The top 10 Toronto country & alt country bands
Country's heyday (hay day?) in Toronto goes back a long way. A good part of the live scene can be traced back to 1947, when Jack Starr purchased the space he would name The Horseshoe Tavern on Queen St. West. He first intended it to be a live music venue and restaurant. It was after he removed the kitchen that his take on booking country and rockabilly music took off. Through to the 60's and 70's the Horseshoe would host Willie Nelson, the Carter Family, Waylon Jennings, and Stompin' Tom Conners.
It was The Matador on Dovercourt Rd. open from 1964-2007 that became a favourite spot for Loretta Lynn, Stompin' Tom, and its outdoor sign even appeared in k.d. lang's 1987 "Turn Me Round" video. The 80's and 90's would see Toronto bands like Blue Rodeo, the Cowboy Junkies, and the Lost Dakotas bring their own contemporary take on country and alt-country music. A special nod goes to Ronnie Hawkins (and the Hawks) for all their contributions to the rockabilly and rock scene.
Today you can still embrace the wild west in Toronto - if you're looking to ride a mechanical bull and real live country music, look no further than the Rock 'n' Horse Saloon on Adelaide St. West. And in the east end, Boots & Bourbon host their own brand of live country music and line dancing. The Cameron House and the Dakota Tavern also host country bands regularly.
Here are 10 of Toronto's top country and alt-country bands of all time.
Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor were football friends since the 1970's. They briefly separated ways with Cuddy meeting Robin Mask (Handsome Ned) in Banff, but in the early 80's they joined with Cleave Anderson, Bazil Donovan, and Bobby Wiseman to form Blue Rodeo in 1984 (their first show was at the Rivoli). The band, now Jim Cuddy, Greg Keelor, Bazil Donovan, Glenn Milchem, Bob Egan, Mike Boguski, and Colin Cripps, continue to contribute to the Canadian country-rock landscape after 30 years.
The story of the Cowboy Junkies - siblings Margo, Peter, Michael Timmons, and bassist Alan Anton - is well documented, including the 14 hour recording session at Church of the Holy Trinity. A mix of country, folk, blues and jazz, the album considered their most influential. With the Trinity Sessions marketed under rock, and not country, the Cowboy Junkies popularity helped establish an alternative music scene. Lou Reed is said to prefer their version of Sweet Jane to his. Fans can find their entire archives at the U of T Media Commons.
The Cameron Family Singers
There may not be a finer cover of Dolly Parton's "Jolene" ever performed or recorded in Toronto or Canada than by the Cameron Family Singers. "Cousins" Cindy Matthews, Jack Nicholsen (Leslie Spit Treeo), Kevin Quain, Rob Booth, Sam Ferrara, Chip Yarwood and Tony Benattar held down a country music-filled Saturday residency at Queen Street's the Cameron House from 1997-2010.
Members of Prairie Oyster have set a high standard for Canadian country rock music and roots music for nearly 40 years. Russell deCarle, Keith Glass, and Dennis Delorme formed the band in Toronto in 1975, and had touring and television appearance success before a four year hiatus in 1978. Since 1982 and a rotation of new members, they have produced eight albums, and received a long list of Canadian music awards.
The Good Brothers
Thornhill twins Bruce and Brian Good originally played in the band The Kinfolk in the 60's. In 1973, along with younger brother Larry they became the country-folk band the Good Brothers and debuted at the Riverboat club and went on to set sales records and impressed crowds five nights a week at the El Mo. From 1977-1984 they won eight Junos for best Country Group or Duo. Travis Good (the Sadies), Bruce's son was part of the Goods during the 1990's.
Great Speckled Bird
By the time Ian and Sylvia Tyson had recorded the 1968 album Nashville in Nashville, the folk-duo had already work country rock songs into their performances as part of an evolution in their sound. The Tysons, after that recording decided to play more like the album and along with Amos Garrett, Buddy Cage, and N.D. Smart II, formed Great Speckled Bird in 1969. They would go on to be the house band for CTV's Nashville North show in Toronto. Ian and Sylvia split in 1975.
Beginning as street-buskers in the 80's, Grievious Angels (Charlie Angus, Michelle Rumball, and Peter Jellard) are known for their heartbreaking lyrics in support of the working class and northern Canadian life hardships. Their national radio played second album One Job Town was Juno nominated for best Country Group or Duo in 1992. Angus would go on to be a CBC commentator and later NDP member of Parliament in Timmins.
Together since 1984, the Sadies perform epic live shows, produce close to an album a year, and continue to refine their psychedelic alt-country art (the best of CBGB). Brothers Dallas and Travis Good, along with Mike Belitsky (drums) and Sean Dean (upright bass) reputation as top musicians have led to collaborations with Neko Case, Neil Young, Garth Hudson, the Good Brothers and others.
The Lost Dakotas
Starting out busking on the corner of Yonge and Dundas and on the TTC in 1989, the Lost Dakotas started as the acoustic duo Paul Dakota and Greg McConnell. After the additions of Adam Faux and Ron Duffy in 1990, they released Love to Play on cassette only. It sold out in two days. Their next album, Last Train To Kipling, a TTC stations reference, charted on college radio for 100+ weeks. The album country-rock album, "Sun Machine" followed. Covered on the album was Queen St. West's Handsome Ned's "Lost Weekend."
Cindy Church, Caitlin Hanford, Colleen Peterson, and Sylvia Tyson played together at Toronto's Harbourfront as part of a Songwriters-in-the-round in 1993. Following Peterson's death in 1996, and replacement by Gwen Swick, they continue to play a blend of traditional country, folk, and gospel across Canada.
Photo of the Sadies by Andrew Williams
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