Country Music Week: Country comes home to London

Chris Roach of London radio station BX-93 carries straw into the Covent Garden Market for a display as preparations continued Wednesday for the start of Canadian Country Music week. (MORRIS LAMONT, The London Free Press)

Debora Van Brenk grew up in rural Ontario . . . but didn’t start liking country music until she got to the city.

By Debora Van Brenk, The London Free Press

 A country riff runs through Southwestern Ontario.

 You can see it in the haying, the fields fresh-cut and waiting to be baled. You can see it in the drying-down of the soybeans and the pasturing of cattle.

You hear it in the hum of combines and the rattle of pickups trucking down gravel roads.

You may think of “country” music as sprouting from the wide open spaces of the Prairies, but its roots are also homegrown in the fertile Southwestern Ontario soil.

That’s why it makes sense that London — probably more than any other mid-sized Ontario city — is host to Country Music Week and the Canadian Country Music Awards Sunday night.

It’s a region where the genre is as much a way of life as a musical taste.

When tractors come in for refurbishing and resale at Huron Tractor, for example, you’ll rarely find rock or pop music on the radio dial.

“It’ll be the country music,” says Nick Studicka, marketing manager for Huron Tractor, one of the largest John Deere distributors in the country with nine stores. And nobody, nobody, messes with the radio pre-sets.

Country music’s themes of working the land, big trucks and tractors and hardship and reward resonate here, he said.

“When you look at Southwestern Ontario, it’s probably one of the most diverse cropping areas in he country,” Studicka said. Other areas of the country might specialize in canola or cattle, vineyards or vegetables, but this region has all of that. “Anything that can be grown is grown in Southwestern Ontario.”

 That includes country singers.

Music star Michelle Wright — so Canadian that she shares a birthday, July 1, with this country — hails from Merlin, southwest of Chatham.

Wright could have chased rhythm and blues like those in nearby Detroit, but her rural roots made her follow in her performer parents’ steps and pursue country music. She became a headliner in her own right and was named in 2011 to the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.

She is one of at least eight performers during Music Week events who has Southwestern Ontario connections.

There’s still a big call for country music in this region.

Purple Hill Country barn near Thorndale, which has featured some of this week’s performers in some of its monthly shows, draws consistently large crowds.

Boot Hill Jamboree, the August long weekend country festival near Bothwell, pulled in 4,500 visitors this year.

The weekend ranged from George Canyon’s acoustic sounds and bittersweet story-songs to the raucous party music of the cowboy hat-wearing, motorcycle-riding The Road Hammers.

Maybe that’s diversity is one of the attractions of modern country, said Vicki Radford who, with her husband, Garry Evans, owns and operates Boot Hill.

“When I was a kid, I was the only one my age who listened to country music,” she recalled. Now, she said, one of the fastest-growing groups of fans is young adults.

“It’s surprising the ages that listen to country music now.”

Country has become cool and mainstream: two country FM stations — BX93 and Country 104 — cover huge swaths of the region, while CKNX-AM broadcasts to midwestern Ontario.

Rock the Park Gone Country attracted music and rock fans by the thousands to downtown London during the outdoor festival in July.

When farmer Emery Huszka thinks of music, it’s always country. The president of the National Farmers Union — Ontario, who hails from the tiny hamlet of Florence, in eastern Lambton County, said younger people have become fans of the music.

And even if they’ve never set foot on a farm, virtually every adult who lives in Southwestern Ontario has some passing knowledge of rural life.

They may not live on country life, but they rely on it: whether they see the steam rising from ­Ingredion, where corn is processed into sugars and starches; or spot Maizex signs in grain fields to mark the growth of Canada’s largest privately owned crop seed company; or shop at TSC Stores, which has its headquarters in London.

Part of the music’s appeal is the crossover appeal that flirts with pop and rock genres, and part of it is an increasing diversity of themes in the story-songs, Huszka said.

And though country songs aren’t all about tractors and hurtin’, they’re still stories that hit home for rural Ontarians, Huszka said.

“It’s more than, ‘Your dog died, your wife ran off and your house burned down.’ I would say it’s astounding how young people have taken on country music into their lifestyle.”

dvanbrenk@postmedia.com

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