The Wild, Wild West: When There Was “No F***ing Walmart”
I returned to my hometown, Calgary, Alberta, to do research. The 100th anniversary of the first Stampede seemed like a good time to update my work, and sure enough, there are concerts every single day, any time of day. I’ve already had breakfast at one concert, lunch at another, dragged friends out to shows and seen others on my own.
The main reason for my trip was what I figured would be one of the best concerts I could ever see: Ian Tyson and Corb Lund for 100 Years of Calgary Cowboys. I saw the advertisement for it in April, hesitated only briefly, and then booked my entire trip around the concert. Tyson and Lund are playing five shows at the relatively intimate Martha Cohen Theatre in downtown Calgary this week, and are the central draw to this 100thanniversary for many people, including me.
My predilection for roots music shows has kept me away from the worst of Stampede partying and by extension, the worst country music. The beginning of the week was quiet but even the weekend shows I went to were nothing like the slobbery, hot, dirt floor tents of Nashville North or Cowboys on the actual Stampede grounds. That’s where you get the straw hats turned up at the sides paired with pink cowboy boots and teeny shorts, not to mention what all the girls are wearing. Most of the city treats the Stampede like Halloween: drag out your hat and giant belt buckle, wear them to work only because it’s better than polyester pants, chug beers at Nashville North and throw them up on the midway rides after, and recover with a bag of mini donuts and a bottle of water that costs $7.50 while you watch fireworks. Fun. Still, it’s nice to walk through the streets of downtown and see cowboys everywhere.
One of the artists I interviewed this week asked me if I’d ever consider moving back to the city. Maybe, I told her. The problem is, I come back here and just when I’m reveling in the comfy experiences of seeing my favourite local singers, the city’s dark and wild side starts to creep in. Whether it’s the driver in front of me spraying poor pedestrians with clouds of diesel fuel for ‘fun’, or the giant, erm, male parts that hang from the back of pickup trucks (I’m hoping these are just for the holiday season), the untamed nature of the West still materializes occasionally.
Sometimes I think I hate it, sometimes I think it’s totally fascinating. Why is Calgary like this? Why do people here go totally crazy for a festival about cowboys, roping and riding, and as many free pancakes as you can find? Does the city have a corporate stick so far up its ass that these are the only ten days where we’re allowed to let loose? Or are we so casual and friendly in the West that this is a natural extension of our everyday state? Both, I think.
Then again, maybe not. I came home today to find that many of my Calgarian contacts on Facebook were celebrating the decision to eliminate the French version of the Canadian national anthem from the daily Stampede Grandstand show. Why? Well, ‘cause we’re the West, and we speak English, dammit, and French ain’t got no goddam business bein’ out here. This from the people who complain about Quebec’s desire to separate from Canada, yet support a half-baked plan for Alberta to separate and enjoy its wealth privately. This was the thing that put me over the edge. As far as I’m concerned the Stampede is a central part of our national, not regional, culture. They call it the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, so shouldn’t there at least be some effort to recognize our French neighbours, never mind the many tourists coming from around the world who a) might speak French or b) be interested in the fact that we are officially a bilingual country? There isn’t a kid in Canada who can’t say riboflavin in French because we grew up reading cereal boxes written in two languages. That’s not a bad thing (I mean, aside from whatever riboflavin is being in our cereal). So why not sing a bit of the national anthem in French at the 100thanniversary of one of the country’s biggest tourist draws?
Even if it is only part of our regional culture, think about this: as I drove home, an advertisement on the bus in front of me caught my attention; it said “Did You Know That 225,000 Albertans Speak French?” Okay, so the province’s population is about 3 million, and that means only 7.5% are Francophone, but that’s not nothing.
And wait, there’s more. At the Tyson/Lund show last night, Tyson opened the second half with a story about author Will James, his childhood favourite. Not only was James a Texas cowboy who worked in the last days of the open range said Tyson, he was one of the main sources of inspiration for a young generation of reading cowboys. Tyson told the audience how his father solved the problem of Christmas and birthday gifts by going to the Canadian department store Eaton’s to buy Will James books for young Ian, and that other department store too…what was it? “Woolworth’s” someone suggested. “Woodwards” said another. “Walmart!” came another reply. “There was no Walmart,” scoffed Tyson. “We’re talking about when it was real. No fucking Walmart.”
Turns out the man behind all the stories (for those who don’t know) was not Will James, hard-bitten Texas cowboy, but Ernest Dufault from Montréal, Quebec. He worked so hard to maintain his persona and to hide his origins and French Canadian accent that he ended up a raging alcoholic. Of course Tyson has a song about him; after playing it, Lund pointed out that the chorus has the great little analogy of the coyote constantly covering his tracks as he looks behind him.
The thing is, we could all deconstruct ourselves to death, especially those of us that live in places that are marginalized by centres of power or the mainstream media. Alberta is overshadowed, and derided, by central Canada, for all kinds of reasons, so we rely on a short but meaningful history of cowboy migration, work, and culture to feel special. And it works. Maybe most of us haven’t been on a horse, or given up our life savings to own cattle, as Lund has pointed out in one of his new songs, but we still feel some affinity for the ideals that the cowboy represents: an attachment to the land, a sense of freedom and escape, man against nature.
That brings me to another point. Is there any occupation that is more conducive to music making than that of the cowboy? I can’t imagine a cashier or a plumber finding the same inspiration in their environment that cowboys do. The landscape of south/central Alberta is particularly stimulating: a breathtaking combination of mountains, foothills, prairies; a vast distance of big skies and empty spaces. On top of that, the cowboy is often alone in his work, with time to take in his surroundings and to sing about them. The singers tonight introduced the concert as the story of the original cowboys near the southern borders of the U.S. making their way north to what we know in Calgary today. Lund and Tyson each have a collection of songs that document individual characters and key moments in cowboy history that together in a concert like this paint a vivid picture of all that it means to live and breathe the West.
Although they claimed to have rehearsed madly over the last few months, the concert had a loose feel to it (“What key is this in?” “E.” “E? Are you sure? Okay”). Nevertheless, the rehearsals were evident in their harmonies, the questions traded between the two, and their admiration for each other’s tougher compositions. Holy shit, these guys are good musicians. I’m stating the obvious – in the case of Tyson, the fact that he is still writing incredible songs that never rely on the same old tricks is only a small indication of his talent. It’s no problem for him to knock off a beautifully improvised solo mid-song, or to rise above Lund’s voice in harmony. As for Lund, I don’t know that I have the words to express my admiration for him. Never mind his grasp on language, which is even evident in his articulate but off-the-cuff stage banter, his sense of timing, natural approach to singing, and sophisticated relationship with rhythm keep getting better.
I love them both, so it’s hard to know what I liked best about the concert. I remember getting stopped by the cops on 16th Ave in Calgary for going through a red light when I was 21, and I’m pretty sure I got away without a ticket because I had Tyson playing on my stereo (thanks, Ian). But I’ve also spend hundreds of hours listening to the way Lund phrases his melodies and shapes his words – he’s one of the few whose lyrics I pay a lot of attention to. For anyone who is interested in the progression of cowboy music from the early 20thcentury until today, this was a concert that covered it all.
Does it matter if a local creates this music, or an ‘outsider’ does? Isn’t everyone an outsider, somehow (or recently), in the West? Why not share cowboy culture with anyone who is interested, even if they can’t claim to have experienced that life authentically? So what if Alberta’s culture has been partially created by French writers or Americans moving north across the border? Quebecers, Albertans, Texans; Calgarians, Montréalers…in the end, maybe we’re more similar than we’d like to admit.
What would Corb say? I wonder.