For as long as I can recall, the Alberta roots music environment has been healthy and exciting. From the big-ticket folk festivals in Edmonton and Calgary, and the more regional events held annually in Fort McLeod, Driftpile, East Coulee, and innumerable other sites, to a radio network that supports Alberta roots artists to an incredible level, a roots musician in Alberta seemingly has an entire province at the ready. Still, mainstream success remains rare, and while folks can make a living with their guitars, vans, and songs, breakouts are few—we can count the Corb Lunds and k. d. lang’s on one hand.
Not every artist contained on Ryan Dyck’s visionary Twenty One-Nighters collection is from Alberta, but all are western Canadian and the vast majority call the Wild Rose province home. Recorded adjacent to a Lethbridge pizza place over a series of evenings across nine months of 2016 and 2017, twenty folk and country troubadours answered Skinny Dyck’s call to share their songs, all original and most previously unreleased.
A core band is featured, primarily Skinny Dyck, Tyler Bird, Evan Uschenko, Jon Martin, and Paul Holden on a variety of stringed instruments and drums in various configurations. With twenty different focus acts, the approaches to the music and songs are as varied as the lineups, but each of the seventy minutes the music envelopes the listener with waves of familiarity that are most welcome.
Picking highlights is the chore of a fool. The godfather of southern Alberta roots scene, Lance Loree kicks things off with “Watching Daddy Dance,” definitely a noteworthy performance, but so is that of Leeroy Stagger and Mariel Buckley (the gorgeous and devastating “New Pair of Shoes”) and Fervor Coulee-mainstay John Wort Hannam (“Acres of Elbow Room,” a preview of the album coming in early spring.)
Sentinels of the pubs, bars, stages, and community halls abound: Tom Phillips, Kent McAlister, Sean Burns, Scott MacLeod, and Dave McCann offer-up terrific numbers, with McAlisters’s “Hall of Shame” and McCann’s “Sticks and Stones” weaving their way into the audio-memory. The legion of Carolyn Mark fans will be interested in “My Love For You,” a two-minute ditty that pulls in ’bout every rural Alberta cliché you would dare drop into a country song.
Many a clever turn of phrase are included on this wide-cut country collection, as are a number of folks we had not previously encountered, although they are certainly known to others—we can’t hear everything! Folks from whom I will be looking for more include Shaela Miller (The Virginian era Neko Case-y sounding “Willow Tree”) Justin Smith (“Seedin’ Time”), and Taylor Ackerman (“Layin’ By Your Side.”) Terrific stuff. Carter Felker offers up an outstanding new song, “I Can’t Believe”—a gem among jewels—and Steven Foord’s “Sweet Alberta” is deserving of airplay.
If there is a single discovery to be found on this album (and there isn’t—unless you were part of the core group putting this set together, I doubt many have heard everyone on this wide-ranging set: there is a lot to discover!) I would suggest it may be George Arsene who delivers a stunning song, “‘Ol #6,” a diner tale that brings to mind the master of the dusty road song, Robert Earl Keen.
Rather than reading my ramblings about this important set capturing the contemporary southern-Alberta roots scene, head over to https://skinnydyck.bandcamp.com/, give a listen, and then pick up a copy there or at one of the upcoming shows Skinny Dyck has planned for November. Original roots music appears live and well in the home province: support it, dammit!