Moments before George Canyon took the stage on the third Friday evening in November, I took my seat at the far left of the Port Hawkesbury Civic Centre’s Bear Head Conference Room, just outside the kitchen area.
I came perilously close to not getting a seat at all.
See, the place was packed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many people crammed into the Bear Head Room at once. No great surprise, since the Canyon concert was sold out by early October.
They boisterously sang along to his set-opening medley of the Johnny Cash chestnuts “Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire.” At the 30-minute mark, they freaked out at the mere mention of George Strait’s name.
When Canyon described his performance at the Grand Ole Opry and then asked if anyone else had been to the Nashville country music shrine. I wasn’t ready for the number of people who excitedly put up their hands, nor was I prepared for the boisterous sing-along that accompanied Canyon’s next song, the early hit “I’ll Never Do Better Than You.”
After 14 tunes in the main set and a boisterous standing ovation in the second, Canyon took requests for Christmas carols and Stompin’ Tom Connors cuts before finishing with the title track to his latest album of original releases, I Got This.
So what have we got, here in the Strait area?
Well, without me reminding you that Canyon’s Canadian country contemporary Brett Kissel has also sold out the Bear Head Room for a date in January, it should already be plain to you that we’ve got one of the most rabid country music fan bases east of Ontario.
Need more proof? Look no further than another local concert hall, the Strathspey Performing Arts Centre in Mabou. Struggling to stay open just 16 months ago, with multiple concerts cancelled due to low ticket sales, the venue still put a priority on country-themed events like the annual Ole Opry concert spearheaded by Port Hood’s Lynn Chisholm. This commitment to the community and its musical tastes is a big reason why the rebranded Inverness County operation is still a going concern today.
Consider this, as well: For roughly a decade, nobody could find country music on local radio stations. CIGO abandoned its attempts to blend country and rock in 1994, six years before rebranding itself as 101.5 The Hawk FM. CJFX, the Strait area’s only consistent country music source for several decades, dropped its own country playlist during its own FM launch in 2003. The lack of Strait area country options generated more angry mail to The Reporter and other local newspapers than we’ve seen for nearly any other issue, before or since that time.
Nearly every time I attended a public event in Richmond County between 2000 and 2010, either as an MC/musician or media representative, it was common for the “ambience” music to be piped in from a satellite radio station boasting a modern-country playlist, as opposed to the Strait area’s two best-known commercial radio options.
So it’s no accident that country has made up a key component of the Isle Madame-based Radio Richmond community station over the past six years. And while CJFX has adopted a classic-pop/rock format in its current incarnation as 98.9 Nothing But Hits, the Antigonish station’s parent company, Atlantic Broadcasting, attempted to address the country void by applying to the CRTC to launch an all-country station earlier this year. That CRTC application became the most-read story on the Canadian Radio News Facebook page, generating 34,000 hits.
Ultimately, the bid for a new country station out of Antigonish fell flat, as the CRTC sided with two interveners in the application process – The Hawk’s owners, MacEachern Broadcasting Limited, and Pictou County’s Hector Broadcasting Company – who claimed the proposed station would “have a negative financial impact on their own existing operations.” (It’s worth pointing out that no station owned by either of the interveners plays any country, even though one of them – Hector’s East Coast FM, formerly CKEC-AM – had portions of its regular playlist dedicated to country until nearly a year ago.)
So there you have it: Despite sold-out local concerts and the success of new events like the Isle Madame Bluegrass and Old Time Country Music Festival, the only radio station between Sydney and Truro feeding this audience is a community-run operation in Petit de Grat.
Those who ignore or reject our communities’ collective love of country music might be doing so at their own peril. To quote the last song on the most recent disc by one of my long-time favourites, Brad Paisley, “we’re one big Country Nation” around here – and I suspect we’ll stay that way for years to come.