By Keith Sharp
The initial reaction to the title of Barney Bentall’s latest opus, `The Drifter And The Preacher’ is that it sounds like a Bob Dylan record. Bentall himself is quite happy to perpetuate that myth!
On the phone from his Cariboo Ranch located just south of that area of Northern British Columbia which has been decimated this summer by a widespread outbreak of wildfires, Bentall agrees that like most Dylan records, The Drifter And The Preacher’ is a collection of 11 songs which convey colourful anecdotes about his father, father-in-law and other characters in his life.
Bentall comes by his material honestly, constantly travelling to all corners of Canada, performing in folk festivals by himself or with other fellow troubadours including The High Bar Gang and with Shari Ulrich and Tim Taylor, sometimes playing under the moniker BTU or out in Newfoundland with gifted writers like Corey Telford or Michael Crummey who allow him to attach an East Coast flavour to his writing.
On song in particular; `On The Shores Of Grise Fjord’ carries virtually the same impact as Gord Downie’s `Secret Path’ saga. Whereas The Tragically Hip lead singer vocalised the shocking saga of a displaced indigenous boy, (12-year old Chanie Wenjack) who in 1966 died from exposure while trying to find his way home from a residential school in Kenora, Bentall’s saga reflects on a cruel displacement act by the Canadian government.
“In the mid 1950’s the Canadian government executed a cruel and misguided act in my opinion when they removed a community of Labrador Inuit from their homeland and dropped them off thousands of kilometres to the north in an attempt to establish a Canadian presence in the high Arctic,” Bentall explained. “Ignoring the importance of the wisdom gained through years of fishing and hunting in the waters and land of their ancestors, the government assumed that the North was all the same and that this community would just “figure things out”. The ship left that September and the next year, half of that community had starved to death.”
Bentall travelled up to the farthest settlement in Northern Canada and had the privilege of meeting and performing with one of Grise Fjord’s founding fathers, Larry, who was just two years old at the time of the displacement. “He played my guitar and we sang some Rolling Stones songs and some Hank Williams songs, it was a great experience,” the former Calgary resident reflected. “One thing that did impressed me was the community’s level of forgiveness at how they had been treated. Their community Is doing quite well.”
Another song of note is “The Ocean And You”, written as a tribute to Spirit Of The West frontman John Mann who is suffering from advance Alzheimer’s Disease. “Johnny and Geoffrey Kelly were the original members of Spirit Of The West and we used to record together at this rustic studio in a millwork shop in the False Creek area of Vancouver. We recorded their first record there,” reflected Bentall. “That song is a salute to the on-going courageous battle John is fighting against Alzheimer’s and the equally courageous role of John’s partner, Jill.”
With stories about his father (“The Preacher”), grandfather (“The Drifter), (The Miner) – co-written with his son Dustin) former rancher (“Say Goodbye To Alex Comfort), and about characters who left their families to join the 1800’s Cariboo Gold Rush (“Don’t Wait For Me Marie”), Bentall has come along way since his early 1988 launch as the leader of Barney Bentall & The Legendary Hearts who copped a Best New Artist Juno Award in 1991 for their debut self-titled hit album and single, “Something To Live For”.
Produced by Payolas’ guitarist Bob Rock, Bentall’s Legendary Hearts sold over 100,000 copies of that debut but when four more albums for Columbia/Epic and eight years of constant touring failed to advance their profile, the band quietly folded in 1997 and Bentall retreated to his Cariboo ranch.
Having recharged his song writing batteries, Bentall emerged as a solo artist in 2006 with “Gift Horse” and had maintained a steady profile, recording two albums with Ulrich and Taylor and two more solo releases before collecting enough stories and record his latest release that will drop October 13th on True North Records.
“I like a good story when I listen to a good song,” Bentall allowed. “I think of Bob Dylan’s “Tweeter And The Monkey Man. My song “Don’t Wait For Me Maria” has that same kind of feel. From the very first line of the lyric, you are drawn into the song. Creating songs about characters is what fuels my song writing.”
Bentall was able to attract the interest of Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy who contributed vocals on “Won’t Change The World but claims his connection with Cuddy runs deeper than just a name-drop situation.
“Jim and I go way back, I often test out my songs with him and he does the same with me.” Bentall explained. “There are a lot of similarities between my songs and Blue Rodeo material, we all like to tell stories.”
Bentall likes the idea of being his own boss. “I am a creative soul who likes to follow his own nose. By going back to full time ranching, I was able to appreciate that being a rancher was a lot tougher than being a musician. I came backing thinking I’m not going to do what some manager or record company tells me what to do. I want to do something that fills my soul.”
He has found time to play the odd gig with a reunited Legendary Hearts (“it’s still fun to do”) and loves the freedom of setting his own agenda. “There’s always lots of places to play as a performer, I have a record company, True North that is giving me that freedom and I’m just looking forward to getting out there and playing my new music.”