By Brad Simm
In her book Sonic Booms: Making Music In An Oil Town, Gillian Turnball traces the rise of Calgary’s roots music scene against the backdrop boom and bust of the oil industry. Armed with graduate degrees in both creative non-fiction and the exotic universe of ethnomusicology, her chronicles of folkies and country crooners blend a first-person account with documenting the legacy of managers, musicians and colourful club owners.
Because she’s respectful to the scene and friends with many of its central characters, Turnbull drops you into her immediate world with sit-down conversations alongside Calgary’s music makers and shakers.
In particular, there’s Neil MacGonigill, who managed Ian Tyson and Jann Arden, boosting both careers. Veteran country singer-songwriter Tom Phillips is Turnbull’s guest of honour, tracking his misadventures and triumphs that serve as a metaphor to how the roots community in Calgary came into being. Guitarist Tim Leacock, a cornerstone in the legendary Co-Dependents, never shy with his colourful comments, reveals how it really was. As well as Pat MacIntrye, the hard-working, hard-drinking, outspoken club owner who led the way, setting up venues dedicated to country twang and six-string folk.
It’s significant, Turnbull notes, that Billy Cowsill’s golden throat and his presence in Calgary since the 80s has had a lasting impact on local musicians who aspire to his style and authenticity. In addition, she correctly notes that Mayor Nenshi has been a liberating force for musicians and music lovers with his mandate for cultural and economic diversification. And the evolution of Calgary Folk Music Festival, under the artistic direction of Kerry Clarke, also a dominant factor helping to cultivate Calgary’s creative breeding ground.
The scene, much like the city, is a sprawl and it’s hard to be entirely inclusive. While Turnbull mentions A Bar Named Sue, there’s not a lot of detail as to why the now defunct dive joint, which the owner proudly proclaimed as “shitified,” was such a joyful slice of debauchery with its country kicking outcasts lurking in the shadows of the corporate towers.
Still, she does a pretty job at getting to the core of the “grassroots rebellion” that made and continues to make a vibrant roots music scene in the city.
Perhaps Kerry Clarke best defines what underlies that rebellion: “There’s a DIY attitude that runs through, no matter what field or discipline you’re in, no matter if you’re a corporate person or an arts person. There’s this get-it-done Western attitude of, ‘Okay, I’m putting out a CD, I’m gonna sell it.’”