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!’”