When Linda McRae plays a show at Vancouver’s Rogue Folk Club on Sept. 4, 2016, it’ll be more than just another gig. There, the roots-based singer-songwriter will be inducted into the British Columbia Entertainment Hall of Fame as a Pioneer. “I’m very surprised, but just thrilled at the honour,” says McRae. “My daughter shrieked on the phone when she found out.”

This is well-deserved recognition for a body of work that includes stints in ‘80s Vancouver   bands, membership in Spirit of the West during that group’s commercial heyday (from 1989-1996), and a solo recording career now comprising six albums.

But this veteran is showing no signs of slowing down. McRae’s most recent album, 2015’s Shadow Trails, was her third in four years (2014’s Fifty Shades of Red was a compilation), and she continues to tour extensively in the U.S. and Canada.

McRae was creatively energized by a 2011 prison visit, she explains. “Back in October 2011, my husband James Whitmire [a published poet] and I were invited to participate in the arts and corrections program at New Folsom Prison in California. We had such an incredible experience, and were met with such respect and gratitude for just being there. We’ve gone back about eight times. We then decided we wanted to work with inmates and at-risk youth, helping them find a voice and put their thoughts into words.”

The result was a creative writing workshop called Express Yourself. McRae based these workshops on creative writing, as opposed to songwriting, in order to reach as many people as possible. “Not everybody plays an instrument, so I made it a creative writing workshop so anyone could go,” she explains. “I also do songwriting workshops, and I’ll be teaching at the Haliburton Music Camp next March. On some of those I adapt some exercises I use in the creative writing ones.”

McRae describes some of the writing by inmates and at-risk youth as phenomenal. “They’re often very surprised by what they end up writing, as many have never really written anything before,” she says. “It’s an interesting journey, to structure the workshops so you don’t leave everyone depressed at the end. You want to leave them with food for thought, but also feeling good about themselves.”

Tim Miller, Assistant Warden of the Nebraska Correctional Center for Women, testifies to the success of these workshops. He’s written,I can’t explain how two people come into a prison, meet people for the first time, and instantly bond with them. I can’t explain how James and Linda can unlock a heart that has been shut for so long and make it put life, goals and dreams on paper and back into the forefront of the mind. I can’t explain it, but I have seen it happen.”

Such notable Canadian festivals as South Country Fair, Coldsnap Festival, and the Vancouver Island Music Fest, as well as Folk Alliance International, have partnered with McRae to present her workshop as part of their community outreach programs.

These experiences helped fuel the muse for McRae’s Shadow Trails. One song, “Flowers of Appalachia,” features music she wrote as a setting for a poem from New Folsom Prison inmate Ken Blackburn. “It came out of that prison workshop,” says McRae. “It was a poem Ken had written that I loved so much, an incredible poem talking about a life missed. A lot of the stories in the songs on the record are inspired by some of the writing and stories we’ve heard.”

Other songs were inspired by the American South, a region that has had a deep impact on McRae since she and Whitmire moved to Nashville nine years ago.

Much admired by her musical peers, McRae has consistently worked with the cream of the crop of roots players on her records. Shadow Trails is no exception, featuring the rhythm section of John Dymond and Gary Craig (Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Bruce Cockburn), keyboardist Steve O’Connor, and guitarist Steve Dawson, who also produced and mixed.

McRae has a history with these players. “It felt like a reunion,” she says. “Gary and John played on my first solo album, Flying Jenny [produced by Colin Linden], and Steve Dawson and Jesse Zubot were in my touring band for that record. Tim Vesely of Rheostatics engineered, and in Spirit of the West I loved playing shows with Tim’s band.”

Notable guests on Shadow Trails include Ray Bonneville, Fats Kaplin, Gurf Morlix (who produced earlier McRae album Cryin’ Out Loud), and former Spirit Of The West comrade Geoffrey Kelly.

“Making the album [at Blue Rodeo’s Toronto studio, The Woodshed] was so much fun,” McRae says. “The studio is so comfortable and it just oozes a vibe. We recorded everything live off the floor over four days there.”

Over the course of her solo career, McRae’s work has been met with near-unanimous critical praise. “It blows me away that I haven’t had a scathing review yet,” says McRae. “As can be typical for singer-songwriters, you don’t always have the self-confidence you should, and you get down on yourself. If that happens, James says ‘Just read your reviews!’”

For a moment, forget your idea of China as a totalitarian and repressive regime. Not that it’s become a paragon of democracy and human rights as a country – far from it – but getting to know the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project will help you discover another China that you wouldn’t be able to find on the map.

“A large bottle of beer costs 50¢, pot plants grow right on the street, and if you’re a foreign musician, you can do just about anything you want,” says the band’s singer/guitarist JP Tremblay. “Over there, everybody wants to have their picture taken with you, especially if you’re white and play the guitar.”

Québec Redneck Bluegrass ProjectThe Chicoutimi-born songwriter knows what he’s talking about, having lived from 2006 to 2013 in the Chinese city of Kunming, where he founded the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project with a bunch of Quebec roommates who’d gotten stuck in Southwest China while travelling through Asia.

“I already played music,” says Tremblay. “I’d survived for three months in Greece as a street guitar player, but in China, it was something else! We quickly realized that foreign musicians were considered as demi-gods in that country. You didn’t even have to be good!” he laughs. “After we created the band, we started doing corporate shows – monkey shows, as we used to call them. Local people working for outfits like Mercedes or BMW were delighted to be able to have ‘exotic’ entertainment at their company functions. We played whatever we pleased. Sometimes we got hired as a jazz orchestra, in spite of the fact that we couldn’t play a one damn note of jazz. Not to worry! The big bosses still wanted to have their picture taken with us.”

Besides corporate shows, the band toured in China, but also throughout Laos, Thailand and India. More than 10,000 kilometers away from “La Belle Province,” the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project rocked the stage with their own songs, and bluegrass covers, delivered with confidence and good humour. A documentary called La Route de la soif (The Thirst Road) was produced to capture the team’s Chinese journey.

“I could tell you a million stories,” Tremblay continues. “We crossed the border between China and Burma through the jungle, followed by soldiers who seemed determined to find out how fast we could run and how scared of bullets we were. We organized a music festival for two years in suburban Kunming while bribing the local army with cases of beer. Let’s just say you had to be able to keep cool.”

The adrenaline-filled early days of the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project are now in the distant past. Whereas QRBP used to come home for brief summer tours, it’s now settled permanently in its native Québec. “The road between Tadoussac and Rouyn may be less exciting than the Burmese jungle – except that, the other day, we hit the ditch near Québec City when a wheel came off our van! What matters is the road ahead,” says Tremblay. “We’re quite capable of making a go of it and have fun anywhere in Québec. Besides, things were starting to get a bit less fun in China. The novelty eventually wears off, and police officers can now raid a bar and have all patrons take a urine test to find out if they’ve been taking drugs. It gets tiring.”

With Nick Flame (mandolin), François Gaudreault (acoustic bass) and Madeleine Bouchard (violin) completing the lineup, QRBP’s transition is in progress. The band’s albums – Scandales et bonne humeur (2014), 3000 boulevard de Mess (2011) and Sweet Mama Yeah! (2010) – have all been available in Québec since last year, and a new one is in the works.

“Out of a population of 1.3 billion people, China only had three bluegrass bands,” says Tremblay. “So expectations aren’t the same here. We’re working like mad on our fourth album, which should be coming out this winter – in time for our 10th anniversary. The songs are great, and I can find inspiration for lyrics in a ton of past experiences.” Like the time you went to jail in China, someone jokes. “That’s one experience, but I didn’t stay in very long,” he says. “Only a few hours for material damage. The cops were cool. They brought me tea and cigarettes.”

Which means that even Chinese prison officers love the Québec Redneck Bluegrass Project.

Here’s the latest edition in our series about those happy creative meetings between two songwriters. In this edition, we meet two endearingly bonded artists: folk singer-songwriter Chantal Archambault and her man, songwriter and musician Michel-Olivier Gasse, together known as Saratoga.

SaratogaAs the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. It sometimes yields beautiful projects, as Michel-Olivier Gasse explains while we sit on the terrace at a café: “Chantal had started doing solo concerts, but didn’t quite enjoy being onstage alone,” he says. “So I started accompanying her. And the day after one of those concerts, on a very small stage, with very limited technical means…”

“Very restrictive!” insists Chantal Archambault, sitting next to her partner.

“…she sang her songs,” Gasse continues. “I was right next to her with my acoustic bass, and I sang over her shoulder, so that the only mic on stage would catch my voice, and… well, I think it was charming.”

“People came to talk to us after the show,” adds Chantal. “They were saying, ‘My God! It’s so beautiful when you two sing together like that!’”

That was less than two years ago. Last fall, Gasse and Archambault drove to New York City. “We stopped for the night in a small village,” says Gasse. “We got drunk in our motel room, and that’s when we decided that we were going to get this thing going.” That village was Saratoga. “Well, the story is a bit more complicated than that,” Archambault giggles. “We take almost 15 minutes during our concerts to explain the details.”

It’s mostly Gasse who tells the tale, because, as Archambault says, “My strength is composing the songs, writing. His strength is interacting with the audience. In that sense, Saratoga is a complete project: the combination of his stage presence and my songwriting.”

She’s gotten used to it over time. Archambault has released three solo albums, and she’s made a place for herself as a mellow and reassuring presence on Québec’s folk scene. As for Gasse, who was previously in the band Caloon Saloon, he’s better known as a writer – with two novels published by Tête première – and a bass player for the likes of Vincent Vallières and Dany Placard, to name but two.

They’ve created two distinct, established creative universes that required harmonization. And they’re the first to admit that it’s harder than it looks. “We’re still learning to compose together,” says Archambault. Their first five-song EP was recorded in a jiffy because they had gigs already booked, but nothing to sing. Only two of those five songs were recorded together; the remaining three came from their respective archives. But now, with a record contract and a first album expected in October of 2016 – scoop: It’ll be called Fleur – the duo had to get to work last January.

“Once the writing period for the album was over, we’d found our work dynamic,” explains Gasse. “First of all, it’s not split 50/50: we realized that Chantal is excellent for finding a lead, a direction, a melody – she is an outstanding melodist. As for me, I’m not totally confident in what I can accomplish on my own, with only a guitar in my hands. I have a hard time expressing everything that’s in my mind in a clear way.”

Archambault jumps in: “The melodies came easily. As for the lyrics, I would often find the spark, a rough idea, and Gasse would fine-tune it. He’s got this knack for analyzing someone’s work in an objective and critical way, to see what works and what doesn’t in a song. And he’s always right!”

Yet, for Gasse, writing a song is harder than writing a book. “It’s incredibly hard to write songs,” he admits. “I can write a fifty-page story much easier than I can write a song. I’m a raconteur, I speak very fluidly. I don’t have any difficulty writing about a flower pot for a whole page, it comes to me naturally. But when it comes to a song, it’s a space that needs to be filled, and you must respect the meter, the right rhymes. Add to that the fact that not all words can be easily sung. It has to flow, and the listener has to believe every word you sing. If, for example, you’re going to use the word bus in your song, you better make sure it’s believable. Maybe bus is a bad example, but there are worse words than that to try and fit in a song.”

The other challenge had more to do with themes: where would the boundaries be for this common musical world shared by the duo? “That was also a challenge: writing ‘we’ songs,” says Archambault. “I’ve always written in the first person. He wrote boy songs with his band, and I wrote chick songs, so we needed to find themes that wouldn’t sound corny, and we wanted to avoid writing only songs about ourselves. The goal was to make music, not talk about our relationship as a couple. Quite a challenge.”

Also sprach Saratoga.