Canadian Interviews Publishing - Sep 3, 2009
L to R: Canadian music legend Stompin' Tom Connors with Tim HusTIM HUS - CROSS COUNTRY
How does it feel to open concerts for Stompin’ Tom Connors? What is it like to play alongside the man? Or better yet, what does it mean to hear Stompin’ Tom tell an audience that he is passing the torch of distinctive Canadian musical storytelling to you?
The tour was a stroke of good fortune that helped to introduce Hus to thousands of listeners. After all, Connors is a unique part of the Canadian cultural landscape, a man who has dedicated his lengthy career to telling stories of people and places across the country, collecting countless fans along the way. Hus followed the Stompin’ Tom tour with a grueling schedule of his own concerts in September, playing shows in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan before finally heading home to Alberta. As 2009 draws to a close, Hus will perform in venues all over the Wild Rose province, with dates in British Columbia set for early 2010.
In March 2008 Hus signed on with Stony Plain Records, a label rooted in Edmonton and well known for highly successful artists including Corb Lund, Maria Muldaur, and Ian Tyson. The label was established in 1976, and found firm ground in the mid-eighties when Tyson’s record Cowboyography went platinum in Canada. With a few albums under his belt, Hus made Bush Pilot Buckaroo, the first of his recordings put out by Stony Plain and distributed by Warner Music. It was released in May 2008.
In conversation before his recent concert at the Dakota Tavern in Toronto, it is clear that Tim Hus is very pleased and grateful for his recent career upswing. “I never thought I’d get to be on Stony Plain Records. I used to listen to Ian Tyson records, and I would see that Stony Plain logo on there. Man, I never would have dreamed that I would get to record for them one day. And I was hoping that I would get to meet Stompin’ Tom one day. But opening a whole tour for him, and then having him tell me that I’m the best opening act that he’s ever had, and how long he’s been looking for a guy like me, that he’s passing the torch to me -- I couldn’t even have dreamed up that kind of stuff!”
Time will tell if Hus is able to develop the deep connection to all parts of Canada that his mentor has so successfully built, but with songs like ‘Vancouver Blues’, ‘So Long Saskatchwan’, and ‘Flin Flon’, he is definitely moving in that direction!
CI: You recently completed a tour of eastern Canada with Stompin’ Tom Connors. Is there anything that you can single out and say that you learned from Stompin’ Tom as far as how to engage an audience?
TH: Well, I think you always learn. Stompin’ Tom is a master with an audience, right? He has such a huge stage presence and charisma, and I’m standing five feet behind him every night, backing him up. You can’t help but learn things. He lays it all out on the line when he’s on stage, for sure. He’s quite a different guy actually when he’s off the stage. He’s quite quiet and reserved. He likes to find himself a corner and sit with his back to the wall. But he’s sure a showman when he gets up there.
CI: The crowd at a Stompin’ Tom show is an interesting mix of people, different ages, men and women, people from the country, people from the city, and it gets pretty lively when Stompin’ Tom gets going. Do you remember anything from the tour that was especially memorable as far as the behaviour of the crowd?
TH: There were all varieties. There were shows where the people were older and quieter, and then shows when the young rowdies are out, for sure. What is really wonderful to see is just how much his fans really love him. They were sending all kinds of stuff back to the dressing room, paintings that people have painted of him, all kinds of stuff like that. And just how much he means to people! Every night, huge crowds, right? Every night. The people just adore him.
CI: One song of yours that instantly draws people in during the live shows is ‘Canadian Cowboy’ [a song written by Canadian singer-songwriter Danny Mack]. When I watched the show at Centennial Hall in London, you introduced it by saying that a lot of people tell you that maybe you should head down to Nashville and see what you can do in the U.S., but you have made the conscious choice that you want to sing songs about this country. When did you make that decision? How did you decide that that was what you wanted to do?
TH: I don’t know! I don’t really recall making a conscious decision. I remember when I first got into the music. Of course, I always loved country music and storytelling music, and all those old songs about train wrecks and all that kind of stuff, but I do remember when I got onto Stompin’ Tom and how that really turned my world around. It was those types of songs that I already loved, from ‘Wreck of the Old 97’ to Johnny Cash songs or Woody Guthrie songs, but all of a sudden it was in my world, right? He was singing about – I’m from the west – he was singing about the Second Narrows Bridge in Vancouver, and I’ve been over that bridge. All of a sudden it was all this great music, but in my world! When I started writing my own songs, I didn’t really make any kind of decision. I just started writing songs about things that interested me. I would say I do that to this day. Actually I don’t know how to write a hit song. All I’ve ever done is written songs about things that interest me personally, and I’ve found that people everywhere seem to like the same stuff. It’s funny. I often get asked this kind of question: when did you decide to start writing songs about Canada? To me, it’s a little bit like asking someone, when did you decide to become a non-smoker? I don’t really think that you make a decision to become a non-smoker. You just kind of are a non-smoker, and if you don’t make any decision at all, you’re just a non-smoker. Then if you make the conscious choice to become a smoker – well, I think it’s a little bit like that. People say: how did you get onto this niche of writing Canadian country songs? The simple answer is that I’m from Canada! Most of my songs are about western Canada, but that’s because that’s where I’m from. I’m just writing about stuff that’s familiar to me and stuff that interests me. So I haven’t really made a conscious effort to do that, but somewhere along the line I became aware of the fact that it seems like nobody else is doing it!
CI: I think that’s what interests people, right? There are many people that could never understand why young songwriters didn’t want to take that up, telling stories about people and places across the country. Stompin’ Tom has talked about this for years. Maybe it’s just because of the presence of the United States, and it’s a bigger market, but I think that is what’s driving people to ask you the question.
TH: Well, that’s what Stompin’ Tom has told me so many times, how thrilled he was that he finally found somebody else doing it. He used to always say that he was the only one doing it. Now he says, ‘you and me are the only ones doing it!’ He says that Wilf Carter did it. Wilf Carter was born in 1904. Then he says – this is Tom talking – ‘I was born in 1936 – so thirty-two years later I came along!’ Between Wilf Carter and himself, he says that there was nobody doing it. Now, he had to wait another thirty or forty years for me to come along! That’s what he says: what’s wrong with this country? You can read his various accounts of it. It’s been published many times, including in his books. He just feels that Canada has an identity crisis and a cultural crisis that way. It seems like it’s ‘uncool’ to write about Canada. I think that’s what a lot of songwriters feel, which is what Tom has been trying to combat. I guess maybe me too, right? Just because you’re so accustomed to hearing American songs all the time, I hear the critics saying about me, ‘oh, his songs are good, but they’re too regional’. But I haven’t found that that’s the case. I’ve even played my songs throughout the States, in Louisiana, or in Washington D.C., and there the Americans say ‘this is great, we didn’t know you guys had your own songs’. They do! As an example, I would say that, telling somebody that, because I wrote a song about Saskatchewan, only people in Saskatchewan will like it, I strongly disagree with that. For people who are from there, they are going to like that in particular, but for people that aren’t from there, they will learn something new, and that will interest them – if it’s a well-written song. In the same way, I can’t imagine anybody telling an American that a song like ‘Rose of San Antone’ – would you ever say, ‘ah, you can’t play that in Alberta! Nobody’s going to get it. They haven’t been to San Antonio.’ People wouldn’t say that, but they say the opposite. If you do write something about Canada, they say that no one else is going to get that.
CI: One of my favourite songs of yours is ‘So Long Saskatchewan’. When you look at the lyrics, it has a certain historical sweep to it, grandfathers or maybe great-grandfathers coming through the port at Halifax, heading out to the Prairies, and then a change in circumstances comes that makes the family leave the farm behind in Saskatchewan. When you’re putting these songs together, are you drawing from family stories or from stories of friends? Are you hitting the books, pulling stories from written history?
TH: I would say a little bit of everything, but mainly I would say that it comes from stories that I hear from people. That particular song I wrote for a farmer south of Swift Current. He told me how disappointed he was that he was farming five hundred acres and his wife had to have a job in town. Everybody else on his road had sold out, that kind of thing. My historical songs, like I say, there are things that interest me, either something that I have knowledge of or I get the knowledge from somebody that has the knowledge, or I will research it. If it is a ‘historic’ song, I want to make sure that the details are accurate. That’s very important to me.
CI: You were born and grew up in British Columbia. Now you are based in Alberta. What sort of songs did you listen to growing up? Obviously Stompin’ Tom, and you mentioned Johnny Cash and Woody Guthrie. What was in the home as you grew up?
TH: Well, my father was a real world traveler, right? He’s from the big port in Germany, from Hamburg originally. He traveled all around the world working on ships, helped build the trans-Australian railway, worked as a bricklayer in Brazil, a real globetrotter, a real vagabond and globetrotter. He liked to sing, so we had those kinds of songs around, folk songs, sailor songs, country songs, that kind of thing.
CI: When did you start writing your own songs?
TH: When I came out of high school I was working in a logging camp. I remember that was when I first started writing songs and singing for the guys. It was kind of a remote camp where we would be in for three weeks and then out for a week. That was a great crowd. They were entertainment starved, right? Anybody that could do something entertaining - they were all tone deaf anyways from the chainsaws!
CI: So that was a good group to start with …
TH: Yeah, right? I would sing them songs, Johnny Cash songs, that kind of thing, country songs. They liked that kind of music. I tried writing a song about the logging camp, about loggers, the sort of stuff that we were doing, and of course it went over great. I guess that you have a success and then you try writing another song, and then people like that. I actually fell into this music thing kind of accidentally. I mean, I always liked it, but it was that thing where you just play to amuse yourself, and then other people like your playing, and then they say that you should try writing a song. You do, and they like that, and they say you should write another one. You do, and then they say you should make an album! Then people buy that. Then you should do another album. Now I’m signed to Stony Plain Records with Ian Tyson there, and we’re traveling coast to coast, and on tour with Stompin’ Tom, and on the radio and on television and stuff - I guess one thing has led to another, and I can proudly say it’s because people have always supported it. People have always liked what I’m doing. I just kind of kept with it.
CI: When you’re on stage, you work in stories before most of the songs, and now as you’re traveling coast to coast, as you say, are you working in some road stories now and then, or are they mostly stories relating to how the songs came together?
TH: Oh, whatever – and they change, too! It depends. I don’t use a setlist, right? A lot of entertainers will have a predetermined list, a lineup of songs that they’re going to do, but I don’t do that. Every audience is different. Sometimes they’re up for more stories, sometimes they just want to hear songs, sometimes they’re up for slower songs, sometimes more up-tempo stuff. Maybe they’re a big drinking gang, or more listening gang. I find that I can do a better show if I can just pick it out of my hat, so to speak, what I’m going to do.
CI: As you know, this country is massive …
TH: The biggest challenge is how big it is!
CI: … and there are profound differences between being in Ontario and being in Newfoundland, or between being in Quebec and being in Alberta. Somehow Stompin’ Tom always seemed to be able to link the songs back to the idea of Canada. They all fit in. He would tell the stories from the regions, but it was all part of Canadian music. For you, is that your goal as well, to tell the stories but be able to link it to something that is coast to coast to coast?
TH: I don’t really know. I’ve done a lot of thinking about it lately due to late night conversations with Stompin’ Tom! I would say that Tom really likes the path that I’m on, and maybe I was on that path accidentally already, without thinking about it really. I don’t really know how important those things are. You tell stories about different people from different places, and as your world expands you tell more. I’ve noticed that myself, of course. They started out being songs about B.C. and the logging camp, and when I went on and had other experiences, I wrote other songs, lived in different places and met different people. Now as I travel across the whole land, that just continues, right? I guess, to answer your question, I would say that that feeling of Canadian pride, or a Canadian sense of identity, that you get from Stompin’ Tom’s songs, that’s just something that happens when you hear stories about different parts of the land. Right? I think the link is actually just Tom. If you hear Tom sing a song, in my example, if you’re from the west, you hear Tom singing about the Second Narrows Bridge, and you think ‘ah, isn’t that cool?’ A guy that is so well respected, and what a great song, and he likes my part of the world! He knows something about it, and he’s telling the history of my part of the world to the rest of the country, and that makes you proud. In the same way, then you’re interested in listening to songs about the tobacco farmers in Ontario, which I didn’t really know anything about as a kid. They don’t grow tobacco where I’m from. But then when you come out here, you already know something about it – ‘oh yeah, I already heard a story about this’.
CI: If the link is Tom, I think for most of the people in the crowd, it’s a special moment – when they’ve developed this relationship with Stompin’ Tom – to hear him say suddenly that he’s getting older and looking to pass the torch on to you. Do you think that is something that, at this point, is your calling, to be the one that links places together through stories, and opening up Ontario in the imaginations of people who are from B.C. or Alberta?
TH: Well, I guess that’s already been happening. Even before getting to tour with Stompin’ Tom, I think it is something that I would have just continued. It’s just always been supported. Why change what you’re doing when everybody seems to like that? It’s great to hear about other places. Sometimes you get that as a traveler, right? I noticed that I get so lucky, you know? This year I’ve played in all the provinces, and I started out in January playing the Yukon Territory. So this year I’ve been all the way from Vancouver Island to St. John’s, Newfoundland, and have played in all the provinces along the way. I’m missing the Northwest Territories and Nunavut Territory, but I think that we might be going this fall to play a bush plane camp in the Northwest Territories! My latest album is Bush Pilot Buckaroo, and I know they were interested in flying us up there for a show. I consider myself to be very fortunate. One thing that I do know about this land is that the people everywhere are great. They’re very welcoming everywhere, and the only reason why some regions might talk poorly about other regions is just because they haven’t been there. You’ll find if you go to places, you meet good people everywhere.
CI: This last album, Bush Pilot Buckaroo, is out on Stony Plain Records, released just last year. How does life change for you when you get signed onto Stony Plain records?
TH: It’s a very well respected label, but still a smaller independent label. It helps out great on the business side of things, on the industry side of things, and of course Holger Petersen, who runs that record label, really believes in me. He’s so well respected in all the music circles, so it opens up many new doors for you. When you’re doing the type of music that I’m doing, this is not commercial music, so it’s not the type of thing where things change overnight, from one day to the next. Then there are all those intangibles. It’s hard to say what exactly it does, but it’s sure great to be working with the Stony Plain guys.
CI: As you’re touring now to support that last album, do you have any timeline in mind for when you’re going to go back and put together another collection of songs?
TH: Well, I’ve been doing one about every two years. I’ll tell you one thing that has happened. We play so many shows that I hardly get a chance to sit down and write songs anymore! I guess as soon as I get a batch of songs together again, then the time would be to do another one.
CI: What do you find are the best conditions? Is it almost impossible to write on the road? Is it better when you’re at home and you get a little time to process what you’ve seen, and that’s when the songs come?
TH: I would say that I gather ideas when I’m on the road, that kind of thing, when I hear an interesting conversation or I think ‘you know, that would be an interesting thing to write a song about’. You kind of gather ideas, but to actually sit down and put it all together, I need some quiet, or I would like to have some quiet. It’s hard on the road. We’re pretty busy just doing all that stuff. I still take care of most of the stuff all by myself. It’s a lot just playing the shows, setting up the gear, driving the van, finding the places to stay, and on the telephone keeping on top of your affairs.
CI: Is there anything else that you would rather be doing?
TH: No! Absolutely, this is what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s like a dream coming true for me, all these things that I never thought I would get to do. I never thought I’d get to be on Stony Plain Records. I used to listen to Ian Tyson records and I would see that Stony Plain logo on there. Man, I never would have dreamed that I would get to record for them one day. And I was hoping that I would get to meet Stompin’ Tom one day! But opening a whole tour for him, and then having him tell me that I’m the best opening act that he’s ever had, and how long he’s been looking for a guy like me, that he’s passing the torch to me -- I couldn’t even have dreamed up that kind of stuff!
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