There was a great gig that used to happen in Ohio at a place called the Wildcat Ranch. The concerts there were magical. The venue was the hayloft in a century barn. When you played you could hear the horses stomping in their stalls beneath the stage. One of the last times I played that venue, David Woodhead accompanied me on bass. For the encore tune, somebody called out for a song from my first album, Jenny Bryce. I turned to David and said, “I don’t think you’ve played this one before, sit in or not as you like.” He asked the name of the tune. When I told him, he got a little smile on his face. “Actually,” he said, “I have played that before. As a matter of fact, I played on it before you even recorded it.”
He had. David played bass on the song when Garnet Rogers recorded it, and Garnet recorded it before I did. When I was a barely wet-behind-the-ears folk singer, Garnet heard me play it at a club in Calgary in the early summer of 1984. He came up to me after my set and praised the song to the skies and asked if he could record it. I was flabbergasted.
At the time, Garnet was a mythic figure. As tall, broad shouldered and long-haired as Thor, he was — quite frankly — about seventy per cent of the reason I loved Stan Rogers music. Don’t get me wrong, I have great admiration for Stan, but the fiddle tracks on Field Behind the Plough or Witch of the Westmorland, his flawless harmonies — especially on Northwest Passage or Barrett’s Privateers — lifted those songs into the region of the sublime. That he had an interest in something I wrote made me feel ten feet tall.
Garnet has been part of the soundtrack of my life for close to forty years. I mean that literally. In my last year of university, I worked as a security guard at a mall in Northeast Calgary to pay the bills and tuition. When I worked overnight, I put his eponymous Garnet Rogers cassette into the player for the mall sound system and listened as I made my rounds. The empty mall was like a huge reverb chamber for that perfect voice.
I’ve driven across this country listening to Small Victories. John Mann and I wept on stage in a workshop at the Canmore Folk Festival the first time we heard the song Night Drive.
That’s me as a fanboy.
As a musician, it’s hard not to admire Garnet’s devotion to the craft. Whether it’s the heroic touring schedule he maintained for most of his career — breaking the odometers on a succession of Volvo wagons — or the seemingly effortless blend of voice and guitar — there’s a lot to respect. You’ll find him on stage surrounded by his cohort of guitars, some vintage, some by builders he admires. He’s probably visited every guitar shop on the continent over his career and, as often as not, returns home with more axes than he left with. He even found me the guitar that I have used for the entirety of my professional musical career. That’s a long story for another time, but the gist of it is that Garnet has always been supportive of other musicians. He delights in a new discovery and always has his ears open for new music.
He added to the legendary nature of his career in the past couple of years, publishing a book about the early days on the road with Stan, also named NIght Drive. With his characteristic sardonic wit and a writing style that owes much to Hunter S. Thomson, the book is not only a chronicle of his travels but a high-resolution snapshot of the glory days of the folk music scene in North America. By turns raunchy, acerbic and heartbreaking, he shows that he is not only a great writer of songs but is a dab hand at prose as well.
Garnet has toned down the touring lately. The road life gets to be hard on the body, especially if you do most of it by driving. He’s content to tour when he wants to, splitting his time between his home near Hamilton and the little house he recently acquired in Canso, Nova Scotia — the place his family came from.
Summerfolk is about embracing new acts and welcoming back old friends. There are a few performers with such a long connection to our festival, but Garnet is foremost among them. We are pleased to have him back with us all weekend long.
The Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival happens August 16, 17 and 18 at Kelso Beach Park. All the info you want can be found at summerfolk.org.