New book explores the relationship between energy industry and Calgary roots music scene

Ryerson musical historian GIllian Turnbull's new book came out of growing up in Calgary and realizing there was something unique about the city's thriving roots music scene.

Calgary's roots music scene gets its closeup in new book by Ryerson professor

Author Gillian Turnbull's new book is Sonic Booms: Making Music in an Oil Town. (CBC)

The connection between oil and gas and Calgary's roots music scene is the subject of a new book. It's called Sonic Booms: Making Music in an Oil Town.

The book, by former Calgarian and Ryerson University music historian Gillian Turnbull, explores the relationship and connecting threads between our energy industry and our roots music scene.

"When I lived here as a younger person, I was going out to hear music all the time, and I realized there was a magical thing happening here," Turnbull said, in interviews with The Homestretch and CBC News at Six on Wednesday.

"Everybody knew each other, played with each other, they were really supportive of each other's endeavours — and it was a scene that turned out to be unlike any other I've encountered across Canada. Really tight knit and supportive — just a great place to make music," she added.

What connected the scene, she said, was its proximity to booking lucrative gigs through the oil and gas industry.

"They get hired for Stampede lunches and night parties they get just one offs — Christmas parties and things like that," she said.

"I think that frees them up to be a little more creative in their off time and make the music they really want to and and write the songs that they're really interested in — it kind of provides the creative freedom for them."

Sonic Booms: Making Music in an Oil Town explores Calgary's relationship of its energy industry to its thriving roots music scene. (CBC)

In the book, Turnbull focuses mostly on the period from the 1990s through the 2000s, talking about musicians such as Tom Phillips, Emily Triggs, Steve Coffey, Brooke Wylie, Dave McCann, Carter Felker, Amy Nelson, Mike Todd and others, with a particular interest in songwriters.

One that she says embodies the city's roots music scene is Phillips.

"He's a great representative of Calgary at large — but also the diversity in Calgary that often doesn't get talked about in the national consciousness," she said.

He's very literate person, well read, very smart, well educated — a progressive thinker — but also plays country and folk music, which is the sound of Calgary. He embodies all these things I think Calgary feels about itself."

Calgary musician Tom Phillips plays a significant role in Gillian Turnbull's new book. (CBC)

What constitutes the Calgary sound?

Well, you can probably start with a twang, she said — but built into those country chord structures is a contemporary sensibility.

"They take the traditions of country music seriously," Turnbull said, "and even if they're not necessarily oriented towards that music they recognize that it's an important part of the city's culture and history. So there's little references to that in their lyrics or in the sounds that they make, but they also can see the world at large changing.

"They're responding to that through song — becoming more political with their lyrics and talking about the environment climate change things like that."

Turnbull is launching the book Wednesday night at Mikey's on 12th. She'll also be doing a book signing Saturday at Indigo Books in Dalhousie from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

With files from The Homestretch and CBC News at Six

About the Author

Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email:


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