Québec’s undisputed queen of country music is celebrating her half-century onstage this summer with the release of her 50th album, a compilation of new duets with her musician friends, produced by her no-less famous younger brother, Paul. “Everybody tells me I don’t look my age,” says Julie Daraîche. “But I’m not afraid to tell my age, and I even like it. During my concerts, I ask people, ‘Do you want to know how old I am?’ And when I tell them I’m 70, everybody is like: ‘Wow!’’
At 79, Julie Daraîche still performs regularly; she’ll be at the 50th edition of the Festival Western de St-Tite, “On the main stage, we were supposed to play only one show, but they’ve just announced an additional matinée show,” she says. “I’ve played St-Tite a lot, but nowhere near as often as Paul; he’ll be playing for a 50th consecutive year! That’s amazing! In the beginning, I remember he played the small clubs. Things flew left and right in there, those were real honky tonks!”
Just a few days ago, Daraîche was onstage for Marie King’s farewell concert; King, at almost 85, decided to definitively hang up her cowgirl hat. “The place was packed!,” says Daraîche, visibly excited. “I thought she was positively radiant! She sang quite a few songs on her own. I would ask for Marie King records when I was a child, she was always a major influence of mine, because she was the first local woman to have a career in country. She was so glad to see me. I told her, ‘I’m always here for you. I was there for your 50th career anniversary. I’m here for your farewell concert. I’m really proud to be here for you.’”
“We sold records like crazy, but we didn’t know that gold records for 50,000 copies sold meant money. We never saw cheques back in those days; it doesn’t matter, we’ve made up for those times now!”
That must be country music’s secret: it’s a fountain of youth. The queen giggles. It keeps you busy, too: 50 ans d’amour, her 50th album in as many years, is no small feat. “That’s it: one per year!” she says. “I imagine there were years where we released more than one, like when we released on K-Tel and were never paid. Marie King did some, too. We sold records like crazy, but we didn’t know that gold records for 50,000 copies sold meant money. We never saw cheques back in those days; it doesn’t matter, we’ve made up for those times now!”
And that’s while also giving a chance for newcomers to make a place for themselves. Instead of courting pop artists for her new album, Daraîche chose to invite her own clan of country artists to collaborate with her. Family first: a duet with Paul, on top of his producing duties, and others with her daughter Dani and niece Katia. Then, her friends: the star of Bouctouche, Rhéal Leblanc; Louis Bérubé, another Acadian, the host of the Chanson Via Country program; up-and-comer Nicolas Dufresne, a fellow Gaspésien…
“We were recording the album and I felt like we were missing a song, then it hit me: I needed a song on the village where I was born, in Gaspésie,” says Daraîche. That village is St-François-de-Pabos, which has since been annexed to the town of Chandler, with its view of the Baie-des-Chaleurs. Daraîche still has a house there, “because I need to go there as often as I can to rest.” The song, “Saint-François, où je suis née,” (“Saint-François, Where I Was Born”) “is a nice little song,” in the words of the woman who admits to not having composed much in her life, “because we had such a wonderful composer in our family, my brother Paul.”
Pabos to Montréal
Gaspésie, Québec’s Country Music Promised land! “That’s had we had,” Daraîche explains. “When we were young, we had battery-powered radios, but we barely got any signal, especially if the weather was bad… But we managed to get a station from Nashville! We were charmed! Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Hank Williams. Those melodies, those songs, they were beautiful.” At the time, the Québec country scene was already quite vibrant, thanks to artists like Soldat Lebrun, Paul Brunelle, and Marcel Martel “who we revered. We wouldn’t miss him when he played in Gaspésie, once a year. We’d save our pennies all year long. Admission was 50 cents.”
Paul, Julie and her children left the Gaspésie for Montréal in the mid-‘60s, hoping to find work. “When my career started, I was a waitress at the Rocher Percé bar,” she says, citing the place on Rachel Street, which later became Au Pied du Quai, before Daraîche, her husband Bernard Duguay, and her brother bought it back and turned it into the Verres Stérilisés institution that it is today. “The Duguay brothers worked the door” she recalls. “The owners, Mister Desfossés and Mister St-Onge, were from Carleton-sur-Mer, and they loved country music. It was on one of the owner’s birthdays that I sang onstage for the first time. You had a bar full of Gaspésiens, and the party went on until 5:00 a.m.”
Her first song? “Mister John B” by Sylvie Vartan (a French adaptation of the Beach Boys’ version of “Sloop John B”). “And ‘Si le chapeau te fait,’ (‘If the Cap Fits’) by Daniel Guérard,” she recalls. “The Duguay brothers would accompany me on guitar and violin. That’s how it was until one day, the boss said to me, ‘Listen, Julie, I’d really like to see you onstage more than behind the bar, it’ll draw more people in.’ ‘What do you mean? I’m no singer.’ And I was a really good barmaid. But he said, ‘Sure, but don’t you see how much people love you?’ So we formed a trio,” Julie et les Frères Duguay.
It is with said Duguay brothers – including Bernard, who she was with for seven years, and who passed away last spring – that Julie recorded her first long-player and first gold record. “We were together professionally from 1967 to 1977,” says Daraîche. “They were good singers.”
Being a country artist in Québec in the 1970s wasn’t a cakewalk, even less so for a woman. “Don’t forget I had children, too,” she says. “I managed to have a career and raise children at the same time. When success came knocking, I had to play all over the province. I would settle in a town for a while and tour the region for a while, and then move on, but I still kept my apartment in Rosemont [a popular neighbourhood in north-central Montréal]. When their classes would end on Fridays, I’d get on the road with my kids to play gigs all the way to Sunday night. They would sleep in the car while we drove back to Montréal, and they’d be back in school on Monday morning.
“It was rough back then, especially with all the dope going around. I had a hard time with that, I would see people who did some and I didn’t want my kids to have any part of that life,” she says. But all of them followed in her country-music footsteps: her daughter became a singer, and her son played drums in her band for fifteen years. “I told them that’s not how it has to be, that even though I was in the same business, I never touched drugs,” she says.
Despite it all, Daraîche has nothing but fond memories of her five-decade career. “My fondest memory? Paul and I at the first ADISQ gala, where we won the Best Country Album Award,” she says. “Now that’s a fond memory. A close second is singing in the first major venue in Gaspésie. It used to be my school when I was a child.” What about touring the U.S. in the ’70s? “Yes, with Marcel Martel and his wife, and our country dancers, the Grenier brothers. We’d travel all the way to Connecticut. Massachusetts was also a hotbed for country, it was incredible. When we sang “Un verre sur la table” (“A Glass on the Table”), everyone knew the lyrics…”
On the verge of beginning her own farewell tour, in 2018, the queen of Québec country says she’s serene and happy. “Very!” she says. “I’ve had husbands pass away, and today I have a friend who lives with me, an angel. I have my children, I even have great-grandchildren, and I see them often. I sing, I travel, I have a good life. I’m a happy woman.”