Matt Masters: His New Album and the Spaghetti Western Festival
Ever since John Lomax started collecting them in the early 1900s, cowboy songs have contributed as equally, if not more, to the North American fascination with the cowboy as dime novels and western films. The tunes that described a mysterious profession and a daunting landscape provided a window into the lives of men who seemingly lived a life free of emotional attachments and the burden of responsibility, ideals that urban dwellers could only fantasize about in the middle of their daily grind.
So what happens when the narratives of those songs collide with the realities of 21st century city life in the mind of a young man? Matt Masters is what happens. Growing up amidst the usual prairie soundscape of classic rock radio stations, Masters played in rock bands throughout high school. But the other sounds of the prairies, the country music that drifted into his hometown of Calgary through its past and its rural neighbours, gradually crept in to Masters’ consciousness.
So he started writing hip songs that documented contemporary life in Alberta, songs that had a reverence for the ballads and stories of the cowboy tradition, and eschewed the ironic distance so characteristic of much contemporary Americana and indie music. Gathering up a band that eventually became his Gentlemen of the Rodeo, Masters fashioned himself as a modern cowboy troubadour, spinning tales about the people and places that surrounded his hometown. He was determined to make it work: while fellow musicians toiled away at day jobs and scored the occasional bar gig, he agreed to play just about any imaginable concert, once culminating in a month of daily gigs in obscure places. It paid off: he has worked full-time as a musician since the early 2000s.
In this time, Masters has written a successful cabaret show, Don Coyote, that ran at the High Performance Rodeo in Calgary in 2008 and was featured at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, he has emceed the Calgary Folk Festival, toured through North America, and he has founded a country music festival. Not to mention his debut CD from 2005, Centennial Swell, which has now been followed by his second full-length recording, All Western Winners. With so much recent success, a new marriage, and a baby on the way, Masters has more to talk about than ever, and rather than focusing on folk tales and local history, Masters has gotten personal on Winners. Singing about his family and recent life changes, songs like “The Recovery” pay tribute to his grandmother in a solid country-rock style, while “Two Girls” and “Candle Flame” move into the realm of romance.
And he has revisited his rock roots. For this album, Masters decided that his brand of country needed to revisit a darker place, so he decorated his songs with rough timbres, distorted guitars, and dense arrangements, inspiring critics to associate him with acts like Jason and the Scorchers. While recording in Vancouver, Masters discovered a new sound that he didn’t think would work for country, but realized the rougher edges suited his lyrics and voice. His DIY approach and new sound appealed to Sloth Records, a local (and very successful) punk record store that has long supported Masters. “What do you want out of a record deal these days?” he says. “Sloth Records gives me a retail outlet that has my record on the front row…Sloth Records gives me a store.”
The ultimate indie entrepreneur, Masters has realized that regional success, while perhaps not his original aim, has kept him far busier than he could have imagined. He is well-known and receiving good press throughout Alberta, and travels regularly to BC, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba for regular gigs. He’s even gone as far as Qatar, Turkey, and Mexico; the latter inspiring a bit of an image shift. Dressed in a fine mariachi suit during our interview at the Calgary Folk Festival where he played this year, Masters seemed impervious to the warm sun and to rushing through a day of interviews and concerts, looking cool and unruffled.
The fall sees Masters helping out the Cantos National Music Centre by offering classes to grade four students on Alberta history and song, and he’ll be wrapping up this summer with his annual Spaghetti Western Festival, a free day-long show of local country and folk acts. Taking place at Olympic Plaza this Saturday, August 20, this year’s Spag West Fest features:
The Ramblin’ Ambassadors
Peter Bilt Pete Christian
If you’re in town, stop by to see the show, and visit Masters at his website, where you can find his new album.