By Sebastian Buzzalino
CALGARY — This month, fans of alt-roots and alt-country in Western Canada will be able to catch a stunning triple bill of some of Canada’s most talented and prescient players in the scene. Vancouver’s Dustin Bentall, Winnipeg’s Ridley Bent and Lethbridge’s Leeroy Stagger are coming together on tour not only to share stages and audiences each night, but also to swap bands and play together, riffing off each other’s ideas in a live setting. We emailed the three of them to try and map out the landscape of Canadian alt-country and imagine what surprises they might have in store for us on tour.
BeatRoute: 2014 started off with a parody video of “bro-country” in the U.S., mocking the homogenized aesthetics of mainstream pop country meant for larger audiences. The three of you write various types of alt-country and roots. How would you each define your own approach to the genre?
Dustin Bentall: The mainstream of country is more like a water wheel spinning in a puddle. To quote Matt Mays, for me it’s gotta be real. I’ve seen too much, felt too much, been too scared, heartbroken and elated to settle for some mash up of recycled lyrics and chords. I saw Nick Cave a few months ago. Enough said. That’s what I aspire to be. Don’t get me wrong, I love the shit out of getting drunk in the back of a pickup truck driving down a red dirt road, but I just don’t need to hear that in another song, let alone write about it in that fashion.
Leeroy Stagger: I don’t play country music. I guess in the beginning of my career I flirted with it here and there but moved closer to the roots rock ’n’ roll thing, I don’t listen to modern country other than a few things maybe like Sturgill Simpson or Jason Isbell, but I wouldn’t call them strictly country. I love what Ridley does with his brand of country. I love those old Randy Travis records and all the classic country stuff, but modern country doesn’t even enter on my radar at all, really. I feel really connected to the origins of classic country and hillbilly music because that’s how I was brought up.
Ridley Bent: I guess I don’t have my ear to the ground because I haven’t seen the “bro-country” video. I can say that I am more of a fan of old country then I am of the new stuff. I love the tunes they play on Outlaw Country satellite radio. I would say my approach to country is to write tunes that sound like a mix of classic and ‘70s psychedelic country. I believe mainstream country is a little bombastic and made to sound good on a loud dance floor in country bars through a big sound system. My stuff is more of a recording of a big live country band with honky-tonk piano, fiddle, steel guitar and a whole lot of chicken-picked lead guitar.
BR: Country has always been one of the more “realist” genres of music, focusing more on tangible, personal experiences rather than esoteric ephemera. The genre also has a long and storied history behind it. How would you place yourselves in the larger context of the genre and from where do you consider your own music to depart?
DB: I don’t really care to limit myself to one genre. From an industry and business standpoint, my career has probably suffered from it, but I’m not interested in fitting some cookie-cutter. In 2004, I almost died in a head-on car crash. Everything changed in that moment. My fans know that when you listen to my songs and see my band you’re gonna get something raw and real.
LS: Well, I write about things I see and experience. I can’t speak for any other songwriters, but I would imagine that realism exists in any form of music where the singer is telling a real story instead of a bunch of writers in a room trying to come up with something that will make money and appeal to the lowest common denominator or music fan which, unfortunately, is the mainstream these days. I’m a sucker for a sad story that I can relate to or someone trying to convey a thought or feeling that I’ve thought about myself. Also, I like a good ol’ groove with a fun story, which works for the genre as well. I guess I’m more of a rock ‘n’ roll nut, but I love all real music, so country is in there, as well.
RB: I’d say I’m a modern, Western Canadian, country songwriter and I feel like I’m pushing some boundaries within the genre with original lyrical content and phrasing.
BR: How did the idea of playing a collaboration set between the three of you come about? It’s a limited run of dates, but it should definitely provide some interesting ideas! Any chances of the triple bill resulting in any recorded material?
DB: We’ve been wanting this to happen for a long time. Leeroy and I have been checking in once a year since we toured last to make this happen but a lot of stars need to align to make it feasible. In this case, we are all getting together to play some shows with Barney Bentall & The Grand Cariboo Opry in Western Canada. Fortunately, we were all available to fill some of the gaps with this triple bill.
LS: I’ve been bugging Dust for a couple of years to do some shows together. We are doing a bunch of shows together with Barney Bentall’s Grand Cariboo Opry and it just made sense to add Rids to the mix. It makes for a super dynamic show with lots of backstage laughs. The three of us have been busting our asses at this for a while now, so it’s nice to not go at it alone, for once.
RB: I credit Dusty with the idea. Good idea! Maybe we should start a Kickstarter campaign, write some hits together, make an album and release it on gold vinyl. Just brainstorming!!
BR: Looking across the stage to the other two, what inspires you the most about their work? In what ways do you wish you could incorporate aspects of their work into yours?
DB: With Ridley, it’s his lyrics. He’s an absolute genius with words. Leeroy, it’s his perseverance. He just keeps getting better and better with his writing, singing and recording. He’s got a studio in Lethbridge, now, and he’s killin’ it. To quote again… I heard Ry Cooder say, “What’s wrong with just getting better?” He’s 70 years old and still gets up in the morning and practices while the mind is fresh. That’s inspiring.
LS: Ridley writes some of the most beautiful love ballads I’ve ever heard, as well as some of the most psychotic hip hop country around. I mean that in the best way possible!
Dustin continues to blow me away every time I hear his new music and he continues to raise the bar year after year. He’s so goddamn handsome, too.
RB: Well, Dustin’s first record was a big reason that I decided to record an alt-country record of my own and lead me to working with John Ellis. Leeroy producing his own records and those of other artists and doing it so well is very inspiring. I may have to try self-producing a record of my own or, at least, co-producing.
BR: The three of you have written plenty of songs inspired by the road. What would a shared tour van look like on a full-blown mega tour?
DB: It would look like a bus. For now, I gotta get back to welding the broken driver seat mounts on my van so we can actually get to the gig. See ya at the Palomino!
LS: The Tar Sands.
RB: If it were up to me, it wouldn’t be a van but a bus, and the bus would have a bar. The driver and the bartender would both have sombreros, eye patches and thick moustaches.
Catch a rare triple bill, featuring Dustin Bentall, Ridley Bent and Leeroy Stagger, on November 14 and 15 at the Palomino.
*Dustin Bentall main page photo: Katy Sullivan, retrieved from Dustin Bentall Facebook pageDustin Bentall, Leeroy Stagger, Palomino, Ridley Bent