History Spotlight: Canadian Country Legends
When it comes to singing lonesome songs of heart and heartache, Canadian crooners are more than a match for their American neighbours.
The following musicians represent only a smattering of the country music talent Canada has produced. For a timeline of Canadian country music, and more video clips, see our article Country in Canada.
Don Messer & his Islanders
Don Messer formed the Islanders in 1939 and this band went strong until the 1960s. One of the defining characteristics of the band was Messer’s violin playing and the extensive backing band, which sometimes consisted of up to seventeen people. He performed with Charlie Chamberlain and Marg Osburne for almost his entire career, as they were the lead singers of the Islanders, and they become the three most identifiable performers of the group. During the 1960s, Messer had his own show on CBC, “Don Messer’s Jubilee,” which consisted of the band playing with a guest performer for each half-hour slot. This introduced new country performers to the viewers of CBC and gave country-wide recognition to such singers like Stompin' Tom Connors and Catherine McKinnon.
Carter has been called the father of Canadian country music because he was the first full-fledged country music full star. He was also known as Montana Slim. A talented singer- songwriter, Carter wrote hundreds of songs in the country/folk genre and also introduced yodeling to the public, and included it in many of his songs. During the 1940s, Carter was in a severe car accident and did not perform for nine years. He continued to release music throughout this hiatus, however, and in 1949, he returned to the stage. Carter performed his last tour in 1993, when he was eighty-nine years old. He died three years later.
Tommy Hunter is a Canadian country singer who created his own radio show in 1960s, and turned it into a successful television variety show that ran until 1992. He is known as Canada’s Country Gentleman. “The Tommy Hunter Show” featured guest performers on a regular basis such as Donna and LeRoy Anderson, Al Cherny, as well as well known guests like Anne Murray and American stars like Garth Brooks and the Judds. At the age of thirteen — while still called Eilleen Twain — Shania Twain appeared on Hunter’s show. Hunter himself had a couple of hit singles; “Cup of Disgrace,” “Battle of the Little Big Horn,” and “Wait for Sunday” were popular songs for him. He has performed at the Grand Ole Opry and still travels and performs shows on a regular basis.
Stompin' Tom Connors
Charles Thomas Connors, otherwise known as Stompin’ Tom Connors, was known for stomping his left foot in order to keep rhythm while playing the guitar. One of his most famous songs, “The Hockey Song,” is played in Canadian hockey rinks all over the country. Most of Connor’s songs are written about real life events or people. His national hits such as “Big Joe Mufferaw,” “Luke’s Guitar” and “The Bridge Came Tumbling Down” were all based on events or people that influenced Stompin’ Tom. He was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1993, but refused to accept the honour, and he also received a SOCAN National Achievement Award for songwriting in 1999.
Snow is acknowledged as a father of Canadian country music, along with Wilf Carter. However, Snow spent a fair amount of his career in the United States developing his career and performing with the likes of Willie Nelson and mentoring Elvis Presley. He even became a regular performer on the Grand Ole’ Opry in Nashville, and this became his adopted hometown. “I’m Movin On” was one of his most famous songs. He charted almost eighty-five songs on Billboard during his career, and around twenty-five reached top five positions, including number one. Later on in his career, Snow returned to Canada and toured with Wilf Carter in 1981, and returned periodically after. He has since been inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame, CCMA Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Anne Murray is one of Canada’s most established and celebrated singers. She has won countless Junos and three Canadian Country Music Awards and also has success internationally with four Grammys and three Country Music Awards. Anne started on “Singalong Jubilee,” a CBC variety show in the 1960s. From there, Anne recorded her first album, “What About Me,” and soon she recorded “This Way is My Way,” which contained her breakout hit “Snowbird.” In 1997, Anne Murray released a very popular album of duets: “Anne Murray Duets: Friends & Legends.”
Shania Twain, born Eilleen Twain, was born in Timmins, Ontario, and grew up in a low-income family. Because of her money situation, Shania began to sing at clubs and bars at around the age of thirteen to help support her family. Shania performed on “The Tommy Hunter Show” when she was thirteen, and eventually made it to Nashville where she started writing and recording songs. In 1993, she released her first CD, Shania Twain, which did not reach much commercial success. In 1995, she released “The Woman in Me,” which became her breakthrough album. She had four number one hits from this CD and she was well on her way to becoming the star that she would become. “Come On Over” and “UP!” were her next two albums, and these solidified her in both country and pop. In 1999 she was named Entertainer of the Year by the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association. Shania is now creating a show for Oprah’s network OWN, which will launch in 2011.