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.