Carroll Baker isn’t big on receiving awards. Once touted as `The Queen Of Canadian Country Music’ for her phenomenal success which saw her rack up 31 hit singles between 1970 and 1981 and 14 best selling albums. But as her career reaches legacy status, she has exhibited a reluctance to accept a number of ‘Hall Of Fame’ or sales recognition awards.
Yet when the Country Music Association of Ontario announced that Baker had been named as the winner of this year’s ‘Impact’ Award to be presented on October 4th at London’s Centennial Hall, she says she is thrilled to acknowledge such a plaudit.
“I have received so many awards and accolades in the past but that is not who I really am,” noted Baker as she isolates herself from the COVID-19 pandemic at her Guelph Ontario residence. “I am so past needing that recognition but I liked the name of this `Impact Award’. I cannot think of a better name for an award to be given to somebody who has been around as long as I have.”
“I mean they (CMAO) are honouring me for making an impact on this country’s country music scene,” she continued. “This one just has a special ring to it.”
At a time when the current Canadian Country Music scene is booming; when the likes of Meghan Patrick, Jess Moskaluke, Lindsay El, Kira Isabella on the female side, Dallas Smith, Brett Kissell, Dean Brody, Tim Hicks and Paul Brandt on the male side and bands like Washboard Union, High Valley, The Reklaws and the James Barker Band are ruling this country’s country radio airwaves, you don’t have to go too far back in the annals of domestic music history to remember when Carroll Baker and fellow Nova Scotian, Anne Murray totally dominated the female scene.
Baker was voted Juno Award winner as Canada’s Female Country Vocalist Of The Year, five times including three successive years between 1977-1979 while Murray won a total of 24 Junos.
The Country Music climate in Canada has changed drastically since then with Canadian Music Television providing valuable video support, major music festivals like Country Thunder, Cavendish Beach and Boots And Heart boosting live performance visibility and high profile award shows like the Canadian Country Music Awards and several regional awards virtually established country as the new pop music scene.
“It’s a matter of visibility and being able to obtain a major record contract,” observed Baker. “The problem way back then was that Anne Murray and I were the only female country music singers with major record contracts. There were lots of female and male singers who were just as good as us but there was no independent music scene. It was either a major label or nothing.”
As for the visibility, there was no internet or even video exposure during the late 1970s and early 1980s. “All we had at that time was The Tommy Hunter Show and that exposure was limited as they preferred to show more established U.S artists,” Baker noted.
For someone who grew up in Port Medway Nova Scotia hating country music, Baker made a complete 360 degree turn when she met her future husband ( and personal manager) John Beaulieu. “Growing up I was surrounded by country music, my father was an old-time fiddle player, but as a teenager, I was into The Beatles and Roy Orbison” she noted. It was Beaulieu who turned Baker on to country music and when she heard “Almost Persuaded” by David Houston, she was hooked for life.
Having relocated to Oakville Ontario at the age of 16, Baker eventually dropped out of high school, yet as she struggled through a series of menial jobs Baker still took the opportunity to sing with local bands and it was during one of those appearances that she came to the attention of local songwriter George Petralia who invited her to record a song he had written, “Mem-ries Of Home”.
Petralia had a contact, Don Grashey, who owned a small independent label, Gaiety Records in Thunder Bay and he (and her new husband Beaulieu) convinced Baker to record the song. The surprise was that Grashey didn’t know Baker was coming to his studio.
“So we showed up on his doorstep and took Don totally by surprise,” Baker noted. “Don scrambled a bunch of rock musicians together to record the song. He couldn’t locate a piano player at the time so he told me he would add the piano to the track later. I was totally disinterested in being a recording artist and I didn’t stick around to hear the final track. So awhile later, I am driving my car, listening to the radio when I heard Brantford’s CKPC deejay Vic Foliet say ‘now here is a new single by a local young singer’ and he started playing my song. I was so shocked, I had to pull over my car. And the thing was, Don had added a Hammond organ to the track. I hadn’t heard the finished recording so I didn’t initially recognize it, I thought this was some kind of joke. Nobody at that time recorded a country music song with a Hammond Organ!”
Whether it was the Hammond Organ arrangement or not, Baker’s debut single (released in 1970) earned enough attention, to go top 20 on the local charts and earn her a recording contract with Columbia Records which resulted in the recording of two albums for that label. Baker returned to Gaiety in 1974 for her third album (‘I’d Go Through It All Again’)
Baker’s next career break occurred in 1975 when her success with a cover of Conway Twitty’s “I’ve Never Been This Far Before” earned her a performance spot at that year’s Juno Awards in Toronto, earning the distinction of being the first-ever Country Music performer to appear on that show.
“The audience was on their feet when I performed that song, they didn’t know I was Canadian,” beamed Baker. “The next day, they did know who I was because my photo appeared on the cover of practically every newspaper in Canada.”
RCA Records reacted by signing Baker to a recording contract which sparked a productive period where she racked up 31 singles and five albums including a platinum award for her 1976 self-titled release. During this period, she was a regular in Nashville, performing with the likes of Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn. The Oak Ridge Boys and Larry Gattlin.
Baker later moved on to Tembo Records where she released five more albums including the Platinum-selling `Hymns Of Gold’ in 1983, Baker hosted her own television show later that year, was inducted into Canada’s Country Music Hall of Fame in 1992 and received The Order Of Canada in 2009 for her contribution to country music in Canada.
Along with Anne Murray, Baker is widely recognized for paving the way for future country music stars like Terri Clark and Shania Twain and for setting the table for current artists like Meghan Patrick and Jess Moskaluke. But she strongly disagrees with the notion that Canadian artists have to relocate to Nashville to establish themselves.
“Shania Twain didn’t become a star because of Nashville, if anything, she succeeded despite Nashville and Anne Murray never lived in Nashville either,” Baker noted. “Some people believe that to succeed in country music they have to be successful in Nashville yet 90% of the time, it won’t work. I was asked over and over to be one of them. But my response was to say `I don’t want to be one of you.’ I am proud to be a Canadian and I have no interest in leaving my company.”