The Country Phenomenon, that the nickname many people have bestowed him. Far from the media’s eye, Irvin Blais invariably attracts the masses who fill arenas from Sainte-Anne-des-Monts to Wendover and from Rouyn to Caraquet. Masses who, once in the local arena, sing every single word of 100+ original songs in the artist’s repertoire. A bona fide communion.

The story begins unceremoniously. “I was about 10 years old when I found an old guitar in our house, he reminisces. My parents had played some Elvis when they were younger, but that was behind them then. My father taught me three chords and I forged on. Back then, I would listen to my mother’s LPs, stuff by Tommy Hunter, Buck Owens, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard… I think music was the dream she wanted to pursue but had to give up to raise 8 kids.”


Based in Port-Cartier, the family moved to Bonaventure and then to more than thirty other towns in Québec, New Brunswick and Ontario, going where there was work for the head of the house, a foreman who worked in mines, forestry and construction. “I created a lot of links this way, and today I’m reaping the benefits of that, enthuses Irvin. I feel at home wherever I go.”

He started playing in bars at 17 and quickly started his first band, Nashville Québec. Brasserie Pie-IX, Chez Fernande, La Gaspésienne, the Daraîche’s Bar-Salon Rachel are all mandatory stops back then. Wanting to avoid the negative aura that shrouds francophone country music, Irvin swears only by American standards: Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars, Cadillacs”, Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” and “Mama Tried”, Eddie Rabbitt’s “Drivin’ My Life Away” and “I Love A Rainy Night”, Buck Owens’ “Act Naturally” and “Tiger By The Tail”… All the while, he managed a hardware store in Montréal’s Plateau Mont-Royal and took on woodworking contracts.

Came the 90s and the advent of electronic backing tracks, but the singer couldn’t resolve to using them. He then left for Sept-Îles and met Michèle C. Pinet, a country dance teacher who became his wife, accomplice and muse, “the melody in my songs”, like he says. Together, they opened Le Nashville, a bar-ballroom. Michèle teaches, Irvin plays, still only in English. That is, until the day he hears about a man named Paul Dwayne, a francophone country star from Bouctouche who he’ll meet in Saint-Tite.

It was a revelation and turning point: from that moment, Irvin started writing his own material, and in French. “Words, music, everything comes to me in one fell swoop, anytime, anywhere. A word or sentence can send my memory reeling. My songs talk about love, whether it’s happy or unhappy (“Elle”, “Juste entendre ton cœur”, “Je r’viendrai pu”) and about family too (“Une mère”), a lot actually. Family is an institution that seems to be dying, sadly. Single mothers, illness, bullying, of which I was a victim as a kid, they’re all topics that move me and connect with the audience. I’ve also written about the regions I visit when I tour. People recognize themselves in my songs and they’re proud that somebody is talking about them.”

Thus, year after year, small miracles started happening. Elle, Irvin Blais’ eighth album launched last November in collaboration with Distribution Plages and has already sold upwards of 100 000 copies. But providence gets a lot of help from the happy couple. “We run our own management agency (Les Productions MCP) and do everything ourselves, from A to Z. I produce my albums without any subsidies and we tour in our own RV. We can live from country music because we are reaping what we carefully sowed. My boss is my audience, and it ranges from youngsters – some of whom get my autograph tattooed – to elders. I practice my trade very respectfully and everything I give the audience, the audience gives me back. Every single one of my concerts – which never lasts less than three hours – is sold out. I don’t play cheesy country, I play the country people love. Country is the people’s music, regardless of whether they’re CEOs or workers. This music is what played in the households of Carey Price and Céline Dion.

These days, Irvin Blais is getting ready to tape the Christmas special of the TV show Pour l’amour du country, not long after appearing on TVA’s La Victoire de l’amour. But, above all, he keeps touring relentlessly with his partners in crime, Sébastien Dufour (musical direction and guitar), Pascal Castonguay (bass), Guy Gagné (violin) and Martin Bélisle (drums). The true flag-bearer of francophone country music, Irvin Blais is, more than ever, on a mission.

In 2012, Lindi Ortega was nominated for a JUNO Award for New Artist of the Year. Despite that tag, this country-rooted singer-songwriter is no novice. Her debut album The Taste of Forbidden Fruit came out in 2001, and Ortega has patiently honed her craft on the Toronto scene.

Career ups and downs along the way include a short-lived stint on Interscope imprint Cherrytree, prior to signing with Toronto label Last Gang. 2011’s JUNO-nominated Little Red Boots and its equally-acclaimed follow-up Cigarettes & Truckstops have announced Ortega’s arrival as a powerful vocalist and poetic songwriter, and international audiences are now embracing her original yet retro-tinged sound and vision.“I love the fact it has been a long struggle for me to get to where I am,” says Ortega. “It makes me really appreciative of things like sold-out shows at [Toronto club] The Rivoli. It took me ten years to do that. When it happened, I felt genuinely sentimental.”

Now selling out venues double that size, her profile has been boosted by appearing in, and having her music played on, the hit TV series Nashville. That’s fitting, given Ortega’s relocation there in December 2011. “Music City is just a very productive town,” she says. “It kicks your ass into gear. Returning to Toronto after a tour, I’d go ‘OK, I’m just going to sit and watch Netflix and pig out on Doritos and hang out in my pajamas.’ Here, you realize everyone around you is constantly creating.”

: “I’ve started to really concentrate on coming up with meaningful lyrics, thinking about the story you want to tell in a song.”- Lindi Ortega

Ortega is now co-writing with such Nashville songsmiths as Bruce Wallace and Matt Nolan. Her current goal is to write a song a day, and she’s aiming to release another record by year’s end.
Ortega credits Nashville with changing her outlook on songwriting. “I’m much more appreciative of the art of song now,” she says. “Early on, I’d just strum some chords and words would come out. It was haphazard, but I could create a song. There is a beauty to that, but I’ve started to really concentrate on coming up with meaningful lyrics, thinking about the story you want to tell in a song.”

Helping fuel that process is her own increased musical knowledge. “Through my exploration of country music I’ve come to love blues, and all kinds of folky and rootsy music,” she says. “It’s important for me to really learn and evolve as a songwriter, and listening to people like Townes van Zandt, old blues singers or Hank Williams can really teach me.”

Track Record
• Ortega won the Best Music Video Award at the 2012 iPhone Film Festival for her self-directed clip for “Cigarettes & Truckstops.”
• She has opened for acts as diverse as Keane, Social Distortion, and k.d. lang
• Colin Linden, who produced Cigarettes & Truckstops, is credited with boosting her love of blues.

Dallas Good and Travis Good have performed and recorded with Neil Young, author Margaret Atwood, Randy Bachman, Buffy Sainte-Marie and actor Gordon Pinsent. But it was another Canadian icon – one with whom they’ve yet to collaborate – who offered some crucial wisdom.

It was 1996, when their band the Sadies was getting started, and Dallas’ and Travis’ father, Bruce Good, of bluegrass heroes the Good Brothers, was celebrating his 50th birthday at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern. Into the club walks Gordon Lightfoot, who’d had the senior Goods open for him during the ‘70s. “Afterwards,” Travis recalls, “Lightfoot turns to us and says, ‘The only advice I’ll give you is do your own songs.’ We took heed and started getting rid of all those traditional bluegrass murder ballads and tried to write our own.”

At first, the Sadies made their mark with Dallas and Travis as formidable guitar slingers, backed by their rhythmic accomplices of upright bassist Sean Dean and drummer Mike Belitsky. Mostly, they were a killer instrumental band, reveling in their love of surf songs and spaghetti western music. Although the group also embraced ‘60s psychedelic and garage-rock sounds, the brothers never entirely strayed from the country roots of their Good family upbringing.

“It wasn’t like we grew up Partridge Family-style at all, but we were surrounded by good records and lots of instruments. – Dallas Good

The Sadies members honed their chops touring, either on their own or opening for Blue Rodeo and the Tragically Hip. They also became Neko Case’s backing band and recorded with such diverse artists as Jon Langford, John Doe, André Williams and Roger Knox – all influential collaborations.

But it was Gary Louris, of U.S. country-rockers The Jayhawks, who had the greatest impact on their compositional skills. Louris produced the Sadies’ last two studio albums, 2007’s critically acclaimed New Seasons and 2010’s Polaris Prize-nominated Darker Circles.

“I can’t stress enough how much Gary changed my approach to songwriting,” says Dallas, “even with simple rules like ‘don’t overuse certain words.’ He really gave me confidence as a lyricist.” Adds Travis: “We’re pretty confident with guitars, but not with words and singing. Gary’s great for that and suggested harmonies that my brain just doesn’t pick up on.”

Louris has also produced the Sadies’ next studio album, due out in the late summer of what promises to be an especially busy year – even for one of Canada’s hardest-working bands. Following that untitled recording will be a rock album with the Hip’s Gord Downie.

Already out is The Good Family Album, a bluegrass affair that brings Dallas and Travis together with their father Bruce, uncle Larry Good, mother Margaret and cousin D’arcy Good, all backed by the Sadies’ Dean and Belitsky. The album features eight songs written by the family and two written with longtime Sadies cohort Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo.

“I initially rejected bluegrass for punk – until I found out that bluegrass is a lot faster and harder to play.” – Dallas Good

Dallas, who co-wrote “Life Passes (And Old Fires Die)” with Daniel Romano and another pair with D’arcy, says that recording covers like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” was never an option. “That would be old hat and far too predictable,” says Dallas, who also co-wrote “Restless River” with Bruce, about his dad’s First Nations mother. Adds Dallas: “Writing with D’arcy was great, because I’ve always considered her the most talented member of the family.”

A Goods project brings things full circle for Dallas and Travis. Both were born in the bluegrass world of their father and uncles, while Travis joined the Good Brothers band after high school. “It wasn’t like we grew up Partridge Family-style at all,” Dallas recalls, “but we were surrounded by good records and lots of instruments. I initially rejected bluegrass for punk – until I found out that bluegrass is a lot faster and harder to play than most hardcore and aggressive music.”

As a kid, Travis took lessons from Red Shea, Lightfoot’s guitarist in the ’60s, and both he and Dallas remember being backstage at many shows involving Lightfoot and the Good Brothers. Another Lightfoot connection is Margaret’s “Same Old Song” on The Good Family Album: it includes the playing of Terry Clements, the folk legend’s longtime guitarist, from the song’s original demo.

The stars aligned for the Sadies in 2010, when they got to back Neil Young on a recording for Garth Hudson’s compilation A Canadian Celebration of The Band. Since then, the group has toured with Young and has lately performed with Randy Bachman, who’s written a song for the Sadies called “Canadian Garage.”

A collaboration with Lightfoot has, so far, remained elusive, although Dallas and Travis recorded a Lightfoot tribute with Keelor and Rick White, of Elevator, in a side project called The Unintended. After working with Downie and Pinsent (with whom Travis and Keelor recorded last year’s Down and Out in Upalong), an album with Lightfoot would cap an already stellar career – and complete a distinctly Canadian hat trick.

“I already have the perfect title for it – Out of Our Gords,” laughs Travis. “Now, if only we could just rope Lightfoot into it.”