I hope the season's treating you sweetly. I'm home, after six weeks and some 13,700 kms in Lucky, and I'm feeling pretty lucky about it all. Lucky to have completed, just yesterday, 43 laps around the sun! And lucky to think that the best ones may still be ahead.
The most exciting news on the horizon is that my buddy Justin Farren and his family are already on their way up from California for a little run of shows, and we're heading out tomorrow morning to meet them in Vernon! If you're anywhere near us, you REALLY oughtta experience the man and his surprising songs while they're in this corner of the world! Justin is as good as it gets. I don't say that lightly, or often, for that matter. And have I ever steered you wrong?
We did a run together in Oregon and Northern California last September, and Justin wowed me every night. I saw him again at Falcon Ridge two weekends back, and he absolutely destroyed me with his new songs. It's gonna be his first visit to this part of the world, and he's bringing his wonderful wife and kiddo along too. Seriously, make a road trip to see this show! It'll be worth it.
I thought about posting a bunch of videos of my favourites, but that just led me down another Justin Farren Youtube rabbit hole. On popping back out, I thought better of it, both because it's so hard to pick favourites, but more importantly, 'cause I don't wanna spoil the endings! Come hear 'em in person, living and breathing, like we still can, and you'll see what I mean. I'll bring the Second Chances, you bring your friends, and Justin'll bring his incredible, intricate and undeniable songs to these few choice stops:
Wed Aug 21 • Vernon, BC • Gallery Vertigo
Thu Aug 22 • Keremeos, BC • The Old Grist Mill
Fri Aug 23 • Castlegar, BC • Castlegar Public Library Amphitheatre
Sat Aug 24 • Gray Creek, BC • The Lodge at Timbuktu
Sun Aug 25 • Canmore, AB • artsPlace
Wed Aug 28 • Sherwood Park, AB • Festival Place Patio Series with Colleen Rae
Thu Aug 29 • Edmonton, AB • Riverdale House
Fri Aug 30 • Medicine Hat, AB • Ye Olde Jar Bar
Sat-Sun Aug 31-Sep 1 • Wayne, AB • Waynestock
All the details, as always, are on my news page. After the tour with the Farren family I'll be dropping the band off at home and flying out on my own for a run of solo gigs in the Northeast:
Sat-Sun Sep 7-8 • Rush, NY • Turtle Hill Folk Fest
Sun Sep 8 • Schuyler Lake, NY • private event
Tue Sep 10 • New York, NY • On Your Radar at Rockwood Music Hall with Grace Morrison and Crowes Pasture
Wed Sep 11 • Baltimore, MD • Awkward Pause House Concerts
Thu Sep 12 • Wyoming, PA • Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Wyoming Valley
Fri Sep 13 • Philadelphia, PA • Philadelphia Folksong Society house concert
Sat Sep 14 • Bayshore, NY • Eclectic Cafe
Sun Sep 15 • Dover, NH • house concert
Fri Sep 20 • Morristown, NJ • opening for Garnet Rogers at the Troubadour Acoustic Concert Series
Sat Sep 21 • New York, NY • People's Voice Cafe with Mike Glick
Sun Sep 22 • Ithaca, NY • Bound For Glory
I'll be back in Alberta for two more gigs with the Second Chances, including a long-awaited first visit to the wonderful Beneath The Arch concert series in Turner Valley, where we're hoping to record a live album!
Fri Sep 27 • Rocky Mountain House, AB • Olde Smokey's BBQ Shack with Allen Christie
Sat Sep 28 • Turner Valley, AB • Beneath The Arch concert and live recording
Bram and I are off to Australia for two months after that, and we've got a pretty full festival calendar, including Kangaroo Valley, Dorrigo, Maldon, Majors Creek, Healesville, and By The Banks, along with other stops in QLD, NSW, VIC and possibly TAS––dates are on my news page, with a few more to come! I'd been hoping that these shows would serve as release dates for the new album we recorded while we were down there last time, but unfortunately, it's not gonna be done by then.
We aimed higher this time. The material's really challenging, instrumentally and vocally. The songs were mostly new, with some still being worked out while we were in the studio, and one (a hopeful anthem for America called "Say Can You See") not even written yet. I've covered WAY too much ground since then to find the time for finishing the recording, let alone writing THE BIG-ASS BOOK that's gonna accompany this thing out into the world.
Talking with Pamela along our trip, I was repeatedly reminded that great stuff can't be rushed, and art's more important than timelines. So rather than boxes of CDs, we'll be bringing a box of envelopes along on the Australian tour. If you want in on this record, you can fill one out with your mailing address, and thirty bucks inside, and you'll get your copy before it hits the streets.
It looks like I'll be spending December holed up in Fulong, Taiwan––the little beach town where I wrote "Pass It Along" years ago––finishing the writing for the book and laying the groundwork for the release. In January I'll be touring in New Zealand for the first time (including stops at Whare Flat Folk Fest and Auckland Folk Fest), in February I'll be off the clock in Latin America somewhere, and in March I'll release the album with a four-month tour through the States and Canada. Dates, as they're added, are on www.scottcook.net/news.php, and you can always drop a line if you want me to make a stop in your neighbourhood.
So yeah, that's a quick look at the road ahead, but there sure is a lot to tell from the road that's just passed, mostly just because, as you travellers know, so much happens in day on the road! Last I wrote, Pamela Mae and I were getting geared up for a cross-country road-trip. We kicked off the summer with another joyful family reunion at the North Country Fair, on through to the Afterbender at the Empress Ale House, and the next morning we loaded out from Pamela's place in Riverdale, put the bikes on the back, reset the trip odometer, and headed east! We stopped in to visit and sing a couple songs for her mom and family in Lloydminster, and then stopped in North Battleford to visit her Grandma Mae Johnson, about whom Pamela wrote the eponymous song, a song that went on to coax a lot of tears and stories out of people over the course of our trip. Grandma Mae didn't cry when we played it for her, but she was evidently tickled, even though she argued that her name was an awful name for a song :)
Our first gig was that night in Saskatoon, a bar show with a small guarantee and a tip jar, the kind I used to play all the time when I was getting started. One of my favourites in those early years was actually in Saskatoon, at a place called the Spadina Freehouse. The crowd there would mostly be talking and eating, but some of them would pay attention as the night wore on, the bar would give me dinner and drinks and a decent guarantee, and their sound guy Jamie Peever was an early believer in me, back when those were fewer and farther between. When my buddy John Antoniuk offered me this gig at the Capitol Music Club, I asked Pamela what she thought of doing a gig like that. It all sounded like fun to her, since it was her first tour, so I took it, along with another similar bar show in Halifax, as bookends for the whole thing. I was tickled when we walked in that night to see our sound tech was none other than Jamie Peever. There wasn't much dinner crowd at all, but a few folks came out to see me, and a whole bunch more came out to see Pamela, and our first gig together went pretty sweetly. Afterward we hung with our friends Jille and Ryan from bluegrass and oldtime duo Rugged Little Thing, who rounded up some pals for a sweet jam at their place. With voices and fiddles and banjos and guitars and laughter ringing through that little house, doors wide open to the warm prairie night, and stars glittering overhead, it was as good as tour gets. Remember this, I said, when it gets awful, but it never really did :)
Jille told us a great story that night, about her social studies teacher in high school, an eccentric fella who threw their textbook in the garbage the morning of 9/11. He made them watch the CBC evening news for homework, and he'd check that they had done so by some random questions, quite often including what colour of tie Peter Mansbridge was wearing. Jille remembered the class putting together a package for Mr. Mansbridge, with a letter and a pink tie, and her delight when he appeared on the evening news wearing their tie! It was the first of many stories we'd hear along the trip about great teachers, and what a difference one person can make, by example, in people's lives.
Our next stop was a family reunion of a whole bunch of distant relatives, organized by my Uncle Bruce Farrer, who's actually my second cousin, I think, but who I've known since I was a kid, when he united our families through his genealogical searches. He was one such exceptional teacher, teaching grade 9 for 40 years in rural Saskatchewan. Every year, he'd get his students to write a letter to themselves twenty years in the future, asking questions about what their lives had turned out to be. Now retired, he's still tracking down his former students every year and mailing out the letters on schedule. "The last box [of letters] is dated 2026, I'll be in my 80's. Hopefully still with it mentally and I'll be able to find the last few students," he said in one of the stories the CBC ran about it. Westjet even made a video tribute, which is really worth watching, here.
Bruce organized a ton of activities, including lining us all up in front of our places on a family tree that covered three walls. There were about sixty people there, most of whom I'd never met, but he'd booked me well in advance to sing for the gathering, which Pamela and I did, on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. It was really wonderful getting to know them, and finding kindred souls among these relatives that I barely knew.
Pamela and I were among the few folks in the RV camping, and once we got talking to our neighbours, it turned out they knew her family; their hobby shop even sponsored her dad's stock car! Coincidences like that just kept coming along the trip. That evening we went to play a backyard concert in Regina for a lady named Tracy who I'd never met, but is the mom of my friend Morgan, a pal from my early days in Taiwan whom I last visited in South Africa. Pamela wrote her aunt, who lives in Regina, to let her know about the house concert, and her aunt replied that she was already booked in––her and Tracy are best friends!
While we were all hanging out in the backyard, I explained the reunion we'd just been at, and one of the fellas said "Bruce Farrer?!? He was my teacher!" Turned out he'd been one of the kids that got the letter from his younger self.
The next day we drove to Winnipeg for a house concert at "Tell the Band to Go Home" radio host Jeff Robson's place, and went out afterward to the Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club, a place I figured Pamela shouldn't pass by without visiting on her first trip across Canada. It was a Sunday night, which is blues jam, hosted by Big Dave McLean. It turned out that Dave had just been awarded the Order Of Canada, so they were celebrating the news. I hugged a bunch of Winnipals, we had a dance, and it was everything I could ask for on a night out in Winnipeg. The next day was Canada Day, and we rode our bikes to the Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers meet, a meeting place for native folks since time immemorial, now the site of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights (which we had a brief but moving look around), and the location for the day's festivities.
That afternoon we drove out to Rushing River campground near Kenora, and actually stopped and took a picture at the "Welcome to Ontario" sign, something that I'd never done, but seemed fitting on Pamela's first visit. The next day of that interminably-long trip around the North side of Lake Superior, we stopped in Thunder Bay to visit my friend Lara, and Pamela saw fireflies for her first time on Lara's brother's farm. The next day we had breakfast at the Hoito, a restaurant run by Thunder Bay's Finlandia association, a relic of another time, and another iconic stop along the mythical cross-Canada road-trip.
We also stopped by the big goose in Wawa to shoot a video for "Pass It Along", which will appear (along with an earlier clip from the Dog River grain elevator in Saskatchewan, and a later clip from a lighthouse on Cape Breton Island) in the Canadian Folk Music Awards / Prix de musique folk canadienne' 2019 "National Strum" video. I'll let you know when it drops, dear readers.
In Sault Ste. Marie we played a house concert for some folks who'd reached out to me a couple years back. His family happened to be over from Ireland for a visit, and after the show (and the Fourth of July fireworks from across the river in Sault Ste. Marie Michigan) we stayed up around the fire, tasting some fine scotches from their neighbour, the self-styled "Wandering Whisky Whisperer," and singing songs in the flickering light. One fella sang an Irish song a cappella, in the traditional style, a moving ballad about a father who was dying, and his family joined in singing as it went. One of the folks there remarked afterward that he'd never heard anyone sing unaccompanied like that. Some of our traditions may have faded in the glow of our screens, but they're still there, little fires rekindled every time we return to feed them.
The next day we pulled into Orillia to play the grande dame of Canadian folk festivals, Mariposa. It was at Mariposa that Estelle Klein broadened the notion of "folk" programming in Canada, and introduced the "workshop" format, which in Canada means not someone giving an instructional presentation, but rather a bunch of musicians who've never played together before taking turns leading songs and collaborating. It's where the most magical moments happen at Canadian folk festivals, and as time goes on it's spreading to other fests around the world.
It was an honour to finally play that fest, a blast to do it with Bramwell (who was out visiting his family in Ontario) and Brian Kobayakawa, a joy to swim in Lake Couchiching and Lake Simcoe right next to the stages, and another bit of classic Canadiana to hear Gordon Lightfoot sing "If You Could Read My Mind" just before Jason Isbell took the stage on Sunday night. Oh, and there were fireflies again, in the tall grass along the roadside as we rode our bikes back to the hotel.
After the fest and all that driving we took three days off in Algonquin Park, swimming in Canisbay Lake, picking tunes around the fire, and just being. Pamela reckons that was her favourite part of the trip.
From there we made our way to Toronto for another, to my mind, quintessential bit of Canadiana: Corin Raymond and the Sundowners' Thursday residency at the Cameron House. Bram came out for his first time as well, the room was packed with hearty singers, and the love was thick in the air. After the show we biked down Queen Street to watch Freddy & Francine, friends of ours from California via Nashville, who slayed at Mariposa and completely blew the minds of the thirty or so people lucky enough to be there that night.
Early the next morning we left Lucky in the Toronto airport parking and flew to Oklahoma for the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, making a stop along the way at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, where they still had on display the pieces Woody wrote about his ruthless, racist landlord, Fred Trump. Those days aren't so different from these.
We'd been reading an article from Pamela's friend Charlie along the trip, about the Dust Bowl days and the New Deal; how a man-made environmental crisis got so bad that it gave rise to serious public action on an unprecedented scale, drawing the obvious parallel to climate change and the sweeping vision of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez' Green New Deal. It's a long read, but it's well worth reading, both to be reminded of the weight of resistance from entrenched interests that a big change like that needs to overcome, and of the power to accomplish the unthinkable that lives in a historic moment like the one we're facing now. Have a read, here.
Oklahoma is deeply conservative, but the celebration of Woody's legacy brought a beautiful and diverse group of folks together. Besides the concerts, there were talks on a variety of subjects, including a profound presentation on West Virginia's coal mining and labor history by Tom Breiding, who works with the United Mine Workers, recounting some of the open warfare between strikers and company thugs covered in the movie Matewan, history that's incredibly relevant today. After the stages shut down, the artists jammed til the wee hours out in front of the Days Inn, and to me that was the beating heart of the festival, a bunch of ramblers swapping songs in a parking lot.
We flew back from Oklahoma and out to Ottawa for a Monday night house concert that some folks had driven over an hour to attend, and felt incredibly grateful and humbled by that. We spent the next two days exploring the gorgeous old streets of Montreal and Quebec, and finally made it to cute little Fredericton, a town Pamela reckoned she could actually live in.
Our next stop was Prince Edward Island, for Rollo Bay Fiddle Festival, a 43 year-old beauty of a gathering that I'd heard about years ago in Australia from the East Pointers, who have taken over the running of the festival from their older relatives. We played for a lovely audience in the barn that first night, and on the outdoor stage the next day, learned to dance the local square dance ("the Souris set"), and reunited with friends from Edmonton including our dear friend Laurel-Lee, who was born there. Late on the last night of the fest, I went by the Tuning Room (a building next to the stage), and saw what I reckoned was the real heart of that festival: fiddlers of all ages, some little kids falling asleep in their chairs, a piano pounding out the chords, whistles, guitars, all kinds of instruments, and tune after tune rolling out, one into the next, nobody even calling the names of them but everyone picking them up and joining in, and occasionally getting up to dance. That right there was the fire. Old folks lit it, and thankfully there are young folks tending it today.
PEI's bigger than I knew, with all its corners and valleys and coves and villages, but in a way it's just one big small town. It seemed like half the people I met at the fest introduced themselves as a cousin, uncle, or aunt of the East Pointers. And we saw it again and again over the next couple days, at a big family gathering at Laurel-Lee's family's place, and at a lovely sold-out show at the Trailside Music Inn with my Aussie pal Liz Stringer: the close connections, the way everybody's known each other forever, the importance of family reputation and place in the community. "Who's your father?", Laurel-Lee's dad would ask, and soon enough he'd established a connection to everyone.
We left PEI for Cape Breton, where my shows hadn't materialized but we decided to spend a couple days exploring anyway, and wow, what a beautiful corner of the world that is! We were sorry not to make it to Newfoundland (I've still never been), but again I was astounded at the breadth of our country. A month isn't nearly long enough to drive across it.
After our bookend bar gig in Halifax and a last night on the Fundy shore, Pamela flew home to play Blueberry Bluegrass festival with her band The Strawflowers, and I made my way homeward via the venerable Falcon Ridge Folk Festival in upstate New York. My friends Jake and Ethan from Pesky J. Nixon told me about it seven years ago; they program an unpaid, unofficial stage on Thursday night, and there's an "Emerging Artists Showcase" on Friday afternoon where some two dozen artists sing two songs each on main stage. I'd always figured I couldn't make the trip without actually getting hired, but seeing as I'd be in the neighbourhood this year, I figured I may as well go, and I'm glad I did. It was a really warm welcome into that community, and I was surprised at how many friends I already had there.
The main stage had American Sign Language interpreters all weekend, and they were all captivating performers, dancing, signifying, and emoting the lyrics with such grace and skill. During "Fellas, Get Out the Way" in the Emerging Artists Showcase, I asked her to show the sign for "malarkey" again, 'cause I'd missed it while I was singing. And then "matriarchy," which to my delight turned out to be the signs for "women" and "in charge".
There had been a lot of Trump-denouncing on stage throughout the weekend, which I have mixed feelings about, mostly because I don't know what we hope to accomplish by it, especially in a liberal bubble like that. On Sunday, though, the outside world intruded into that bubble, with the news about the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton. And for the next couple days, driving homeward alone, all the flags at half-staff and the voices on the radio asking why kept it close to my mind. It felt like something of a relief to pull back into Canada, my adopted country, a country where an idea like public health care isn't seen as a communist plot, and where angry young white men are way less likely to mow down a bunch of strangers. But we sink or swim together here on Turtle Island, and the same hatred and division that's being sown down South can take root up North too. I only hope that music can help to bring people together rather than drive them apart, that we can open a tent wide enough to welcome everybody in, and let the gathering do the teaching.
My last stop was Trout Forest Music Festival in Ear Falls, Ontario, a supremely low-key gathering of mostly Winnipeg music scenesters and country folks from the area. It was great. It was everything a folk fest should be. The last act on main stage was a true Canadian-style workshop, bringing together a Winnipeg fiddle group, a trio of Métis Red River Jig dancers, and an amazing flamenco group that the artistic directors met on their travels in Cuba. The stage was on fire. The audience was all on their feet at the end, dancing along, and I cried for the first time that weekend, seeing the wide world come together in the middle of nowhere, and both sides being changed for it.
I said my goodbyes and drove out the gates to the strains of the last song, "On The Road Again," and I felt pretty lucky about it all.
That's it for now, friends! If you're anywhere nearby, I sure hope to see you when I roll through with Justin, and if you're further afield, I look forward to our paths crossing when they do. Stay kind, keep shining,