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WATCH: Jason McCoy on three decades in Canadian country music

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The Club Regent Event Centre was a stomping ground for Canadian country music legends on Saturday night as Jason McCoy, Michelle Wright and Doc Walker performed to a sold out crowd wrapping up this leg of The Great Canadian Roadtrip.

Each performer took turns singing a song from their extensive catalogue of music stretching back to the 1990s with a full band complimenting each track and background vocals and instrumentation from the other artists.

Before the show, CTV Winnipeg’s Joseph Bernacki had a chance on Friday to catch up with the multiple time Canadian Country Music Award winner and 2023 inductee into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, Jason McCoy.

The conversation was a reflection on McCoy’s three decades of history recording music and performing, songwriting, time spent in Nashville, the formation of The Road Hammers to which he is still a member of and how the Canadian country music landscape has changed.

How much fun have you guys had on The Great Canadian Roadtrip? You’ve been all across western Canada, and Ontario, tell me how this idea came to tour with Doc Walker and Michelle Wright?

Jason: Our booking agent Todd has this idea, he said, ‘I’ve been talking to all these venues about putting each of the acts in and said what would you think of putting together a road show, a travelling thing where you all play together."

We thought it was great so as we got into the idea of it, we asked who’s going to open for who, and it was none of that. We said we’re all going to be on stage at the same time and each take turns singing songs and we tell stories and there’s lots of jokes and it’s a lot of stories as well from home. We have a video screen that travels with us, and we share kind of our home life as well so it’s a lot of fun.

Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of Canadian artists that have been touring together. A few years ago we had George Canyon, Charlie Major, and Doc Walker together before the pandemic at Club Regent, and Paul Brandt and Terri Clark were at the Burton Cummings Theatre last year for an acoustic show. What do you think has stood out to you about Canadian artists wanting to get together to go on tour and share each other’s songs?

Jason: I think here in Canada we have these fantastic venues like Club Regent where it’s a great place to have an interactive show. We have the full band, don’t get me wrong, we play songs, we tell stories, the audience actually requests songs, or they’ll mention a show they saw years ago which we can reminisce. I think we have the venues in Canada and the timing is perfect for that kind of show.

I want to take you back to your music roots, growing up in Ontario and Alberta, who did you look up to for songwriting inspiration and who were some of the artists you listened to growing up between country and rock?

Jason: My dad was my biggest influence because I looked up to him so much. Anything he said was good and cool I’d listen to him. He steered me towards George Jones, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash but he was really quick to point out who the Canadians were in the mix. The Gordon Lightfoots, Ian Tysons, people like that. The traditionalists were the big one in my world. I didn’t really get into pop or rock until I was out of high school. I started playing in bands, playing guitar for folks travelling out here, playing six nights a week and you had to learn these rock songs for the show, but I didn’t really have any exposure to that stuff.

You released your first album in 1989, and in 1995 you release your self-titled debut album for MCA that helped successfully launch your career. The first time an artist gets to go down to Nashville, what was that recording experience like, what stood out to you and what do you recall about releasing that album?

Jason: Nashville is kind of a magical place because after being there for a while and developing relationships and getting to know people, it’s one of the few places on the planet if you don’t have a writing partner that day, you can kind of call up a couple of people and you get one going. There’s that many writers there.

My first experience was a little different than people going down now. It had the Barbara Mandrell Museum, the George Jones Museum, Randy Travis was the hottest thing on the charts at the time. Those cycles change. Nashville has really grown into this big, tall city now. The heartbeat of what it means to make that world go around down there, the song, that hasn’t changed.

It’s really interesting, you see all these big buildings go up, the buses get shinier and all that kind of stuff, but nothing happens without a song. You see these little rooms, and they’ve got young people like yourself in there come to Nashville, they’ll want to take a swing at it and they’re the ones that are going to change the face of country music in 10-20 years. But it all starts with a person and a guitar, a piece of paper and a person with a piano, that can’t change.

How many songs before you would release an album like that would you have written? Would you have a couple dozen and then choose so many?

Jason: I don’t overwrite a whole lot. If I need 10 songs for an album, I probably have 20. Whereas some people write 100 and get 10 but I’m into cutting any songs no matter who wrote it. I’m kind of a project writer. If I know we need an up-tempo song about white trucks, I could sit down, and we could write that. What I have a hard time with is just feeling like I’m in the mood to write and feeling creative and letting the muse take you wherever. Every once in a while, that does happen but few and far between, I’m more of a project guy.

Songwriting influence, would that come from past experiences, growing up and seeing Canada?

Jason: Songwriting for me started because it was a means to an end. I love to perform and to me, I consider myself an entertainer above anything else. I play guitar because that gets me to the stage. I’m able to entertain. I write songs because it allows me to be on a stage and I entertain. Everything is a means to an end for me because I enjoy talking to the audience and telling jokes. If I went out and played three songs and I told jokes like that for half an hour, that’s my kind of show. I enjoy doing that. The music is a means to an end to hang with people. I think for a lot of artists, if you really drill down on it, we love being social, being in front of people, we like to talk and we like to entertain.

You release Playin’ For Keeps in 1997 with ‘Born Again In Dixieland’ that year, a fan-favourite track, then you release Honky Tonk Sonatas in 2000, at what point did you realize your career was really starting to take off?

Jason: Dixieland sure changed the landscape for me. We were up against Shania Twain at the CCMAs in 1998 and we got the award for Songwriters of the Year. For me it was going and doing shows and hearing people sing all the words. That’s when you’re like, ‘Okay something different is going on now.’ When you start to accumulate those types of songs in your repertoire, it’s a cumulative thing. It doesn’t just happen overnight. That would be the first one that really did it and all the songs that have followed it’s been pretty amazing.

Honky Tonk Sonatas, you’ve got songs like ‘Whisper,’ ‘Ten Million Teardrops’ and a track with Gary Allan called ‘Doin’ Time In Bakersfield.’ When you look back on that album, was that a tribute to the Bakersfield sound of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens on some of those tracks?

Jason: For sure, I played guitar with Gary for a couple of weeks on the West Coast when he was touring, we played Buck Owens' palace, The Crystal Palace together. A friend of ours, Odie Blackmon, him and I wrote a lot of songs together and Odie produced that record. We grew up listening to the same artists, we loved Buck and Merle. It was intentional to keep it kind of rootsy.

I find that hard in country music. Country music is a very wide and accepting genre. It’s always had this battle where something is too country for radio, or it’s too pop for radio and that’s been going on since I was a kid.

George Jones had to develop more of a pop sound to keep up with Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton of the day. Then you had Alabama in the early 80s that were too pop, and George Strait was too country and then you had Shania Twain up against whomever and Florida Georgia Line. It’s always been this too pop, too country, but radio plays it all. That just means whether you have a fiddle on it or a synthesizer, if it’s got a heartbeat, that’s the country part. That new Beyoncé song, a lot of traditionalists are saying it’s not country. Maybe not, but it does have a heartbeat.

2003, on your album Sins, Lies and Angels, you have the chance to release a bunch of hit singles, ‘Still’ and ‘She Ain’t Missin’ Missin’ Me’, how cool did it feel releasing those songs on that album in such a short period of time?

Jason: When you release songs to radio, it’s a different animal now because there are so many outlets on radio, social media. Some artists don’t even send their songs to radio and radio might pick it up. Zach Bryans of the world, things like that, they get discovered on the streaming platforms. They become such a big item that radio wants to play them. Releasing singles one after another and then you build a tour and people get what you’re doing, you’re building your brand that feels great when you’re rolling and doing all those things.

It's a different time for me now because we’re doing tours like this, I get time off to write just for myself and it’s more creative. You’re not saying, ‘Oh I need a song on the radio,’ now I’m going to write a song about this odd little thing that doesn’t mean anything to anyone but me. You’ll find nine times out of 10, the biggest songs of the world come from that space where there were no preconceived notions of where it should be. They just wrote it because.

That guitar riff at the end of ‘She Ain’t Missin’ Missin’ Me’ is wicked by the way.

Jason: It’s fun, I’ve got to give a big shout out to Canadian icon Colin Linden. He produced that record, and he is one of the greatest guitar players in the world. He encouraged me to play guitar on the record. Before that we always used studio musicians. He encouraged me to play guitar on that record and it changed my career for sure. It changed my confidence level, all of that.

A couple of years later, from a side project, you are able to team up with Chris Byrne and Clayton Bellamy and form The Road Hammers. Tell me how the project took off and how The Road Hammers found some success early on?

Jason: Well, I had just come off of a CCMA win for Male Vocalist Of The Year in 2004 at the 2004 CCMAs and I had this idea I wanted to put together. It was back that to that whole thing of too country, too pop for radio at the time and I didn’t know which way I was going to go because I was on the traditional side of things. I was talking to folks at CMT at the time and kicking around this idea of putting this band together kind of like The Travelling Wilburys. They said, ‘We’d love to film that process,’ and I was like, great, let’s do it.

My drummer at the time Scott, he didn’t end up staying with the band and went on to do some other things, he introduced me to Chris, he was my bass player for a short time. I said I’m putting this Road Hammer band together do you want to do this, and he said sure. I had heard about Clayton because we did a few shows together over at the Calgary Stampede and things like that. I invited him to audition but we kind of knew where we were going with it and his friend Corbett joined us on drums and it was just one of those things where the sum is greater than the parts and it just exploded.

How much fun did you have recording cover tracks like ‘Girl On The Billboard’ originally recorded by Del Reeves and ‘East Bound And Down’ by Jerry Reed and southern rock tracks like that and then finding success again on country radio?

Jason: Looking back, it’s amazing it happened at all. We didn’t overthink that record. I think when we were talking about how you write songs, where they come from, you can kind of belabour it. There are certain songs that are on the radio, and I know the writers of them, it may have taken them a few years to get together and write them the odd time and putting it together, but other songs just happen. When you’re putting together an album together if you can just find a flow and just make it happen and not overthink it, it’s usually the first choice which would be the right choice. Don’t second-guess yourself.

What is your favourite song looking back on either your solo career or a track with The Road Hammers?

Jason: My favourite song I’ve ever recorded I didn’t write. Actually, Odie Blackmon who produced the Honky Tonk Sonatas record wrote a song called ‘And I Love You,’ and it’s pretty much just myself and a guitar, steel, and a little bit of brushes on the drums. I love that because it’s always what I’ve wanted to do but never thought I could be successful at it if I did a whole record.

There are artists like Zach Bryan, Tyler Childers, who are paving that road now. It’s amazing, when I was growing up, I was playing in clubs singing things like Help Me Make It Through The Night, which I think Tyler Childers has recorded and it’s a big hit for him and it’s like I played that in the 80s in the legions. It’s interesting to see, and my daughter is 17 and kids of that era, this new generation wants artists with storytelling, credibility, and a real heartbeat. They aren’t putting it on. It’s like they’d be doing it anyway. Those artists would be doing it anyway, they just happen to be successful at it.

You’ve been hosting a 90s country show for iHeartRadio, tell me how that came about and what you’ve been enjoying about playing the throwbacks that you lived through, and I’ve grown up listening to?

Jason: It’s a great thing, I do a radio show back in Ontario, I do the morning show for Pure Country 106 and Saturdays, Nothing But The 90s and it’s great because we play the hits of the 90s and I get to tell stories because I was there, I toured with these people and a lot of them are friends. Those little anecdotes are really what makes the show go around but it’s really the feedback from the fans because the 90s are so hot right now and shows no signs of cooling off and it’s just some of the best music out there.

I always loved it because it was like, ‘I didn’t listen to heavy metal in high school,’ but every band in the metal world had a brand. You could put their logo on your binder. It was a thing. That was the same thing with the 90s and country, like Brooks & Dunn had a logo, and that’s a Brooks & Dunn type of song. That’s a Garth Brooks type of song and Martina McBride, everybody had their own thing. It all came together in this hot format of country where it really popped with CMT, and it was just a great era where it was firing on all cylinders.

There’s a Manitoba connection here, tell me the story of how you wrote 'Rocket Girl', why you chose not to record it and how it ended up with Doc Walker?

Jason: I finished Sins, Lies and Angels and it was more of a honky-tonk kind of record, and I had that song and I was going to cut it but I never did. It just didn’t fit the record. We had the same manager at the time with Doc Walker and I said to him, I’m not going to use this song, and if you have anybody interested let me know. He sent it on a cassette to North Battleford, SK and the guys were playing the casino out there and they listened to it a couple of times and they worked it up on their own and the rest is history. It’s become one of their signature songs and of all the years touring together, I’ve never played it with them on stage. We’ve been at festivals together and things like that but it’s great because every night I get to take a verse and it’s the first time I’ve got to do it with them.

You’ve had the ability as a songwriter and musician to see North America which not too many professions get a chance to do, what really stands out to you from getting a chance to see small town Manitoba, and seeing the landscape of the music life?

Jason: The same thing in Minnedosa is the same thing in Gatton, Australia. Somebody owns a little trucking company, somebody works for a big one, somebody in the oil fields, somebody works at Tim Hortons. It’s the same thing no matter where you go on the planet and the one thing that connects people are stories and great storytelling. Whether I’ve written something or not, we connect through music. Chris Stapleton has a brand-new song, it’s big all across the world for a reason because we’re all humans and it speaks to us.

We have had a unique seat, we’ve got to play in China and Spain, France, all through the United States. But I got to say, being a Canadian, we lived in Nashville for years, but we moved back here intentionally because there was something about our country and our landscape that is just home. It just doesn’t seem right anywhere else.

Last fall you had the honour of being inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, how did that feel when you received the news and tell me what that experience was like?

Jason: It’s funny, I had my phone sitting on the coffee table and I was working on my computer. My wife was beside me and I saw the phone ring and it said CCMAs. I actually turned to her and said ‘have we paid our membership dues,’ (laughs) and it was our friend Amanda from the CCMAs and she said I had been nominated for the Hall of Fame. I had always heard that word surreal and I never knew what that meant or felt like until this is behind us and I’m in the hall of fame, it’s very surreal and now I know exactly what that word means.

Any plans for new solo music or music from The Road Hammers?

Jason: You talk to artists and that’s the first thing they always say, ‘I’m working on new music,’ of course I’m working on new music, it’s the same thing you like to write, you’re working on new stories and even when you’re at the mall just doing something I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘oh I’d love to interview so-and-so. It’s not something, it’s not your job, it’s what you do, right, you enjoy it. That’s the same thing with music. I’m always working on new stuff, Hammer is working on new stuff, we have our 20th anniversary coming up in 2025 so definitely keep your ears to the radio because we’ll have something that’s going to hit.

Looking back on more than three decades of writing, performing and being a part of the industry, if you look at the way the Canadian country music landscape is now, if you were to start today and your first album came out later this year, do you think you’d be able to have the kind of longevity that you’ve had or has the landscape changed that it’s a little bit different from when you really started in the 1990s?

Jason: It’s very different from when I started. It was different from when I started compared to somebody who started in the 1970s. I’m sure somebody who started in the 70s thought the music landscape changed so much in the 80s and 90s that it was just all over. I see the same thing. ‘Oh boy with streaming and radio has changed and how are these young people going to make it right?

Somebody always does and then they change how the business is done.

They change how songwriting is done, they change how production is done. There are so many young, super bright people that perform and produce their own records and these sorts of things that you just didn’t do in my day, you had to go to a big studio and all of that. Now we’ve got our computers, and we can do things on the road.

I don’t think it’s ever been more exciting to be a country music fan, especially Canadian country music fan because as these things happen, the borders around the world drop. James Barker Band just performed on the Grand Ole Opry the other night and these artists are just going out there and really changing the landscape of music in general.

Do you feel like you hit it at the right time, starting around the same time as the likes of George Canyon, Paul Brandt, Terri Clark, kind of that whole group of country artists from the 90s?

Jason: I hit it at my right time. Everybody has got their own right time. It’s funny because we always think, you’re going to get in the music business, you have to attain a certain level of success. But success doesn’t mean playing for sold-out shows or anything like that, success means being comfortable in your own abilities. I’ve done it many times, playing at a legion for 50 people and playing a dance, ‘oh I nailed that solo that I’ve been really working on,’ nobody may notice, nobody may care but that’s success to me is being able to shoot for something and it doesn’t have to be the biggest thing in the world. Just really feeling true to yourself artistically. When you’re doing your craft well to me, that’s the best measure of success.

Any advice you’d pass along for future songwriters or people looking to get into the country music scene here in Canada?

As far as writing goes, just write it and do it. Record it on your phone and move on. Then write the next one and next one and don’t belabour it. I do that a lot. I’ll take a song and sit on it for six months and then come back to it and just write what you feel.

As far as getting into the business, I wouldn’t say it’s easier because there are more people, but I would say it’s never been a better time to get your music out there and find your tribe. You can do that through all the social media, the digital streaming platforms, you can refine who you are singing to and there’s lots of tools to help those people find you as well. You’ve heard this before but be the best version of you, you can be, because nobody else can be you but now, it’s more important than ever.

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