Country Biographies Part I: Dick Damron
I have this great used bookstore in my neighbourhood; every time I go in, I find some rare Canadian or country music book. I avoid the store, because if I went in regularly, I’d spend all my money on filling my place up with books I don’t have time to read. A couple years ago, I was there, picked up Dick Damron’s autobiography, The Legend and The Legacy, and flipped it open. This paragraph caught my eye:
“At this time, the lady love of my life went back to eastern Canada to visit her children and her family, never to return. My drummer, who had been like a brother to me, shot himself. My father was dying with an unidentified form of lung cancer, and I was eating Librium and Valium like it was popcorn. I combined that with all the ‘Bacardi and Seven’ that people bought me every night in the bars. I would laugh myself off stage, cry myself to sleep, and wake up in the middle of the night and take a few more pills.”
Whoa. I bought the book.
If you’re from Alberta, you know Dick Damron. You probably know him if you’re from elsewhere in Canada, and he spent a long time playing throughout the US and Europe too. Now 79, he’s not as active as he once was; nevertheless, he’s had a career that is rivalled by few in Canadian country.
Like most autobiographers, Damron takes his readers back to his childhood in rural Alberta (Bentley), where he routinely got into trouble by doing things like taking off at four years old while his mother was asleep and falling into a grain hopper, sending the whole town on a search for him. This country sensibility of his youth, combined with his teenage rodeo days and adventurous nature, sent him on a quest to become the quintessential country songwriter.
One reason I really like this book is because it gives a glimpse into what the country scene was like in Alberta during a time that few remember. I’ve searched high and low for information about this era and haven’t found much. Damron’s perspective on the scene is telling, and although he only focuses on his own experience, little bits of information come through. For example, he landed a half-hour Saturday night radio show on Red Deer’s CKRD, where like many from his time, he gained extra gigs from loyal followers who mailed in requests. He suffered the same plight as his contemporaries when he spent money pressing a thousand 45s, sent them out to radio stations, and was rejected airplay for being Canadian. Meanwhile, he saw the transition from playing community halls to bars, when Alberta’s liquor laws relaxed in the 1950s, allowing clubs to obtain licenses. And like some of today’s western Canadian singers, he also paid his dues in hard labour prairie jobs, touring in his off time.
Seems little has changed in some ways. The musician’s schedule during the Calgary Stampede remains the same: get up at the crack of dawn to play the pancake breakfasts, rush off to a lunchtime corporate barbeque, then finish the day with two or three bar gigs. Repeat for ten days straight and zap, you’ve made most of your annual income.
Few artists are still around to document the changes in popular music preferences, especially as they occurred in a rural setting. This might be the most fascinating part of Damron’s story. Beginning as a teenager, Damron forged bands with friends and family members, and made a name for himself playing local dances and community events. The groups learned a vast repertoire of waltzes, polkas, and square dances; catering to the social dances everyone grew up learning in the 1940s and 50s. Then came rock and roll, and Damron and his bandmates had to both shift to accommodate the demands of their young audience, and keep playing the favourites of the older generation. By the time the multi-instrumentalist (steel guitar, banjo, fiddle) was in his 20s, he was writing country tunes that absorbed all of the material he had already learned.
The rest of the book is largely about Damron’s career ups and downs; the fact that he still played hell-hole honky tonks even after scoring big Nashville hits. Or that he toured through Europe in the late 70s, but had to duck to avoid flying beer bottles while playing bars through small-town America. Like my friend said the other day, “Dick was an outlaw before there was Waylon and Willie.” Very true. Damron’s book follows a country music narrative that is all too familiar: the soulful songwriter with a crusty exterior spends most of his life extinguishing pain with drinking, drugs, and women, and finally quiets his racing mind when he starts to find God. Maybe familiar, but in the way that we fans like, and there’s no way you can predict the outcome of some of the stories he tells.
I love memoirs. I spent last summer reading several by funny women who have become well-known bloggers (Disaster Preparedness and Let’s Pretend This Never Happened for example) and I read a totally crazy one a couple weeks ago called The Feminist and The Cowboy. My god – look up the back story to that one. I like memoirs not only because they tend to be written by people who are interesting high-achievers, but also because the most successful ones strike a balance between being relatable and being great stories. You can’t believe the shit that happens to people, but you could *almost* imagine it happening to you.
This was the case with Damron; initially I felt some connection to him, even though he’s 44 years older than me and we have virtually nothing in common. I’d read about Damron and his friends rolling up rhubarb, leaves, and bark into makeshift cigarettes and liken that to my brothers eating grass and throwing it up in the corner of the backyard when we were kids. Then there were his failed attempts at running away, like when he hitchhiked and then hopped on the train to escape to Rocky Mountain House, that made me think of the time I hid in the park around the corner in a more pathetic attempt to escape my parents. When it got to the part where Damron got on to a wild steer that he and his friends had chased around the farm and crashed through a barbed wire fence that ripped his forearm open, I started to lose the connection. But then he described driving through the towns of “Balzac, Airdrie, Crossfield, Carstairs, Didsbury, Olds, Bowden, and Innisfail”, which I used to do all the time, and I was right back with him.
It’s worth getting the book if you can find it, not just because Damron is a country icon worth knowing, but for a pretty honest and entertaining story all the way through.
My new project is to read all the country music biographies on my shelf and write reviews of them. Pretty excited. Am I a dork? Who cares.
Here’s what I have planned.
Today: Dick Damron
Then, in no particular order: The Louvin Brothers (Satan is Real)
-Townes Van Zandt (A Deeper Blue)
-Willie Nelson (Willie: An Autobiography)
-Steve Earle (Hardcore Troubadour)
-Patsy Cline (Honky Tonk Angel)
-Loretta Lynn (Coal Miner’s Daughter)
-Ian Tyson (The Long Trail) (I’ve read most of this but I’ll read it again)
-Alan Lomax (Alan Lomax: A Biography)
-Waylon Jennings (I saw it in the store last week; hopefully it’s still there)
Then, we’ll see.