Stampede: Big Money if You Can Play a Few Country Tunes
Last night I turned on CBC Sports and the rodeo was on. Even though I grew up in Calgary, I never attended the rodeo. My family had more pressing concerns, like planning vacations to BC that would coincide with the influx of tourists during Stampede, and saving what little money we had to get through a day at the grounds as cheaply as possible.
So it was with interest that I watched the rodeo. The animal lover in me cringes at the calf ropers bearing down on freaked out baby cattle and at the horrific crashes that inevitably happen every year during the chuckwagon races. (Already four horses have died at this year’s Stampede, with the usual cries of animal abuse dogging event organizers.) But this was Bareback , which basically looks like a bunch of horses enjoying jumping frenetically until their riders give up and fall off. It was a bit easier to watch, even though I knew one of this year’s horses died from a broken back during a bucking event.
All of this is beside my point, which is that I was watching real cowboys. Cowboys with names like Tilden Hooper and Dusty LaValley. The thing is, everyone tries to be a cowboy in Calgary, especially during the Stampede—we all drag our hats and boots from the back of the closet in order to change up our usual work attire—but it’s a rare occurrence to run into an actual working cowboy, even in the streets of Calgary.
Yet it is this transformative ten days in the city that somehow sets everyone’s secret western identity free. Even those who disparage such an identity and all of its attendant baggage secretly enjoy the opportunity to go to an office barbeque, or find a reason to head down to the bars and listen to country tunes with their friends.
Independent musicians in the city make the majority of their money during the ten days of Stampede. If you’re not normally a country player, it’s worth it to learn a few Hank tunes or even the latest Taylor Swift hit to become an instant crowd pleaser. Some of the local country players make up to $15,000 in the week because gigs.are.everywhere. It’s not just the country bars like the Ranchman’s or the Palomino that are looking for live music. There’s tons of private parties and corporate gigs; stores hire bands to play free pancake breakfasts; the city puts on free public events downtown that require a continuous soundtrack of authentic cowboy tunes. Local musicians race from breakfast gigs to lunchtime concerts to several evening shows at the bars, which is hard enough for band leaders, but is even more difficult for side players who are normally employed by three or four (or more) bands.
Calgary musicians come out exhausted but rich at the end of the hoedown. Often these players are also on the western Canadian folk festival circuit, which means they get about a week off before they have to start up again. They’re playing to drunk audiences who shout out strange requests and talk louder than the music, and they’re playing the same set of tunes over and over, but they’re whistlin’ those tunes all the way to the bank.
Local musician Matt Masters: