By Lethbridge Herald on July 17, 2015.
There’s a new mayor in town — at least for the South Country Fair this weekend.
Linda McRae, a multi-talented multi-instrumentalist and former member of the renowned Spirit of the West, is the woman of honour at the SCF which opens tonight and runs through Sunday in Fort Macleod.
The veteran roots musician is well known to southern Alberta audiences with her multitude of performances at assorted venues over the years.
Last year, she recorded what her biography calls “a career retrospective” for Borealis Records and this year worked with well-known Canadian producer Steve Dawson on an album that will be released in September.
McRae earned acclaim with Spirit of the West, which had two platinum and three gold recordings during her time with the band. Since then she has released four albums which have charted highly highly on various lists.
In southern Alberta last weekend for performances at the historic Waterton Opera House, McRae took some time to answer a few questions before the fair.
The fair this year features a wide range of musical talent such as Lethbridge’s own Leeroy Stagger along with Jenny Allen, Washboard Hank and Sweet Muriel, Romi Mayes, Steve Dawson and, of course, McRae who plays instruments including guitar, accordion, banjo and bass.
McRae says she was shocked to learn she had been selected to be the fair mayor this weekend.
“It was announced during the Friday night workshop I was involved in and I was stunned. The late great Willie P. Bennett was SCF’s first mayor for 20 years (somewhat self-appointed I think) and I loved Willie.
“He was (is) a Canadian national treasure, one heck of a songwriter and musician and such a wonderful person. The fabulous Mark Sadler-Brown was the second mayor and as he was giving his farewell speech last year when one of the organizers, Jana MacKenzie ,announced ‘following in the footsteps of Willie P. and Mark Sadler-Brown is Linda McRae.’ I almost fell off my chair!”
Next year’s mayor is a secret that will be announced later in the weekend.
For McRae, the SCF isn’t just another festival on the summer circuit. It is a special one for her.
“SCF is all about family! It just so happens its organizers the Chambers/Moranz family are some of the most forward-thinking, fun-loving and downright gracious folks you’ll ever meet.
“They are also as smart as they are creative and that extends far and wide throughout the festival. The feeling of inclusiveness, while at the same time creating a feeling of safety throughout all the festivities, are what make this festival so special.
“Of course that extends to the festivalgoers, as well. My husband James and I took a walk through the campsite last year and had dinner with a few friends who were camping there. The atmosphere was electric and there was as much great music being played in the campground as on stage! Everyone brought their own little piece of home and decked out their sites in all manner of carnival-style finery.”
McRae has many fond memories of the festival and picking out favourites isn’t easy.
“It’s difficult to choose just one or two special SCF moments, there have been so many, but a couple that immediately spring to mind are breaking a string during my main stage set a few years back . . . something I rarely do. Someone back stage shouted ‘throw it over here and I’ll change it for you’.
“It was Willie P. Bennett who I hadn’t realized had been sitting back stage listening to my set. He changed it in seconds flat! Another is sitting in with one of my favourite Canadian bands The F-Holes at the volunteer party in 2013.
“They are a terrific bunch of musicians and great players who can go from Hank Williams to Tom Waits in seconds flat!”
Long based in B.C., McRae has resettled south of the 49th parallel to be with her husband whom she met on a dating site.
“I met my husband James Whitmire on match.com in 2006 and we were married a year later. He asked me if I could live anywhere in the world where would it be and I thought he was joking so I said Austin or Nashville (because of the music).
“He said well we better go check it out then! So we got married in a fever in Jackson, Tennesee and moved to Nashville. I wanted to get married in Jackson because of the Johnny and June song . . . it’s been great fun.”
Despite living in the U.S. in the heart of the country music world, McRae’s career is actually taking off in Canada now.
“I’m actually playing more in Canada than ever. We are touring in the U.S., too and there is something kind of exotic coming from Canada.
“I’ve also found it works the same way in Canada now that I’m living in Nashville. It’s given me a little more credibility somehow. James is now my manager and booking agent and has had a tremendous impact on my career.
“In the seven years we’ve been together we have released three records, signed with Canadian Folk label Borealis Records, toured Europe three times, toured North America extensively and have developed a creative writing program for at risk youth as a result of our involvement in the Arts and Corrections Program at California’s maximum security penitentiary New Folsom Prison where we work with the inmates teaching writing and performing and jamming with their in-house blues band!
“I actually have a co-write on my upcoming CD (Shadow Trails coming Sep. 2015) with one of their inmates Ken Blackburn.”
Her Canadian roots, McRae says, do influence her writing even though she is now stateside.
“I think in some ways it does as I am definitely Canadian and will never give that up. Most of the folks I’ve worked with throughout the years are Canadian and some of the best writers around.
“I do think though that I am more influenced by people in general and the human experience . . .family, personal experience and things I overhear and read about. The collective human experience I think it what influences me the most.
She has collaborated with many outstanding artists during her 35-year career but one in particular stands out.
“There are definitely some collaborators I feel I have a special bond with. First and foremost is my husband James.
“He is a retired rancher turned poet, which is what brought the two of us together in the first place.
“Writing with him has been a learning experience for the both of us and I feel the work we have produced together is some of my best to date!
“MC Hansen from Denmark is another. He and I toured the Yukon a few years ago with Kim Beggs, another terrific Canadian singer/songwriter. MC and I really hit it off and wrote a number of songs during that trip.
“We’ve continued writing together and two of our co-writes are on the new CD. Steve Dawson who produced the new CD is another wonderful collaborator.
“He and I have known each other for years and he is a genious. He was in my band when I left Spirit of the West all those years ago and we’ve been friends ever since.
“Working with him on this new recording was a genuine pleasure and we have two co-writes on the recording as well. Gurf Morlix is another person I have worked with throughout the years and I have learned so much from him.
He’s a brilliant writer, producer and I love working with him. He has been on five out of six of my recordings and produced one of my favourites Cryin’ Out Loud.”
Among the artists who would enjoy working with — but hasn’t yet — is the legendary Steve Earle.
“I’d love to meet him and write with him. I love his writing. T-Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller would be two more folks I’d love to work with as well. I would have loved to work with the McGarrigle Sisters, too and was saddened when Kate passed away. Emmy Lou Harris, Roseanne Cash . . . oh my gosh, there are so many!!! I still have so much to learn which is one of the reasons I love collaborating with other folks, I learn so much when working with other people.”
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