by Roman Mitz for Open Spaces
The Year in Review – Well, 2015 is almost a wrap and looking back at what’s unfolded in terms of Canadian country music we’d have to quote Ol’ Blue Eyes in saying that it was a very good year. Unlike past successful Canadian country artists who had to obtain a passing grade in Nashville before being recognized on their home turf, the latest crop of country Canucks have forged their success north of the border and they more than hold their own talent-wise when compared to their U.S. counterparts. The cream of the crop on the female side is Jess Moskaluke, who earned her second consecutive Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) Artist of the Year Award. Open Spaces caught up with the modest Moskaluke shortly after her win when her head was still spinning. “It hasn’t really kicked in yet and I don’t know if it ever will. It just feels so surreal.” As we close out the year the title track of her ‘Kiss Me Quiet’ EP sits high on the country charts, so there’s no doubt that she’ll be after a hat trick when it comes to next year’s CCMA’s.
Kiss Me Quiet is duking it out right now for top spot with Brett Kissel’s ‘Pick Me Up’, from the album of the same name. Pick Me Up recently received a prestigious honour as it was recognized on the Apple Music Canada ‘Best of 2015’ list as the Best Country Album. Brett just completed a lengthy cross country tour and he told us that he makes no bones about the fact that he loved keeping it Canadian. “We did close to 50 shows and we hit every province and territory. I think it’s great to visit every market in a bus with your wife, best friends and your dog.” Kissel fell short of winning the CCMA Male Artist of the Year Award, losing out to Gord Bamford, who also landed single of the year honours for his reflective ‘Where A Farm Used To Be’. “That song is pretty real. You never know what a song’s going to do but we knew that it had the potential to be a big one and we’re glad that it was recognized.” Gord is riding high again with his new single ‘Don’t Let Her Be Gone’, and you can hear him perform that song and his other long list of hits, as he works his way across Canada with tour mate Joe Nichols through May of next year.
Other movers and shakers in 2015 were perennial favourites Johnny Reid and Paul Brandt, and the upstart new kids on the block, High Valley and Madeline Merlo. Reid won the CCMA’s Fan Choice Award without the benefit of a new record under his belt but that’s changed with the late-year release of ‘What Love Is All About’, which sports his current single ‘Honey, Honey’. This was Johnny’s sixth Fan’s Choice Award and he takes great pride in the fact that these honours were bestowed upon him by Canadian music lovers. “It’s always nice to be recognized by the people that listen to the music. To be able to be acknowledged by the fans around the country is nice.” Paul Brandt, who kicked off his career in the mid-90’s, didn’t win any trophies in 2015 but he still had a banner year. He completed the highly successful ‘Road Trip’ tour which he co-headlined with Dean Brody, and recently released a limited edition vinyl EP called ‘Frontier’ which includes his last four radio hits and two original demos from his pre-record deal days. High Valley, comprised of brothers Brad and Curtis Rempel, were recognized as Group of the Year and they attribute all of their success to being born and raised in Blumenort Alberta. “We made music, we played hockey, we worked on the farm, and we never spent our lives thinking about how much we needed or wanted to be somewhere else,” To say that Madeline Merlo was shocked to win the Rising Star Award would be an understatement. “I wasn’t really thinking that it was going to be me. When they said my name you could see my jaw unhinge.” The good news is that her jaw is functioning again as she works on her acting chops for the small screen. Madeline will be starring alongside Sophie Tweed-Simmons (daughter of Gene) in ‘Country Crush’, a film set to air early in the New Year, in which she portrays an aspiring singer. Catch her on tour while you can because a talent like this won’t be playing small venues for very long.
Several other relative newcomers are chomping at the bit to extend the buzz they created in 2015 through the New Year. Autumn Hill, the duo consisting of Toronto’s Mike Robins and Calgary’s Tareya Green, earned the distinction of being the first Canadian country music act to cross over to pop radio since Shania Twain. They released a boffo new album this year called “Anchor’ and the first single ‘Blame’ cracked the Top Five of the Canadian Country Billboard Chart. Catch them if you can as they open for Joe Nichols and Gord Bamford on the aforementioned Certified Country Tour that runs through the spring. Cold Creek County, the Ontario-based group that was fast out of the gate with a terrific single called ‘Our Town’, have followed up with a solid debut album entitled ‘Till The Wheels Come Off’. While there’s a chance you may actually blow your wheels off if you crank up the record, there’s an acoustic thread that keeps the record grounded. According to drummer Doug Oliver “We have a big guitar and big drum sound but we also make the banjo a lead instrument and when you overlay that over the guitars and drums, you make a totally different sound which we all liked.” A county that’s making some noise on the other side of the nation is Calgary’s TwoShine County. The duo of Daron Schofield and Dennis Hann have gotten a lot of mileage from their debut EP ‘Whole Lotta Love’ including the year-end single ‘Love This Song’. Look for the boys to assume a much higher profile when they release their full length record in 2016.
End of the Year New Stuff – Providing a little cheer just in time for the holidays, the Victoria-based husband and wife country-pop known as Bucko and Toad are ringing in the festive season with the self-penned seasonal track ‘Frozen In Your Eyes’. The romantic winter medley shines with joy and spirit despite the duo’s unlikely moniker, which stems from their respective childhood nicknames. Following the success of their debut country single ‘Any Excuse’, B & T are currently writing and recording with producer/co-writer Tavish Crowe (Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Call Me Maybe’), and have plans to release their debut album in 2016. We can’t close off our year-end review without a mention of one of our favourite bands, The Road Hammers, led by Canadian country vet Jason McCoy. With a reputation for delivering high-energy live performances, the multi-award winning trio are raising the bar even higher with the release of their latest single, the rollicking ‘One Horse Town’ featuring label-mate Tim Hicks. This track provides a first peek at their highly anticipated new album slated for 2016.
Missing (and most missed) In Action – Open Spaces is Toronto-based and the act we’ve missed most around these parts is Scotty Campbell & His Wardenaires, with SC on vocals and the terrific Teddy Hawkins behind the kit. They’re probably the best trad country outfit to grace this city’s stages (by way of Hamilton), and it’s well worth searching out a copy of their Smokin’ and Drinkin’ CD.
Cheers – Thank you to Open Spaces readers who have followed the page since its hard copy days and to those who have come on board after its online rebirth. Happy holidays and be sure to polish your spurs for 2016 as it looks to be another good ‘un for Canadian country music.