Happiness Is – The Steel Horse Gypsies

Ontario country-rockers The Steel Horse Gypsies have the perfect moniker. You see this band of gypsies is built for resilience because they were fast out of the gate, faltered a little at the clubhouse turn, but have really picked things up as they approach the home stretch.   When singer-guitarist Bill McConnell put the band together they experienced fast success with their self-titled debut album and their first single “We’re All About That” hitting the Canadian Country music charts. Fate then intervened and it wasn’t until a decade later that the group released a follow-up record.

“In 2011 I lost my voice and wasn’t able to project,” says Bill, who is calling from his home in Sebright Ontario, just outside of Orillia. “I had to fold the band temporarily because of that and then there were a couple of personnel changes just before 2020, bringing it to the four-piece band we have today.  The songs on that second album were part of my recovery and therapy and legwork in trying to get back into the swing of things.” 

Now this horse is in full stride and has released several songs to digital music sites over the last couple of years, including a new offering called “Happiness Is”.  The song begins with some jangly guitar that recalls The Byrds, and sets the tone for the optimistic theme of the song.

“I thought of Blue Rodeo in terms of inspiration because some of their early stuff had that feel to it, but I’m also a big fan of music from that Sixties era that gave us The Byrds, The Beatles and Buffalo Springfield.  The chord structure of the song came first and then everything else more or less fell into place. In terms of the lyrics, it was a message to myself to be honest. After the pandemic, it’s been a battle back, especially with the cynical mentality of a lot of people and the lack of empathy that’s out there. Not everything can go your way so you have to try and make due or recognize the so-called blessings that you have. That’s the premise of the song.”

Bill’s knack for writing a good country song is perhaps partially due to his lineage. Born in Montreal, he followed in his family’s musical footsteps where his grandparents earned their living on the Quebec country music circuit during the Fifties and Sixties, opening shows for and playing with legends like Hank Snow, Kitty Wells and George Jones. He also shares a bloodline with a more recent superstar as he is the cousin of Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Terri Clark. 

“Before she broke and got her big deal I had visited her on a couple of occasions to feel things out,” Bill recalls. “It takes a great deal of courage to take a leap of faith and make a move like that to Nashville. Back then I didn’t really have the support system that she did, both financially and in terms of a safety net that allows people to make those kinds of moves.  Ultimately it was the end of a relationship that more or less motivated me to go for a temporary geographical change to Nashville. Nonetheless, it led to some experience and opportunities to do demo singing and to run my material past some publishing houses.”  

When Bill was putting together the second iteration of the band he was fortunate enough to come across another Canadian music legend in the form of guitarist Wendell Ferguson.  He’s garnered nine Canadian Country Music Awards (CCMA), was twice nominated for a Juno and was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame. Wendell has won the CCMA’s Guitar Player of the Year award so many times (seven) that they retired him, and he’s no longer eligible. 

“He’s our Wayne Gretzky,” Bill laughs. “Before I went to Nashville, I used to live in Scarborough where, back in the Eighties and Nineties, there was this huge country music club called Graceland.  I was a D.J. working from a booth in a big semi-truck cab in the corner of the club. Wendell was there performing and I remembered him from the CBC’s CCMA broadcast where he was part of the house band.  We got to talking and I arranged an opportunity to meet with him before I went to Nashville, taking a handful of my demos with me to see what he thought. Fast forward to 2020 and we had our very first outdoor performance scheduled for a drive-in in Lindsay and we needed a replacement guitar player. As a lark, I came across Wendell on Facebook wondering if he was available, so I contacted him and the rest is history.” 

Another one of the band’s recent tracks is “I’m Losing You”, a hurting song with a contradictory upbeat feel to it. The song pays homage to one of the last men standing in terms of authentic country music, Marty Stuart. 

“I was going through YouTube and I came across an album that Marty Stuart and his band The Fabulous Superlatives released about 10 years ago, which was produced by Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers. I liked what they did and I thought I wanted to emulate that feel as best I could. I went back into my catalogue and found “I’m Losing You” to be worth redoing, so that’s how that song came about. The storyline can be open to interpretation about what you’re losing.  It could be one of those subconscious things where you lose something you are holding on to like a job, an addiction or a relationship, that sort of thing.”

The Steel Horse Gypsies pull out all the stops on the rip-roaring “Heartbroke In Debt”, a single from last year that allows the band to showcase their instrumental strengths. Drummer Joe Ianuzzi, who has a ton of experience backing rocks, jazz and roots acts, takes the song to another level.

“Joe is a versatile drummer which has a lot to do with what he has done throughout his career,” Bill says. “He brings a very strong component to the band where he can punch it up or keep us where we’re mellowing out. 

“I wrote “Heartbroke In Debt” around the same time I wrote “I’m Losing You”. It’s just one of those songs that we thought we would record and see how people react to it. I figured here’s a song that could be a good encore type of thing. It definitely gets people on their feet.” 

The band will certainly have the opportunity to get people on their feet at their upcoming showcase performance at Toronto’s legendary Horseshoe Tavern on April 4. This is a dream come true for Bill and he’s cherishing every moment of it leading up to the show. 

“This reminds me of when, back in the Eighties, I was in a tribute band and we did a tribute to the Guess Who. We played the El Mocambo in Toronto, both upstairs and downstairs, and for me that was a moment, playing the same stage where The Rolling Stones played.  Now, coming full circle with The Horseshoe Tavern, you can’t beat the opportunity because they’re very selective in terms of who they are going to book. To be given this opportunity is a feather in our cap.” 

Tickets for The Steel Horses Gypsies’ at The Horseshoe Tavern can be purchased here:

The band’s music can be found on all streaming services, including their latest singles and the compilation album “We’re All About That”, which captures the best of their earlier work. 

More Country stuff:

Toronto’s One Ugly Cowboy continues its stellar streak of great singles with a fun and upbeat number called “Canadian Bacon”. However, it’s really about Canadian beefcake and the availability of men in all shapes and sizes.  The song is propelled by guitarist Richard Zwic’s killer hook and vocalist “Hurricane” Jane Sowerby’s testament that “if you’re looking for love you can’t go wrong with Canadian bacon”.  Whereas the Weather Girls declared “Hallelujah” in their song “It’s Raining Men”, Jane gives things a Canuck spin by capping off the chorus with a resounding “Eh?” 


London Ontario native Amanda Keeles has unveiled her sparkling debut album, Can’t Stop Me Now”.  Her rich vocals come straight from her soul on the title track, as she shares a deeply personal narrative that is steeped with emotion. Leaving behind a professional career in finance and a marriage that did not support her creative bent, Amanda waited to pursue the music career she had always dreamed of having, and that wait has now paid off. “For me, it was like putting a collection of my life’s journey into one album. Every song that I’ve written has at one point in my life, served as a milestone, memory or major event.”

ACM-nominated, platinum-certified, and the highest-selling Canadian band in country music, High Valley has released their newest EP, “Small Town Somethin’”. Lead singer Brad Rempel selected the tracks he thought best showcased the immense gratitude he has towards the life he has been able to lead and the dedicated fan base High Valley has had throughout the years. The tracks “Countin’ ‘Em Up” and “Small Town Somethin” really deliver the ‘thank you’ we’ve always wanted to share with our fans,” says Brad. Then the songs “Blood” and “Solid Ground” focus on my faith and family, two things I am the most grateful for.”

“Can’t Fix This” is the latest single from JUNO and CCMA Award-nominated artist Don Amero. From Don’s previously released EP “Six”, “Can’t Fix This” showcases his ability to deliver vulnerability and authenticity in his songwriting. With the rare ability to connect with his audience effortlessly and genuinely, Don, who is of Cree and Métis heritage, has taken the skills he utilizes on stage and applied them to his advocacy work within Indigenous communities and beyond.

Roman Mitz - For Open Spaces

Open Spaces is a monthly column by Roman Mitz, covering the up-and-coming in the country music scene across Canada.

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