehab.”

Simone clearly commands a wealth of knowledge on the subject of country music, and I felt I could keep asking her questions for hours. However, there’s only so much time in a day, so I called it quits as the band rolled into Victoria, and the sun set in Winnipeg. Make sure to check this band out when the Highway brings them to Pop Soda’s on November 15th. It’s gonna be a good night for country music, I guarantee it.

Hillbilly Highway – Cruising the Interstates to First Avenue

by Sheldon Birnie

The Hillbilly Highway crosses many borders. Provincial, state, international: it doesn’t give a fuck. I cruised myself down the Pembina Highway to America last week in order to check out two of my favourite bands — the Drive-By Truckers and Those Darlins — play at First Avenue in Minneapolis. The trip was short, but sweet as fucking sin. Continue reading “Hillbilly Highway – Cruising the Interstates to First Avenue”

Hillbilly Highway – Drive-By Truckers passing on your left

by Sheldon Birnie

The Drive-By Truckers are a band from the Muscle Shoals, Alabama / Athens, Georgia areas. They play southern inspired rock and roll, with literate as hell lyrics and a touch of country and a dash of R&B. They’ve put about a dozen records, give or take a couple, since 1998, most of which I own on LP, CD, or both, and the rest of which I have on MP3. They’ve played thousands upon thousands of shows up and down and all over the Hillbilly Highway, and are hitting Minneapolis right aways.

Continue reading “Hillbilly Highway – Drive-By Truckers passing on your left”

Hillbilly Highway – Gettin’ loose with Those Darlins

by Sheldon Birnie

Those Darlins are a group of three babes and one sweet dude who rock. The formula is sure fire – who doesn’t love babes? – but their output is above and beyond the pale.

The Hillbilly Highway is filled with groups with similar dynamics. Hell, Winnipeg itself is infested with successful groups of rootsy babes. But there’s more to kicking ass at every honky-tonk on the Hillbilly Highway than a pretty face or three. Those Darlins are different. Hard work, crotch punching songs and a bunch of hearts hungry for rock have combined: the result is an act to catch while you can.

Currently riding the road in support of their sophomore LP Screws Get Loose, the band is set to play in Minneapolis next week with the Drive-By Truckers, one of my favourite groups in the world. I am making the pilgrimage to Twin Cities, America to catch the gig, and I’d be a goddamn liar if I said I wasn’t pumped. Continue reading “Hillbilly Highway – Gettin’ loose with Those Darlins”

Hillbilly Highway – Pit stop with Tim Hus

Tim Hus is a Canadiana Country singer based out of Calgary, AB. Born in Nelson, B.C., Hus has traveled the Hillbilly Highway back and forth across the Great White North countless times, by train, by truck and by thumb. On Thursday, October 20th, he rolls into the Times Change(d) here in Winnipeg for an intimate set in one of his favourite watering holes.

Hus’s latest album, Hockeytown, is a Canadiana beauty in the vein of classic Canadian storytellers like Stompin’ Tom Connors and Ian Tyson. The title track is arguably one of the best hockey songs ever put to tape, up there for certain with Tom’s own classic and Propagandhi’s “Dear Coaches Corner.” I caught up with Tim as he was rolling through rural Quebec, after spending Thanksgiving playing shows on Prince Edward Island, and we quickly got talking about the Jets.

“I’m absolutely thrilled that Winnipeg has the Jets back again,” Hus told me. “I always figured that if there was ever a Canadian city that should have a hockey team, it would have to be Winnipeg. So, I was disappointed when they lost the Jets, and I’m thrilled that you’ve got them back.”
Continue reading “Hillbilly Highway – Pit stop with Tim Hus”

Hillbilly Highway – High & Lonesome Times

Sometimes when you’re cruising down the highway, some slick somebody cuts you off and burns away, leaving you in their dust.

This week, I was going to write about the Times Change(d), as beauty a rest-stop on the Hillbilly Highway as any in the free world. See, there’s a film coming out about the joint this Thursday at the Times itself, with screening and performances by Times regulars Andrew Neville & the Poor Choices and Guerrillas of Soul.

But Kent Davies beat me to it, the truck driving son of a gun. And he did a good job of it too, summing up the event and the beauty of the bar succinctly. Like an experienced vet; like a pro. Read about it on the Uniter’s blog.
Continue reading “Hillbilly Highway – High & Lonesome Times”

Hillbilly Highway – Fred rides 6 Volts hard

I’ve been listening to Fred Eaglesmith’s latest, 6 Volts, since it dropped into my mailbox a couple weeks back. The songs on 6 Volts are classic Fred, tunes of murder, love lost, guns and the Road. Recorded with one mic straight to tape, the disc has the mono immediacy of old Sun records, a sound even John Mellencamp has toying with of late.

Fred’s a road dog, traveling thousands of klicks a year, playing hundreds of shows in an endless cycle that takes him into every backwater, big town and metropolis in North America, and beyond. Three tunes in particular, maybe four, off 6 Volts really hone in on the reality of an aging troubadour who can’t quit grinding it out.

“Betty Oshawa” tells the tale of a musical partnership that fell apart, eponymous Betty making it big while the narrator bags groceries in his hometown. “Johnny Cash” takes issue with Johnny-come-lately-Johnny-fans, taking the fickle listener to task for not supporting an artist while they’re alive. “Trucker Speed” ain’t necessarily about a traveling singer, but it very well could be.

“Stars” hits home hardest. Fred talks straight up about gigging non-stop, playing small towns like you’re the biggest star. Long after the lights have gone down, the protagonist sings “My hands hurt from playing my guitar / All those nights in all those bars / We played like we were stars.” Fred mentions long time bandmate Willie P. Bennett, and laments how easy it is to think the good times will never end. Playing in a band, it’s easy to feel this way.

I’ve seen Fred play a couple times now, and I’ve missed him even more by bad timing and my own traveling. I met him once, out behind the Park Theatre a couple years back. Me and my buddy Woodtick were slamming the last of our beers before heading in to catch the opening act, the Ginn Sisters. As we were rounding the corner, there’s a van with Ontario plates sitting there with the door wide open on the side. Out rolls Fred, putting his socks on.

We stopped, and I made straight for Fred, extending my hand. We chatted him up, gave him one of our CDs to “listen to if you get sick of the radio.”

“You in a band?” he asked us. We nodded. Yessir. We put out our CD ourselves, we humble bragged. “That’s the only way to do it, boys,” he said. He looked at the CD briefly, set it aside, and finished pulling his socks on. Then he looked up at us.

“Never quit, boys,” he told us, looking us both in the eye. “Never quit.”

In the songs on 6 Volts, you know Fred really means it. He ain’t quitting anytime soon. Thank something for that.

– Sheldon Birnie

Hillbilly Highway – Back on the Nowhere Road

There is a road that stretches back in time, back beyond the interweb, beyond compact discs, cassette tapes, vinyl records and gramophones. It winds between hills and hollers, follows riverbanks and lakeshores deep into the woods and across tall grass prairie. It picks up from quays and travels back across seas, crossing itself time and again in backwater voids, where wind whips dead branches against nothing and scavenger birds craw out in vain.

This is the same road Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam sang about in the 80s, same road the Boss, and Dylan before him. Before them all, Hank Williams sang about this Lost Highway. The sands of time have largely obscured the names of those who sang about it before ol’ Hank, but their numbers are legion and their ghosts walk the road still.

This is the Lost Highway, the Thunder Road, Highway 51, Route 23. The Hillbilly Highway, the Nowhere Road. The low road. Maybe you’re walking it now, following your dreams up and down Pembina Highway or Portage Avenue, Highway One or 17.

I been on many of these roads, myself. I just cruised down a gooder: west on provincial Highway 2, with a south turn at Holland onto 34. 34 hits a stop at 3, then heads west again to 3A. Now you’re in country country.

The tiny village of Clearwater, MB has hosted the perennial Harvest Moon Festival for the past ten years. Formed as “a celebration of the harvest season, local food production, the area’s rich cultural heritage, and the bond between rural and urban folks,” the festival is like no other in Manitoba. A strong community dedicated to surviving against the economic and political forces that are draining people and money from the prairies, Clearwater is itself a beacon of potential for any community struggling to remain viable in the 21st century.

And the music is fucking good too. Highlights, for me, this year were the Deep Dark Woods, CKUW favourite Greg MacPherson and Ridley Bent’s Good Looking Country Band. Each delivered to-notch performances in weather bordering on frigid. Many other acts performed throughout the days, including Bog River and the Reverend Rambler, names to look for on the hillbilly highway in the months and years to come.

Keep your eyes on the road. It has a way of winding somewhere strange.

– Sheldon Birnie