Paul Brandt and Terri Clark, two of Canada’s greatest country music stars, came to Edmonton on November 9 on their ‘Homecoming Tour’. The event was billed as “an intimate evening of songs,” and even though I wasn’t as excited to attend as my wife, I was still optimistic.
Walking over to the Northern Jubilee, I smiled wryly to myself at all the cultural tropes: decorative belt buckles, large bifold wallets sticking out of back pockets, and peasant dresses. My wife Chynna fit the part, with cowgirl boots and bootcut jeans, but I am not country enough for $300 footwear. Once we found our seats on the first balcony, we competed on who could spot the most cowboy hats. I counted seven or eight, but Chynna claimed she saw thirteen.
“I’m just glad they aren’t in front of us,” she said. “It would completely block our view.”
I nodded in agreement and scanned the stage. Stranded in the vast expanse were two small chairs, comforted only by some acoustic guitars on stands. A dozen candles flickered near the platform edge. Three golden spotlights illuminated the faces of the crowd, as if we were sitting around a campfire. The lights dimmed just after 7 PM, and the candles cast shadows on the shiny floor.
Paul Brandt and Terri Clark walked onto the stage, and I realized they had no posse, no accompanying band at all. Clark was dressed in an unbuttoned jean jacket, Brandt in a paisley shirt. They wore matching black cowboy boots and hats.
They took their seats and Brandt started the evening off with “I’m Gonna Fly.” Clark, meanwhile, played backup guitar. Brandt’s deep baritone rumbled though the low notes of “you oughta get some knowledge, you gotta go to college,” causing the audience to erupt into applause.
Next up was Terri Clark with her 2004 hit “Girls Lie Too.” Her throaty alto voice had a strong nasal twang which typifies country music, and the fans in attendance were appreciative. It was okay, but the musical transitions were at times dissonant.
They both remained seated all night. I had expected a concert in which Brandt and Clark roamed the stage, interacting with the crowd and exuding energy, much like Tim McGraw or High Valley. Instead, their knees bobbed rhythmically in time with the music, as if they were soothing a child who was fighting off sleep. I stifled a yawn.
During the twenty-minute intermission, I had plenty of time to look around at the crowd. My wife and I were the youngest people there, apart from a young boy sitting with his parents. Most of the audience were seniors with grey hair. The couple to the left of us browsed Facebook Marketplace in search of a hay baler, and a man to our right strained to read the gigantic text on his iPhone. Many people knew each other, and waves were exchanged across the auditorium.
My wife asked me a question, pulling me away from my observations. “Are you having fun?”
“Yeah,” I said, but it wasn’t true. I saw the excitement in her eyes and knew she was happy. She loved the country lifestyle and everything it represented. And I knew, more than anything else, she wanted to do things with me that we both enjoyed. I wanted to give her that.
After the intermission, there were a couple of classic country songs that had the audience singing along, including “Didn’t Even See the Dust” by Paul Brandt and “When Boy Meets Girl” by Terri Clark. I joined in, hoping by doing so I would feel like I belonged. But as we sang out the words of “getting lost – didn’t seem to matter much,” I knew it wasn’t working. I knew I wasn’t country.
Reminding myself that my favourite song “Alberta Bound” had not yet been played, I decided to keep my chin up, hoping it would redeem the evening. However, I nearly gave up during Brandt’s “Canadian Man,” which he introduced as “full of stereotypes, so I hope this doesn’t offend anyone.” I didn’t find the lyrics offensive, but the so-called harmony was so assaulting to my ears that it caused me to cringe.
But finally, Paul Brandt started talking about Ian Tyson, and everyone familiar with the lyric “Ian Tyson sang a lonesome lullaby” knew that “Alberta Bound” would be coming next.
I have listened to this song on repeat while driving the Kananaskis Highway, the Alberta Rockies in my rearview mirror. I have rejoiced when far from home when I heard it on the radio. I have sung along to it innumerable times. It is an anthem to more than Alberta – it is a song about coming home to a place where you are known and loved, where there is peace and harmony – it is a song about heaven.
But in a cruel twist of irony, when Brandt and Clark performed “Alberta Bound” as a duet, there was no harmony. Their voices clashed. They segmented it by interjecting pointless phrases. The crowd tried to sing along, but the song deviated so much from the original that this wasn’t possible.
During the encore, Brandt sang “Convoy,” which is about a rebellion where truckers drive from coast to coast. It evoked images of the recent protests in Ottawa, where blaring horns drowned out the city. The song was discordant, both in its lack of harmony and in its inappropriateness for our time. It did nothing but further my sense of isolation among people who were united in a romanticized country identity.
When the evening was over, I squeezed my wife’s hand, wishing that her enjoyment was something we shared. I had come for an evening of intimacy but left feeling very alone.