Every year Artistic Director James Keelaghan writes a series of 12 articles for the Owen Sound Sun Times previewing the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival

By James Keelaghan

Peguis First Nation is about 190 kilometres north of Winnipeg, in the Interlake region. You head north from Winnipeg to Tuelon, then make a sharp left onto Highway 17. From there the land is broad and flat, sometimes grassy, sometimes covered with stands of spruce, balsam fir, jack pine and trembling aspen. The land is classified as Boreal Plain.

The Nation — Sualteaux (Ojibway) and Cree — is about ten thousand strong, with about thirty-five hundred living on reserve and the rest spread out in Winnipeg, Portage or Brandon.

Some have gone farther afield. Murray Sinclair, former senator and Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is from Peguis. Actress Renae Morriseau is from there as well.

And then, there is William Prince.

William was born in Selkirk, Manitoba but soon moved to Peguis First Nation. Like a character in the country music ballads he was steeped in, he is the son of a preacher. His dad evangelized and led the church’s country gospel band. One day William got tired of watching, listening and setting up gear. At thirteen, he started sitting in with the band on electric guitar. He loved playing in church, but pretty soon there were high school grunge and rock bands. But he kept returning to acoustic guitar.

It helped that his voice wasn’t cut out for high-pitched, vocal acrobatics. He sings from his boots —  technically a baritone, or as James Joyce said, more like a bass barreltone. It’s got an uncanny deepness like he’s singing out of the depth of his soul. It’s unforgettable. He admits to wrestling with that voice most of his life, frustrated that he couldn’t sing high notes, like the voices he heard on the radio. What once seemed like a burden has now become his signature.

I first heard William perform at a music conference showcase a couple of years ago. Somebody I trust had collared me and emphatically pointed to the program and said you have to hear this guy. I made a point of being there. The voice was impressive enough, but it was the songs that hooked me.

He has a very laid back presentation that makes the words stand out. The songs are eerily simple but they pack an incredible, emotional punch. After every one of them, you could hear the inhale from the audience before the applause began as if they had to breathe in the last word before acknowledging the whole.

It’s one thing to do that in an intimate room at a conference of music people, but I’ve seen the same reaction to him in bigger halls and on daytime stages, outdoors at festivals.

A lot of the songs are character studies, portraits of people in his life — short on moralizing and long on empathy. The Carny is about a friend who literally ran away with the circus and came back a changed man. Eddy Boy is a sketch of his father — nuanced, tender and forgiving. It’s the song I always wanted to write about my da, but never did. And I feel that way about most of his songs. A sure sign to me that it’s a great song is wishing that I had written it.

His debut CD, Earthly Days earned a 2017 Juno Award as the year’s Best Contemporary Roots Album and landed him a high-profile gig on the Juno telecast in Ottawa that year. That performance got him an invitation to perform at the Songwriters Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Toronto.

Amongst the inductees that night were Neil Young and Bruce Cockburn. Prince was part of the tribute to Cockburn, performing a passionate, stripped-down version of Cockburn’s song, Stolen Land, with Inuit singer, Élisapie. No stranger to a unique voice, the song grabbed Neil Young’s attention and Prince has since opened a string of Young’s shows.

Scot Nolan, who produced Prince’s Juno Award-winning CD, managed to capture his essence by making the production as understated as the man himself. I’ve rarely heard a debut CD sound like you were sitting in a living room listening to an old friend tell tales.

William Prince is an old friend. You just haven’t met him yet. But you will, at this year’s Summerfolk. He plays his mainstage set on Saturday night and will be around for workshops on both Saturday and Sunday.

You can find links to William Prince’s videos, information on tickets and more at summerfolk.org. The Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival takes place at Kelso Beach Park in Owen Sound on August 16,17 and 18.