Searching for Calgary's true country heart
Why doesn't the Canadian epicentre of the torch and twang have a true honky-tonk?
Cowtown has always been a great country music town, but if the Stampede City ever hopes to transform itself into an authentic music mecca, it's missing one vital ingredient.
Calgary has no true honky-tonk.
Every year, Stampede spawns dozens of gigs, garden parties, stomps and hootenannies, not to mention half a dozen 'Dome shows featuring top shelf Nashville country stars.
A few weeks from now, the Canadian Country Music Awards roll into town.
There's an exhibition up now at the National Music Centre, featuring everything from kd lang and Hank Snow's Nudie suits to Stompin' Tom's stomping board to the jacket Paul Brandt wore when he won the Stampede Talent Show in 1992. (It's also the home of the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame).
Country-oriented radio stations, such as FM 105, are among the city's most popular, year after year after year.
So how did Calgary, the Canadian epicentre of the torch and twang, wake up without a honky-tonk to call its own?
"I agree with you. It's been a gripe of mine for a long time — that we don't have a real honky-tonk," says Andrew Mosker, the president and CEO of the National Music Centre, which also runs the King Eddy, a once-and-future saloon with potential.
Mariel Buckley, a roots music singer-songwriter who grew up in Calgary, agrees with Mosker.
"It's a bit of a missing market, really," she says. "The more I think about it, the more I'm like, 'we don't really have that.'"
For Canadian singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith, the bard of a thousand honky-tonks, Calgary's problem might be a Canadian thing.
"Canadians tend to want to fix things up," Eaglesmith says. "We got all those rules."
Around Stampede time, the venues tend toward large (Cowboys), generic and corporate.
They're faux honky.
Or, as Calgary singer-songwriter Tom Phillips says, "I don't think places like Cowboys can be called a honky-tonk.
"That's more like a franchise."
For Eaglesmith, Calgary's faux honky-tonks are guilty of something even worse: faux enthusiasm.
"Unlike the real honky-tonks, the staff is so worried about serving beer and themselves that they create the hubbub that makes people not want to come back," he says.
"They don't understand that at real honky-tonks, people are riveted to the music. The staff would never yell above the music, just serving a beer. The bartender would be respectful and quiet."
It's got to have 'mojo'
What turns a bar into a honky-tonk?
First off, they should be hard to find.
"If it has a sign at all, it should be small and hard to see," Phillips says.
It shouldn't get any easier once you set foot inside, either.
"It's gotta be dark," he says. "You can drink in the day.
"There will be regulars who sit at the bar from the time it opens until it closes. You gotta have those guys."
There should be a stage, and a dance floor, however small or large, a reasonable sound system and a willingness to allow singers to perform original tunes.
A honky-tonk has a tone to it, too.
"There's an overriding sense of despair in the place," Phillips says.
"It has to feel like it's been there forever," he adds, "even if it hasn't."
Eaglesmith puts it his own unique way.
"A honky-tonk is a place that's got mojo," he says.
"You need the blood of the musicians inside the walls, of the guys who have gone on before ya.
"It's gotta have some history," he adds. "It doesn't matter if it's a four-year-old honky-tonk. It's the history of the guys who have played there, and broke their leg or something."
It's also a bit of a loose room, filled with careful listeners.
"It's a combination of good music, maybe a little bit of free flowing liquor, hopefully good sound, good performance," says Mike Corbiell from Bitterweed Draw, a Calgary roots band.
"Personally I never liked it when you do those shows where everybody is sitting down," he says.
Corbiell's favourite honky-tonk isn't one — it's a Mexican restaurant down near Waterton Lakes National Park, called the Twin Butte General Store, which has been around for more than 20 years. In the summer, it features an assortment of live acts.
Corbiell says the Twin Butte's audiences are the best anywhere.
"They like to drink, get rowdy and do shots with the band and that kind of stuff, but they're also quite attentive and they get lots of different musicians in there," he says.
What's their secret?
"It's in the middle of nowhere, but also in the middle of paradise," says Jeny Akitt, the club's owner.
Another venue that keeps popping up in conversation is The Auditorium Hotel, in Nanton, an hour southeast of Calgary.
For Eaglesmith, Buckley and Brad Simm, the former editor of BeatRoute Magazine, the Auditorium Hotel makes the short list of their favourites anywhere.
"The Auditorium Hotel is probably one of the best ones in North America," Eaglesmith says.
(It's where Corb Lund recorded Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer.)
"That's the real deal. Liquor store attached to it — full on — all the addictions are taken care of: alcohol, VLTs. It's a den of iniquity.
"The ceiling's so dirty, you could die of exposure."
Lack of filth and despair
Locally, there might be a lack of filth and personal despair rummaging through the rooms that host live music, but there are definitely candidates.
Musically-speaking, the best is probably the Ironwood, says Buckley.
"As far as singer-songwriters and stuff like that, the premier venue in Calgary would be the Ironwood, just because it's operating with seven nights of live music a week — and eight times out of 10, it's original music.
"It's the best. The sound is unparalleled."
What's the catch?
"It's not really a room to go party and dance around in, but if you're just going to listen to great songwriting, I don't really think there's a better space to be (a musician)."
Phillips makes the case for the Blues Can, further down Ninth Avenue S.E.
"It's got the right shape for a honky-tonk," he says.
"Everything is mainly facing toward the stage. The floor is really worn. The bar has an L-shape, so the real regulars can sit along the back of it, instead of in the middle of the music, but you can still hear it."
Corbiell says the Palomino Club downtown on Seventh Avenue gets rowdy right.
"We've always loved playing at the Palomino. They play different styles of music there, but we've had some good Stampede weeks there, playing honky-tonk and a pretty rowdy scene."
Everyone misses Mikey's Juke Joint on 10th Avenue S.W., one of a half dozen live music venues that have shut down in recent years.
"I know it's a juke joint, but the room itself just had that old-school, vibey energy and great art on the walls," Buckley says. "Lots of history. There was shitty cheap beer. It wasn't clean all the time, but the people there were always great. The sound system wasn't that great but again, a great room.
"That's what a good bar, a good honky-tonk is," Buckley says.
The problem is that Mikey's closed down partly because paying bands is fraught with economic challenges. Or maybe Phillips puts it better.
"People who promote live music — every great live music venue, every great honky-tonk — go bankrupt in the end," he says.
"It's not something you go into to make a million dollars."
A new candidate might be an old room: the County Line, in the Town and Country Hotel, way out east in Forest Lawn.
"That room is a bona fide honky-tonk," Buckley says. "It has a huge dance floor, and it is rough.
"It is exactly what would be a great honky-tonk, I think."
Buckley says not to overlook the King Eddy, either, which, after all, had a whole previous seedy life cycle before the National Music Centre gussied it up. (She plays there July 7 as part of the King Eddy's Stampede concert series).
"It's pretty new," she says. "I think some people need to get in a fight in there, or smoke some weed in there, for it to turn into a legit contender."