Could Toronto be Canada’s next country hotbed?

 Calgary two-piece Autumn Hill, whose last six singles have hit Canadian country radio's Top 30.

With bars like Rock ’n’ Horse Saloon and Boots & Bourbon, the Boots & Hearts festival, and acts like Autumn Hill, the scene is growing fast.

By: Nick Patch Entertainment Reporter, Toronto Star (Star.com) -  Published on Wed Oct 21 2015

Autumn Hill’s Mike Robins is a cheery sort who meets the swift-rising country duo’s mounting media responsibilities with gregarious gratitude.

While doing the nationwide radio rounds, however, he’s heard one quip so frequently that one imagines his genial grin being stretched to the edges of credulity.

“It’s usually like: ‘Oh, you’re from Toronto? We won’t hold that against you,’” he said with a laugh. “It’s always a little bit of a shock that I’m from Toronto.”

Stale as the crack may be, it’s hard to blame anyone for registering surprise; Toronto has yet to register among this country’s country hotbeds.

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Outside of Johnny Reid — who, owing to his Scottish brogue and multi-genre brew, is considered neither particularly Toronto nor particularly country — the city has not recently produced country stars at nearly the same prolific rate as the genre’s western pillars.

Toronto doesn’t have a dedicated country radio station, and some major cross-Canada country tours (including Dean Brody and Paul Brandt’s recent co-headlining trek) skip the city entirely.

“When you think of country music and where the big artists are coming from, it’s not really from Toronto,” said Mark Patric, program director at Vancouver’s JRfm. “And it’s too bad, because it would be nice for Canadian country if Toronto would have more of a presence.”

Toronto’s recent candidates for country flag-bearing have either tended to approach from alt-angles — think the rootsy grit of Lindi Ortega or the Sadies — or with a staunchly traditionalist bent (Daniel Romano) that is paradoxically deemed too country for commercial country radio.

“The country artists who tend to make it from Ontario tend to be from rural Ontario as opposed to the city . . . because Toronto has the whole cool vibe going on,” said Peter Walker, music director at Oshawa’s KX96, one of two 905-region country stations serving the city.

“Toronto has always supported ‘real’ country music. I guess they call it ‘real’ country because the country we see, commercial country, isn’t country enough for some of the music snobs.”

Well, Canada’s country cognoscenti do see encouraging signs of a new dawn in Toronto.

First, nearby Bowmanville’s Boots & Hearts Music Festival has quickly ascended to the top tier of North American country fests, the big-hat big top. Then there’s the rollicking success of two recently sprouted local bars, the Rock ’n’ Horse Saloon and Boots & Bourbon.

Riding the strength of a mechanical bull and a playlist that skews “99 per cent country,” the former manages to wrangle weekend queues as expansive as the brim of a Stetson, with dressed-for-the-part partiers braving the brisk elements in defiantly abbreviated denim and, of course, plaid.

“People put on the cowboy boots, cowboy hats,” said Kurt Burningham, VP of sales and guest experience with the bar complex, which also offers country karaoke and line dancing.

“There are a lot of people that are from all over Ontario, little small towns, who all come to Toronto. There are a lot of country boys and girls downtown who just didn’t have a spot to go.”

It’s of course music to the ears of a local country loyalist like Robins. Growing up here, “country music wasn’t something you listened to,” and he only gradually discovered his own fondness for the genre with help from his father’s record collection and the talented players at the Cameron House.

But as far as he sees it, there’s been nothing gradual about country’s stomp to local prominence.

“The floodgates have opened,” he said. “I don’t think it’s been a steady climb. There’s been growth, but now all of a sudden, it’s everywhere.

“When country really blew up in Toronto a couple years ago, you just started seeing not just the stereotypical fans going. On a Saturday night, you can go to the Rock ’n’ Horse, it’s rammed. They’re college kids, people who love the music or want to party. But everybody’s supporting and enjoying this vibrant scene.”

Toronto-Calgary two-piece Autumn Hill, whose last six singles have hit Canadian country radio's Top 30.

6 Toronto-area country acts to watch

 

Autumn Hill: 

Toronto-Calgary two-piece Autumn Hill, whose last six singles have hit Canadian country radio's Top 30.

Nominated for Group or Duo of the Year at consecutive CCMA Awards, the Toronto-Calgary duo is sailing on the strength of recent sophomore album Anchor. “They don’t sound country . . . they don’t even look country, but they’re country,” said Mark Morris of Winnipeg’s QX104. “I like them.”

Two-time Juno nominee Tim Hicks had moved from playing bars to playing arenas. 

Cold Creek County:

Ontario quintet Cold Creek County, who released their debut album earlier this month.

 We’d need to hit the highway to reach the “Till the Wheels Come Off” band’s various hometowns — which include Brighton, Stratford and Frankford, Ont. — but early signs indicate that the group is resonating much farther. Their raucous debut single, “Our Town,” went to the Top 10 on Canadian country radio. “I could see them doing very, very well,” said Mark Patric, program director at Vancouver’s JRfm. “That bro country sound has been a little overplayed . . . but they are truly talented.”

Tim Hicks:

Two-time Juno nominee Tim Hicks had moved from playing bars to playing arenas.

The St. Catharines-reared songwriter has the hardware to prove that he’s already broken through — a Juno nod and bales of CCMA accolades — but observers believe Hicks is only scratching the surface. “He’s selling out here (in Winnipeg),” said Morris. “The last time he was here, he was at a casino and now he’s doing theatre shows and headlining gigs

 

Jesse Labelle:

Jesse Labelle has opened for Keith Urban.

 Labelle has shifted to Nashville in the three years since he dropped his sophomore album, Two, and he recently promised that a new EP would be ready next year. His peers anxiously await the new material from Labelle, who has opened for Keith Urban. “We used to play a lot of bars coming up together,” said Autumn Hill’s Mike Robins. “He’s going to do really, really well.”

Runaway Angel: 

Runaway Angel

The trio’s roots trace back to 2009, when Stacey Zegers and Cadence Grace met as finalists on CMT’s Karaoke Star. Ann Chaplin joined the group in 2011. They dropped their first single, the chiming “Our Story,” in 2011 and their haloed harmonies have already turned heads. “They do sing like angels,” Robins said.

Tebey:

 Few potential “breakout” acts have been around as long as this Burlington songwriting stalwart, but his country transformation is relatively recent, and industry types are certain Tebey’s ceiling is to be determined. “He’s an interesting fella,” said Peter Walker of Oshawa’s KX96. “He’s doing quite well for himself.”