STEPHEN COOKE ARTS REPORTER
For four rollicking days, country and western music in Canada was rebranded country and eastern as the 39th Canadian Country Music Week took over downtown Halifax.
The annual national hoedown reached fever pitch with Sunday night’s Canadian Country Music Association Awards at Scotiabank Centre, a splashy celebration of the scene’s brightest talent, broadcast live on CBC-TV and rebroadcast later the same night on CMT.
See also: BLOG REPLAY: CCMA awards.
Country fans across Canada had their eyes on the Halifax stage, as Calgary singer Gord Bamford emerged as the weekend’s big winner, taking home his third male artist of the year award. He also saw his song Where a Farm Used to Be named single of the year, while on Saturday it earned him a songwriter of the year award, along with co-writers Buddy Owens and New Brunswick-born Phil O’Donnell.
“It’s a reflection of the evolution of what’s going on,” said Bamford of the song, which clearly touched a nerve with listeners across Canada, in the city as well as the country.
“Growth is always good, but what we wrote about is real, and people really related to it.”
Bamford performed his strong new single Don’t Let Her Be Gone on the CCMA broadcast, and backstage he dropped a hint about an upcoming tour announcement, co-headlining with a major American performer. He also talked about his visit to the IWK Health Centre on Friday, where he donated $10,000 from his charitable foundation to the children’s hospital’s music therapy program.
“Those experiences have changed my life forever,” said the singer, who also shows his support for MusiCounts, which provides musical equipment to public schools.
“Not every kid wakes up and wants to play hockey or baseball,” said Bamford. “I’ve seen what music can do and how it can heal, and I’m proud to be able to help make that dream come true.”
The first award of the evening was the coveted Fan’s Choice Award, going to perennial favourite Johnny Reid, who picked up his sixth edition of the crowd-voted honour. The humble Scot thanked his family in his acceptance speech, especially as he gets ready for a new cycle of promotion and touring for his latest album What Love Is All About, which hits stores on Nov. 13.
Reid performed the record’s title song, backed by a Halifax gospel choir, and backstage he told reporters about the need to take a three-year break since his last collection of new, original material, 2012’s Fire It Up.
“I felt I needed to spend some quality time with my family, and my kids, in order to get to a place where I could open up and be honest in a new group of songs,” said Reid, who plans to follow the record’s release with a Canadian tour that comes to the East Coast in the spring.
Tied with Bamford for the most CCMA nominations with six each, Nova Scotia-based country star Dean Brody didn’t leave empty handed, earning video of the year for the Margaret Malandruccolo-directed clip for Upside Down.
The video’s long, strange trip in a psychedelic school bus matches the song’s good time vibe, while on the awards show itself Brody performed his groundbreaking banjo-techno hit Bring Down the House, looking cool in a pool of dry ice vapour. It made for a fun preview of his upcoming Road Trip Tour with Paul Brandt, bringing them back to Scotiabank Centre on Oct. 24.
Backstage, Brody expressed his gratitude at winning a CCMA in his adopted home, where he moved his family after living in the U.S. for six years.
“Nova Scotia’s been good to me, my wife and I felt really welcomed by you guys and the way the East Coast embraced us.
“I remember early on, doing a songwriters circle at the casino with Bruce Guthro, and he encouraged his fans to embrace me, and that's how hospitable everyone’s been.”
Upside Down was also a perfect fit for a show focused on high energy and humour, with host Jessi Cruikshank setting the tone right off the bat, as she was carried in by a pair of muscular ranch hands.
“Let’s hear it for the objectification of shirtless cowboys!” enthused the ginger-haired former MTV Canada host, who noted the prevelance of drinking songs in both classic and current country music.
“I’m not sure if you need an awards show or an intervention,” mused Cruikshank, who decided to err on the side of partying.
Other performance highlights included group or duo of the year award winner High Valley with the catchy singalong pop chorus of She’s With Me, Autumn Hill’s emotional Blame lit by old fashioned incandescant lights, and interactive artist of the year Brett Kissel strolling through the crowd while playing his new single Airwaves.
Show opener — and album of the year winner for Lifted — Dallas Smith, performed Cheap Seats with a pounding drumline and high fives for the fans dancing in front of the stage, bringing the same energy he showed while singing at last year’s Grey Cup. It was also refreshing to see one of the evening’s most rocking moments delivered by female artist of the year nominees Kira Isabella and MacKenzie Porter, giving bro country a boot in the jeans with Shake It If You Got It.
While last year’s Rising Star Award winner Tim Hicks proved he has lived up to his potential with the vibrant summer anthem Young, Alive and in Love, this year’s Rising Star prize went to Madeline Merlo, who didn’t have time to calm down before heading backstage to talk to reporters.
“I’m just floored right now, that’s all that’s going through my head right now,” said the B.C. singer, who had no idea this time last year that she’d be up on that stage.
“I think it’s important as an artist, and as a person, to set really high goals for yourself, and I’ve always done that,” she said. “Last year I was at CCMAs, just soaking up the environment, and I was thinking about how much I would love to be nominated for an award this year.
“And then it happened, and now I’ve won! I guess if you put those vibes out into the universe, God or whoever listens, and good things happen. I would have a Grammy on my shelf if I could, you just have to think that way. I know that might sound over-confident, but music is all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
For the last four days, many musical dreams have been kickstarted or taken to the next level during Canadian Country Music Week. In 2016 those who succeed will be celebrated at the 40th CCMW in London, Ont.
Fans Choice Award: Johnny Reid
Album of the Year: Dallas Smith (Lifted)
Female Artist of the Year: Jess Moskaluke
Male Artist of the Year: Gord Bamford
Group or Duo of the Year: High Valley
Single of the Year: Gord Bamford (Where a Farm Used to Be)
Video of the Year: Dean Brody (Upside Down)
Rising Star: Madeline Merlo
Songwriter of the Year: Gord Bamford, Buddy Owens, Phil O'Donnell (Where a Farm Used to Be)
Roots Artist of the Year: Lindi Ortega
Interactive Artist of the Year: Brett Kissel
CCMA Discovery Award: Raquel Cole
Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame inductees
Artist: Dianne Leigh
Industry Builder: Elizabeth (Ma) Henning
2015 Slaight Music Humanitarian Award: MusiCounts
Leonard T. Rambeau International Award: Robert Ott