Glasgow doesn’t reveal itself immediately. Pulling off the 104 at Westville Road, you have to drive about five minutes until you meet Stellarton Road, then it’s another left, keep driving past the strip malls and the obligatory Tim Horton’s until you meet George Street. And then you see it. The little bridge that crosses the East River, the Christmas lights that adorn the sign that reads “Welcome to New Glasgow” and you know you’ve hit paydirt. Welcoming you into the downtown core is Fibber’s Pub and Eatery on your right, in a beautiful large old brick building, and on the left-hand side of the street is The Dock, another pub which is equally as gorgeous and inviting. On this brisk Saturday in February, the East River is frozen solid white and could invoke nostalgia from even the most committed urban snobs. It looks like a film set. I half-expect to see a blonde American starlet walking around in an oversized parka smoking cigarettes and wearing Uggs.
I’ve come here to find out what it is that makes a city or town a hotbed of talent. Yes, New Glasgow, or more specifically, Pictou County, in which New Glasgow resides. With its long history of industry—first coal, then Michelin Tire and Scott Paper and now call centres—along with its penchant for old-time fiddle music, Pictou County may seem an unlikely candidate to be crowned the next Seattle or Montreal, but recently this community of 47,000 people has been responsible for some of the most recognizable Canadians on television and radio: INXS front man JD Fortune, Canadian country music star George Canyon and Trailer Park Boy Bubbles, AKA Mike Smith. Smith is also a musician in his own right, a guitar player since the age of seven, who reached a level of fame with his rock band Sandbox in the 1990s.
What’s interesting about these three guys is not so much that they’re famous, but how they got famous and how famous they are. Canyon took second place in 2004’s Nashville Star, signing a record deal almost immediately afterwards; Fortune was the last man standing in 2005’s Rock Star: INXS, winning him the coveted job of frontperson for the revitalized band. Smith’s band Sandbox had a record deal on both sides of the border, and a series of award nominations, but it was his day job as a sound mixer for the Trailer Park Boys that launched his rocket. Ironically, as Bubbles, Smith’s music may be reaching more people than it ever did with Sandbox. Every TPB fan knows the words to “Liquor and Whores” and those who don’t at least know of it.
So what makes a town the kind of place famous musicians come from? The best place to find out is where they did—the bars.
At four o’clock on a Saturday afternoon, Aaron Pellerine, 34, is talking about the role his bar plays in the Pictou County music scene. Fibber’s Bar and Eatery programs live music at least four nights a week and the Wednesday night open-mic is a magnet for local talent.
As soon as Fortune’s name is mentioned, someone bellows “JD Fortune sucks!” from behind me. The five other people in the bar erupt into howls of laughter. Compelled if not to participate in the joke, then at least get it, I turn to scan the room for a clue. There’s a guy with the ball cap at the bar, and beside him the younger guy with a beard, dressed slickly in all black. Confusion is quickly replaced by sheer humiliation as Pellerine points out that the guy who made the wisecrack, the guy with the beard, is JD Fortune himself. The people in the bar have been thoroughly entertained, and it’s clear that the laughter is a collective assertion that no one here thinks JD Fortune sucks at all.
It might seem incongruous to find an international rock star here on a Saturday afternoon. “Well, I live here,” he says.
If New Glasgow is home for Fortune, then Fibber’s is his ground zero. Fortune is now a co-owner with Pellerine, partnering on thepub and the new website they’ve launched, fibbers.ca, to promote musicians from Nova Scotia.
“Aaron and I are looking to bring jobs here. I just want to give back memories this place gave to me,” he says. He’s got plans to bring his INXS mates to the intimate tri-level bar, and wants to bring other acts, like Lenny Kravitz. And his loyalties travel with him: when INXS played the Halifax Metro Centre last May, Fortune made sure his best friend from high school, folk singer Dave Gunning, was the opening act, despite the seemingly disconsonant musical styles; when he goes to Texas to record his first solo album, he’s taking local musician Steven Bowers with him; his webpage for Rock Star: INXS, lists Gunning and George Canyon’s albums as two of his most recently purchased and New Glasgow as the number one best city for music.
George Canyon—born Fred Lays—is also a good friend of Dave Gunning’s and the two tour together frequently. Gunning, Canyon and Fortune all went to West Pictou High, and Gunning, who still lives in Pictou, affords plenty of credit for their successes now to the teachers they had as teenagers. Three in particular. After 20 years, Gunning can still remember their names: Dorothy MacIntosh, Bernie MacDonald and Lynne Maclean.
“Those three teachers spent a lot of extra time and they gave us a reason to play,” he says during a phone interview. Gunning recalls the first variety show he and Fortune played, at the age of 14. “We were Richie Valens fans. The movie La Bamba just came out, we used to dress like that, the jeans rolled up, white socks. We just really wanted to play the music from that movie. JD said, ‘Man if we can learn a couple of songs we can be in the variety show. I signed us up! I sang ‘Peggy Sue’ and Jason”—JD—“sang ‘La Bamba.’ I played guitar, and George Canyon was doing sound out front. He was also performing in the variety concert. I think he sang ‘Forever and Ever Amen,’ a Randy Travis song.”
The school system is a crucial part of what sets Pitcou County apart. When most school districts are cutting the arts, Pictou County is protective of its music budget. When most high school kids get their musical fill from the internet, the music programs in the Pictou County schools are growing. The community comes out to see live music at the pubs, at the festivals, even at the student-run events. Kids learn from an early age in Pictou County that a lifetime pursuing music is not a pipe dream.
West Pictou High and East Pictou High (Mike Smith’s alma mater) no longer exist. Instead, the two community schools are Northumberland Regional High School and North Nova Education Centre (NNEC). Janice and Andrew Alcorn, 46, have both been music teachers for over 20 years. They teach at NNEC and say that music programming takes a higher priority in Pictou County schools than elsewhere they’ve seen. “A principal would never cut a musical budget,” says Janice, laughing.
Courses are offered for every level of musician as well as a course called Cultural Industries where students learn how to organize and manage cultural events, and a course on recording technologies. There is a $30,000 budget for new instruments and other program costs raised every year by the parent auxiliary. And most of the music teachers she knows are also practicing musicians outside the school. Janice is a private voice coach, a church soloist and the director of three separate choirs. Andrew is a music teacher and a trumpet player, as well as the leader of the East Coast All-Star Big Band. They have three daughters, all musicians.
Nineteen-year-old Robyn Alcorn plays seven instruments and sings. She says that when she went to McGill on a music scholarship, she assumed everyone would be the same. “I thought that was normal until I went to McGill.” Robyn and her friend Mary-Grace Koile, also 19, are the next wave of musicians to come out of NNEC. Koile recently moved to Halifax to try her hand in music outside the school system. She also plays multiple instruments, including the guitar, flute and percussion, and comes from a musical family. She said she joined the school band programs for something to do.
“When you were in band,” she says during an interview in Halifax, “you knew you had something to do besides hang out at the mall or the theatre.” Koile is petite and fair with soft blue eyes. Her short curly hair is cut at several different lengths and she wears a nose ring through her septum. She said that in Pictou County, it’s not considered to be a nerdy thing to be in band, and that the community is incredibly supportive of its musicians. “Man, there were coffee house nights and everyone came out to them.”
At 16, Koile took her own run at overnight success, trying out for Canadian Idol. Her older sister had tried out the year before. Koile said her only goal at the time was for a free trip to Toronto, and she made it there, lasting a couple of rounds before being kicked off. The drama and conflict created for these shows put her off and she wouldn’t do it again, but knowing that Canyon had gotten his start that way, that someone from Pictou County had made it, played a part in her decision to try out.
The Thistle is about 10 minutes out of the downtown core, sandwiched at the end of a strip mall. It’s a tiny bar, filled with people mostly in their 20s, though there are several people who double that. Deaven MacInnis, 28, a striking blonde, is perched on her chair belting out an Alanis Morrisette cover. She and her music partner Avery “Ave” Trefrey, 27, moved to Halifax in August, where MacInnis works at Bubbles Mansion as a bartender and hosts the weekly open-mic night.
Incidentally, she is Mike Smith’s cousin. She and Trefrey recorded their first CD last February and have spent the last year playing open mics and small venues. Their set tonight is a blend of covers and originals, and the crowd is pleased.
MacInnis comes from a musical family in Stellarton, but only picked up her first guitar four years ago. She doesn’t recall music playing a large part in her life at school, and says it wasn’t Pictou County that gave her a break. She and Trefrey have had to go beyond the borders of their community, spending eight months last year travelling to Banff and back, playing any shows they could land.
Trefrey is also from a musical family in Westville and he started playing guitar when he was 15. Music has always been a passion for him.
“Music was right in me,” he says, “right from the start.” Far from the Scottish music of Pictou or the big band and jazz taught in school, his influences were Bon Jovi and Def Leppard. His first band was called Natural Selection. “There was only one rock band that came out of Westville, and I was part of it.”
The fame achieved by Canyon and Fortune through reality TV is fine by McInnis. Anything, she says, to get your name out. Trefrey is less impressed by the TV fame. “I’d like to be the first musician to make it without reality TV. I don’t have a chance on reality TV.” That said, he says he respects what the two of them have done for themselves and the profile of Pictou County. “Besides the fact they went on reality TV, they could have done something even without the show,” he says. “They’ve put us on the map.”
Not everybody believes that fame in all its forms is a great thing. Steve LeBlanc, the former drummer in Natural Selection, is more decisive in his condemnation.
“I hope the TV thing ends. That people can make it because they work at it, not because they spent four months in a competition. People are looking at Pictou County as the American Idol capital. No, I don’t like that.”
He is sure that fame derived from a show like Rock Star will inevitably prove fleeting. His brother, sitting next to him, takes up opposite position and the two of them thrash it out for a while. In a final push to make his point clear, LeBlanc draws a chart of what he perceives JD Fortune’s career trajectory will be. The line takes a sharp rise to the top of the page, then a gradual decline right back to where it started.
A single all-night solo pub crawl through New Glasgow is hardly an exhaustive study of the Pictou County arts scene, but at least a few of things have been made clear and shed a little light as to what it is that helps people from here succeed. There is a rich history of music passed down from generation to generation; it is a small community with not much else for kids to do; the school system makes music a priority and the community is made up of passionate fans and artists that are happy to give each other a leg up.
Fortune, Canyon and Smith may be the last three to ever make it big from Pictou County, but that seems highly unlikely. Fortune is committed to helping young artists believe in themselves. If he can do anything for the future generations, he says, it’s to encourage them by showing them the possiblities.
“The reality is,” he says, “it all starts in places like this.”
Shayla Howell is a freelance writer and TV segment producer. She’ll be intrviewing most of Pictou County’s finest at the ECMAs, and this time, she’ll recognize every one of them.