By Mike Dunn
CALGARY – On first glance, Mike McDonald wouldn’t appear to be an Alberta music trailblazer. There’s something distinctly low-key and subtle about McDonald when he’s kickin’ it around town, very Edmontonian in a ball cap, hoodie, and glasses. He looks like an older, longhaired dude who, but for the circumstances of music, could be telling you why your brakes are shot. When he hits the 1-2-3-4 on stage with Edmonton alt-country legends Jr. Gone Wild, though, he’s full-on rock n’ roll, blasting big chords on his Les Paul or Rickenbacker 12-string. The presence and history of Jr. Gone Wild is an important part of Alberta rock n’ roll history, and with their upcoming tour to run through their classic 1990 record, Too Dumb To Quit, the venerable foursome of McDonald, bassist Dove Brown, guitar and pedal steel player Steve Loree, and drummer Larry Shelast are hitting the road through Alberta and BC behind their seminal mash of punk rock and country.
“We had a lot songwriters in the band,” says McDonald, “and we’d all bring songs in. Some of those songs would end up being more country, or folk songs. We had this gig with SNFU, and the punks were making fun of us. They were taking the piss out of us, but they were having a great time, really having fun, and I got the idea that maybe we should explore this a little more. So we had this interest in playing country music ‘correctly’, but with that punk rock attitude, and not being afraid of fusing styles.”
Both the rambunctious and aloof attitudes of punk, and the musical know-how of country music make up a lot of Too Dumb To Quit’s 14 cuts. Starting off with a fairly straightforward three song blast of Chuck Berry-ish early rock ‘n’ roll, McDonald’s wry sense of humour comes right to the front on “Third Most Stupidest Guy You Know”, overdriven by a guitar riff that feels like Luther Perkins boomchickin’ through Cash’s early cuts ripping it up at full speed. Dove and Shelast are pushing the groove constantly, resulting in a driving pulse built to pogo. “Poet’s Highway”, one of the band’s great songs, is straight out of a Tennessee barroom, with Lance Loree’s pedal steel filling out the arrangement. The song shows McDonald’s voice off, in some spots the higher register of Gram Parsons, with a bit of Tom Petty’s lower warble, and the conversational lyrical style that’s a distinct part of his delivery in the verses. McDonald often writes as though he’s having a discussion over drinks with a buddy, with the inside jokes and sarcasm inherent to those talks. “Akit’s Hill” sees Steve Loree take the front, with a rippin’ rock-riff, and some fiery fuzzed out guitar work. Too Dumb To Quit is a rock n’ roll record, for all intents and purposes, but at the time of its release, it would have sat in the same space as The Replacements, early REM, and especially Uncle Tupelo.
“It was our first record for Stony Plain,” says McDonald. “And they had distribution with Warner, so we had a budget to work with. That let us bring Lance out to this cabin in Saskatchewan where we stayed for two weeks recording. We didn’t have any money personally, so we were living together in sort of a chalet for a couple weeks, and that’s the kind of time where a lot of the usual Jr. Gone Wild ‘mentally ill’ bullshit would come up. When you’re in the van as much as we were, our thing was to sort of pair off and pal around for a few days, and then we’d kind of get sick of each other and pair off with another of the guys, but when it came to making the music, we were really focused on it.”
The tales of Jr. Gone Wild’s excesses and escapades are too numerous to mention, their lunacy legendary throughout the early Western Canadian alt-country crowd. What can’t be overstated though, is Jr. Gone Wild’s impact on rock n’ roll in the Canadian underground. While other bands in other regions were charting with their stylistic upgrades of The Eagles’ urban cowboy chic, Jr. Gone Wild went the other way, fusing the manic energy and carefree ‘meh’ of punk rock, with the earnestness and musical dexterity of country music. It would influence generations of Alberta bands, whether it was the smalls, or Old Reliable that came after them, and now a new generation of bands who play country with some sass and energy, or punk rock on acoustics with a bit of swing. But you can get to hear it from the hands of the band that put it together in the first place.
“I think our isolation from Toronto and Vancouver had a lot to do with what we created,” says McDonald. “We’d get information, and music from the East and the West, but we had no one around to guide us. So we would take what we heard and distill that in our heads, and out would spill whatever we came up with. No one was around to tell us any different, and there were no templates.”
Jr. Gone Wild’s whirlwind Too Dumb To Quit tour will take them from Nanton’s Auditorium Hotel (Oct. 4), Vancouver’s Wise Hall (Oct. 5), Calgary at The Ship & Anchor Saturday Jam, and The Ironwood (Oct. 6), and will finish up in Edmonton at the Rocky Mountain Icehouse as part of Up+DT Festival (Oct. 7).Gone Wild, Jr. Gone Wild’, Nanton’s Auditorium Hotel, Rocky Mountain Icehouse, The Ironwood, The Ship & Anchor, Too Dumb To Quit, Up+DT Festival, Wise Hall