A father’s advice and a passion to help Western Canadian songwriters get their music to a wider audience. These were the keys to Edmonton-based, indie, country label Royalty Records’ success. Don’t forget to add a wee bit of “Scottish stubbornness,” says 75-year-old founder R. Harlan Smith.

Royalty not only celebrated 40 years in the business in 2014, but signed a new distribution deal with Sony Music Canada. They’ve been the longtime home to high-profile country star Gord Bamford, as well as Hey Romeo, Tenille and Jay Sparrow. In 40 years at Royalty, Smith claims to have written more than 200 songs, and produced more than 40 albums and 200-plus singles.

“I got up every morning wanting to do something. I couldn’t wait to see what I could do that day.” – R. Harlan Smith of Royalty Records

Flash back to 1974, when the humble entrepreneur had a vision. Smith wanted to give country musicians and songwriters from West of Manitoba a home. “There was a tremendous amount of talent not getting recognized,” he says.

When Smith founded the label, designing Royalty Records’ first logo on a beer napkin, the multinationals said he wouldn’t last two years. Forty years on, Smith is proud he proved them wrong.

As he grew up in rural Saskatchewan, Smith’s mom – a piano teacher – fostered his love of music. As a 1950s Prairie boy, there were two musts on Saturday night: listening to the Country Hit Parade on local radio and listening to the hockey game. “If you didn’t do either of these, you just weren’t living!” he laughs.

Smith’s father was also an early influence. “When I was a young teen, preparing to leave the nest, he had some words for me I’ve never forgotten,” says Smith. “He said, ‘No matter what people tell you, do what your soul tells you. If you have a passion for something, just do it.’ He also said, ‘Always do something to better the community where you live.’”

Once he left home, Smith took this fatherly advice to heart. He moved to Edmonton, which he calls “one of best music scenes I had ever encountered,” and began a career as a musician and songwriter.

But despite some early success, Smith decided to heed his dad’s other advice to give back, by starting his label. Gary Fjellgaard was one of Royalty Records’ first signings. Smith heard the B.C. songwriter – now inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame – while eating in a small-town diner.  “I heard this record in the jukebox and my jaw dropped,” Smith recalls. “First, at the song; second, at the voice.”

For Smith, his life in music has been a labour of love. For the past decade, son Rob has taken up this passion. He runs the entire Royalty Music Group of companies, which includes publishing house Helping Hand Music Ltd.

“When I was in the music business, I don’t think I worked a day in my life,” Smith concludes. “I got up every morning wanting to do something. I couldn’t wait to see what I could do that day. What a wonderful way to spend your life.”


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No matter how many times Brad and MaryLynne Stella made the drive from Oshawa, Ontario to Nashville, Tennessee – and there were many – the road ahead always seemed clear.

Beginning in 2008, the husband-and-wife duo and aspiring songwriters had begun making trips down to Music City with one thing in mind: to make it in the music biz. For a year, they “commuted” back and forth with their young daughters, Lennon, 8, and Maisy, 4, in the backseat (more on them later).

While at home (MaryLynne is from Oshawa; Brad from neighbouring Whitby), they made ends meet as janitors for the Durham District School Board and they worked together on landscaping jobs, all while playing in bands, hosting open mic nights every Wednesday in Whitby, and even starting a music school. But any seeds they could sow in Nashville never seemed to take root.

“Every time we would be down in Nashville, we would just get stuff going, and then we’d have to leave and go back [to Canada].” – MaryLynne Stella

“Every time we would be down here, we would just get stuff going, and then we’d have to leave and go back [to Canada],” MaryLynne says on the phone from their home in Nashville. “And things change here so quickly; it almost felt like we were starting over every time we came here.”

Finally, after several forays, things started to happen for The Stellas in Nashville. A publisher caught one of their gigs and offered them a deal right there on the spot. Then, through a “fluke incident” they found themselves making a splash on the hit CMT talent show Can You Duet?, eventually earning fourth place in the competition.

So they packed up the girls and took that drive one more time – this time, hopefully for good. Before long they signed a record deal with EMI Canada, and released their self-titled debut album in 2011. Several songs from the album hit the charts, and their star was truly on the rise in Canada.

Over the next two years, The Stellas were honoured with more than 10 country music award nominations. They were named the CCMA Duo of the Year in 2013 and their songs graced two volumes of the Canadian Now Country album series, all while continuing to be sought-after songwriters for hire.

In Nashville, some very big names in the songwriting community took the Canadian couple under their wings, including John Scott Sherrill (who’s written songs for Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson), Chris Lindsey, Aimee Mayo, Matt Reed and Fred Wilhelm. “We would just write with people that we connected with as humans, and artistically, says Brad. “For some reason they just accepted us in this really, really cool way.”

They were also embraced as artists, making connections with heavy hitters like Vince Gill and Zac Brown, and being invited to tour with the likes of Johnny Reid and Terri Clark.

Now, their second album, It Wouldn’t Be This, is set for an early May release. It’s their first album to be released internationally. Both of the songs released as singles so far – the title track and “Gravy” – reflect on their current family life, though both were written years apart. “It wasn’t really intentional to have the two singles be like that,” says Brad. “It just worked out that way.”

“With the second album, there are songs that you feel sad that [they] didn’t make the first album,” MaryLynne says, “because they’re ones that you’re truly connected to. It Wouldn’t Be This is just a real jumble of us over the past 20 years.”


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Some families line up for the shower; the Dodsons – Rich, Mary-Lynn, Holly and Nick – queue up for access to the state-of-the-art recording studio, which dominates the basement of their home in Toronto.

It’s a veritable musicworks, including a wide array of guitars, keyboards and other instruments, and an adjoining marketing “war room” with multiple computers wired to the now-essential social media sites and internet music services connecting artists to fans. The wall of gold records belongs to patriarch Rich Dodson – guitarist and co-founder of Canadian rock trio The Stampeders – who was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2006 as co-writer of the group’s biggest hit, “Sweet City Woman.” The Stampeders also won a SOCAN Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011, and two SOCAN Classic Song Awards in 1993.

“I built a 24-track studio [Marigold Studios] so that I was self-contained and independent.” – Rich Dodson

Rich amicably split from the group in 1978, after 13 years of living with a rigidly structured timetable for touring and recording. “I wanted the freedom, so when we bought the house, I built a 24-track studio [Marigold Studios] so that I was self-contained and independent,” explains Rich. He subsequently set up his own nationally-distributed indie label, Marigold Productions, and became an early adopter of the latest digital recording tools, and online tools for marketing and promotion. His wife Mary-Lynn became an important part of the operation, leveraging the experience she’d gained at Quality Records as one of the first radio airplay trackers in Canada.

In the ‘80s, the studio began to create a buzz, drawing artists as varied as Buffy Sainte-Marie, the late Handsome Ned, and Alanis Morissette, among others. Daughter Holly and son Nick were exposed to this indie, do-it-yourself mindset as they both began to take a greater interest in music. Today, Holly is a singer, musician, songwriter, producer, and co-founding member and frontperson for electronic pop trio Parallels, which features Nick on drums. Nick is a multi-instrumentalist, producer and a member of his own group, Eyes of Giants. Parallels has received much critical acclaim, and its song “Dry Blood” was used on the soundtrack of the Academy Award-winning film Curfew.

“For the band’s sophomore album, XII, Holly sang, played all the instruments and mixed it,” Rich says proudly. “I came in and tweaked a few things, but she did the whole album herself, and I was just blown away. Nick plays great piano and drums, and he produces projects as well.”

Rich is enthusiastic about creating and marketing music in a digital world. For example, The Stampeders re-formed in 1992, and would later have to create a website.

“On the other hand, I’ve had to arm-twist Nick and Holly to start thinking about traditional radio,” says Rich. “They don’t listen to radio, but it’s still a place where people discover music.”


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