POSTED: JULY 29TH, 2002
It is hard to believe that we are in the Netherlands. I am trying to set up my drums on the stage of the Newland Buffalo Steak House and Saloon in KIaaswaal, but am distracted by the sleepy eyes of a mechanical bull staring longingly at me from the corner of the room. A little to the right sits a covered wagon in front of a wall adorned with pictures of country-music stars, both living and dead.
This is day one of a whirlwind 18-day tour of England, the Netherlands and France playing drums for Lynn Miles, a veteran of the North American folk- roots (or Americana as it has come to be known) scene. If you imagine a hybrid of Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell and Sheryl Crow, you wouldn’t be too far off from the type of music Miles plays. Throw Bob Dylan and Townes van Zandt into the mix to represent the fellas and you would have a pretty good idea of what constitutes Americana.
Although throughout her career Miles has spent, in her words, "too much f...ing time" in a car crisscrossing North America playing hundreds of cities and venues, she now spends most of her touring year playing in Europe. "My record company is here, I sell records here and it is a great place to tour," explains Miles. People come out to shows and you are treated with a great deal of respect."
She is not alone in her thinking. Over the past few years, many Americana artists have turned their attention away from North America and focused instead on European markets.
The reason for this switch is simple. Audiences in europe love Americana music - and it is not only the music they love. They love the lifestyle, they love the clothes and, most of all, they love the romance.
"I built this place with no architect, just me and some carpenters." I am talking to Gabry int'Veld, owner of the Newland Buffalo Steakhouse and Saloon. "I have never been to Texas but I rent vidcos — Tombstone and ~~vatt L('irp. From those movies, I got the idea of how to build this place."
lnt'Veld says he books anywhere from one to four bands a month, all of them in the Americana style. "It's for people to come and relax in a real Texas bar and listen to music." Over the past few months, he has booked Americana artists such as Dale Watson, as well as fellow Canadians South Mountain. When North American artists are unavailable, a Dutch "Texas music cover band," The Hillbilly Boogiemen, takes over the entertainment. "I think people like Americana-style music because it makes you think of America and the Wild West ... it's very romantic."
Regardless of the reasons, Europe's love of all things Western has been a boon to Canadian artists. While Bert Pijpers, owner of Miles's European record company C.R.S. records, is careful about giving exact numbers, he does say that Miles's latest record Unravel has sold as many copies in the Netherlands as it has in Canada — Miles’s home country, with a population almost twice that of the Netherlands.
Although the prospect of riding on the coattails of what appears to be a bit of a fad may seem like a depressing one, the reality is quite different, according to Shannon Lyon, a fellow Canadian who has found the roots-music scene in Europe so inviting that he has chosen to live here almost full-time. Having come down to Miles’s show in Arnhem in between his own shows in Appeldorn and Hengelo, Lyon was quitr philosophical about his success here. "I could give you a bunch of clichés about John Wayne, Coca-Cola and the Wild West and in large part, that's what draws people to the music — but it's not what keeps them there. They really know their music — Townes van Zandt, Guy Clarke — so the people expect you to deliver." According to Lyon, moving to Europe has revived his interest in playing music. "When I go home, I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall. Here, I feel like I can build something."
Keith Glass, bass player in Miles's band and guitar player for Canadian country-music legend Prairie Oyster, agrees. "It's obvious when you come here that people are attracted to the folklore of American music and America in general, but it doesn't really matter. What matters is that they are huge fans of music.
Day five of our tour finds us in the studios of KRO in Loosdrecht playing on the radio show American Connection. This will be one of three such shows (all sharing the same name) that we will play on this trip. Our host on this particular show is Ruut Hermans. I have played a lot of radio shows over the years, but never have I met a host with as much enthusiasm for the music as Hermans. Proudly chain-smoking and bouncing in his seat as buoyantly as any drummer I have ever seen, he unabashedly sings, claps and stomps along with the songs he is spinning — a list that includes Tom Petty, The High-landers and fellow Canadians Sarah Harmer, The Cash Brothers and of course, Lynn Miles.
What is most amazing about the show is the sheer volume of musical knowledge that Hermans brings to it. Almost every song is given an intro that tells people the history of the performer. Even more amazing is that Hermans takes the time to name the individual musicians. When certain names come up more than once, he cross-references them, creating a musical version of six degrees of separation.
When it comes time for us to perform live on the show, Hermans's enthusiasm reaches a fever pitch. Crouching down on his haunches, eyes closed, wearing headphones, he punctuates every accent with a kind of drunken punch. Although he is a one-man audience, it's hard not to find his enthusiasm contagious. We may be (Canadians on Americana Connection but at this. point, it doesn't matter.
All this is not to say that every thing is rosy for (Canadian Americana artists looking to make their mark here. Like most tours, ours has had some rough spots. Having to play a country fair surrounded by bales of hay and cattle shows makes you feel that maybe the Wild West fad has been pushed too far. Also, like anything that takes a cultural reference as its starting point, there is a lot of room for dubious imitation. At the aforementioned fair, we found ourselves playing before a singer from Ireland doing only John Denver songs. "He's very popular in Holland right now" said the woman beside me, before resuming her rather off-kilter clapping.
Despite this however, there can be no denying the possibilities for Canadian musicians in Europe. Our last show of the tour is in England at the Borderline, a fairly famous slightly rundown club in the heart of London. On this particular night we are opening for the Halifax, Americana band The Guthries for the opening night of their own three-week European tour. Unbelievably, despite the fact that this is only their second trip to London the club is packed. As they come off the stage after a well-deserved encore, it is nice to see them smiling. Music is a tough way to make a living, and you have to go where the audience is. If among a packed, sweaty and enthusiastic crowd there happens to be the odd covered wagon, bale of hay, or mechanical bull, then so be it.
Peter Von AIdLen is an Ottawa based drummer who has played with Skydiggers, Sarah Slean, Starling and Jim Bryson.