A new minstrel of Saskatchewan history is rolling into town, and his name is B.D. Willoughby. His new solo album, The Qu’Appelle Valley is a montage of the areas beauty and jagged past. When diving into the sounds, romantic visions of arriving here by steam train from Upper Canada fill your mind. One can almost picture what the Sintaluta train station looked like in 1883. Quickly the album switches, to a tragic saga of bloodshed and defeat. A true roller coaster for your senses!
Musically, B.D tells the story through well timed folk rock. Great intros of distorted electric guitar are later accompanied by horn sections, old tyme string, and gospel harmonizing. One thing to remember is this is not your granddaddy’s folk music, which makes it very approachable for the immerging millennial audience. The modern arrangement works effectively with the strait-to-the point lyrics, telling the vivid story of a past that is often sugar-coated. Check out the album here.
The Bicycle Gang spoke with B.D. Willoughby this past week about his inspiration, and the stories shared in his new album. The Qu’Appelle Valley is set to be released on May 14th at the Exchange in Regina. For more information check out www.bdwilloughby.com.
BG: Tell us about B.D. Willoughby? Where did his history begin?
BDW: This solo project began when I was playing with the Library Voices back in 2008. One of the first performances was a fake-out ending at a Library Voices show at the Exchange. The Voices left the stage and when the crowd called for an encore I strolled back out accompanied by the Lazy MKs. We played ‘Oh How Vain’ — a country song I wrote that lampoons the vanity of rock stars. We probably confused the heck out of the people who expected the Library Voices. The rest of the band eventually did return to play one more song – balloons were falling from the ceiling, the ten members of the Library Voices and three Lazy MKs were all there onstage, and Carl was crowdsurfing through the audience – it was a crazy show.
BG: If there was one figure in Saskatchewan’s history you would like to meet, who would that be?
BDW: There is a song called ‘The Ballad of E.A. Partridge’ on the new album. It tells the story of E.A. Partridge, a teacher and farmer from Sintaluta. E.A. was one of the founders of the farm co-operative movement. In 1906 he founded the Grain Growers’ Grain Company – the first farmer owned company to sell on the Winnipeg Grain Exchange. He spent the next twenty years rallying against politicians of all stripes, the rail companies, and the grain traders. He was — proudly — a real thorn in their side (Read a great recounting of his life story here)
In 1925 E.A. Partridge wrote a book called A War on Poverty that called for a ‘Co-operative Commonwealth Federation’ in Canada. J.S. Woodsworth read the book and suggested the name for an upstart political party at a meeting in Calgary in 1932. Not many people realize that the C.C.F. name was inspired by the writings of this man they called ‘The Sage of Sintaluta’.
Well this curmudgeonly E.A. Partridge also happens to be a relative of mine. He is the great-uncle of my Grandmother. If I could, I would love to sit down and talk politics with this man. It would be so fascinating to hear what he would make of the state of affairs we live in today. Most of the farmer-owned co-operatives have been bought up or sold to private investors. The C.C.F. has morphed into the NDP and they no longer speak about a co-operative commonwealth — the great socialist narrative has been lost. I often wonder what would fire him up today. Would he get fired up about issues like climate change or reconciliation between Settlers and Aboriginal Peoples? These are certainly issues that fire me up! I think I must have some of that ‘Prairie Radical’ blood pumping through my veins…
BG: Your new album digs into Saskatchewan’s often tumultuous past, why is it important to tell the story?
BDW: There’s a line in ‘The Ballad of E.A. Partridge’ that goes, “They forgot about his booming voice, they forgot their history.” I think a lot of us are in danger of forgetting our history, or have never even been taught that history. When I was growing up in small town Saskatchewan we didn’t talk about the treaties and the treatment of Aboriginal Peoples. It was only in my twenties, going to the University of Regina, that I started to understand that I lived in Treaty 4 territory, and that I was in fact a party to this Treaty that committed to “peace and good will” between settlers and First Nations.
A lot of work is now being done to uncover the history of this region we call Saskatchewan. In his book Clearing the Plains James Daschuk writes of how John A. MacDonald had a policy of starving First Nations into submission when he wanted to expand settlement into the west. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has documented the brutal methods used to re-educate First Nations children in residential schools. Many of these aren’t my stories to tell. Instead I have written songs about leaders like Big Bear and Louis Riel, leaders that are as important to this place as our first Premier Walter A. Scott and all of the politicians who have followed. If we know our history, perhaps it can help us imagine a common vision for our future.
BG: The Qu’Appelle Valley touches on a few distinct genres of music. Hints of old tyme, country, rock and gospel. What inspired you musically when building this album.
BDW: I get inspiration in the strangest places. I wrote ‘The Ballad of E.A. Partridge’ one day in the shower when I started humming a little melody and thinking about the story of E.A.’s life. I walked out of the bathroom with a towel on, hit record on my voice memo app, and recited seven verses of the song. I then just had to find the chords to match the melody.
‘Play That Music’ also came about when I was humming to myself in the bathtub — in the first voice memo sketch of that song you can hear the water splashing around in the tub.
The sound of the album was influenced by the musicians I worked with. The ripping rock and roll of the title track ‘Qu’Appelle Valley’ was driven by Black Drink Crier — those guys backed me up on that song and will be joining us on May 14th at the Exchange to release their new album.
For the rest of the album I was lucky to record with my best friends — guys I’ve jammed with for a decade, and been in bands with for years. There is a sound that emerges when we play together. You can hear it most clearly in songs like ‘Sleeping Dogs’. We originally wrote that song together in 2006 while watching the sun come up during an all-night jam. Kris’s dog Chester was sleeping on the floor, and Deb and I started singing as the sun came up in the east.
I also got a lot of inspiration from old photographs. I came across a book that documented a Qu’Appelle valley themed art exhibit at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon. Our album cover comes from a photo that appeared on the first pages of that book. This woman in black, with her back turned to the camera, looking out across the valley, the trees still barren of leaves, seemed to capture the sadness of the legend of the Qu’Appelle Valley. Throughout the album I’ve tried to achieve a sound that fits the tone of that image.
BG: Musically or personally, what are you most proud of?
BDW: Musically I would say that I’m most proud of this album. The Qu’Appelle Valley is a special place for me, it feels like my spiritual home. I’m proud to have made an album that tells some of the stories of this place.
BG: Tell us about your time with Library Voices?
BDW: Oh man, I learned a lot about rock and roll and the life of a touring musician. The majority of my time in the band was spent sitting in the back rear right hand seat of a 15-passenger van, reading books as we drove across the country to play our next show. It was a great learning experience, and it really put in perspective how hard it is to make it as a musician. The best description of this life comes from Gillian Welch in her song ‘April the 14th Part I’ — she tells the story of watching this rock and roll band pull into town, looking “sick and stoned” and not making enough money to buy “even a half a tank of gas”, but she still leaves wishing she played in a rock and roll band…That’s it right there. It’s a hard life. you don’t sleep, you eat bar food every night, a lot of times no one comes to watch your show, and yet you still get in the van and do it again next tour.
BG: Explain a typical day for B.D. Willoughby?
BDW: These days it’s a whole mix of things. I’ve been doing a lot of travelling for the day-job/pay-the-bills job — in the past month I’ve been in Ottawa, Regina, Saskatoon, and Vancouver. I’ve also been getting out to Fort Qu’Appelle whenever possible to rehearse for our album release show. Generally, my day starts with steel-cut oats and blueberries or sunny side up eggs on brown toast in the morning, continues with 6-8 hours in front of a computer, and then a run to clear my head, and then work on music in the evening. When we’re in the same city, I’m also lucky to spend time with my fiancé. We’re getting married in July and so that’s a whole other event to plan!
BG: What is Saskatchewan’s hidden gem?
BDW: There are so many! When I am out of province I can’t stop talking about the Saskatchewan that people never get to see. Every summer for the past three years, my fiancé and I have gone on a week-long Saskatchewan adventure. The first year was in the Grasslands National Park — we camped out in the grass, watched the sunset, and then were treated to the most spectacular northern lights I’ve ever seen. It’s a dark sky preserve there so there is no light pollution to block the view. The next summer we went down to the Big Muddy, took a tour of the Poplar River coal plant (which was unexpectedly thrilling — looking into the white hot heat of the giant furnaces there is akin to gazing into the depths of hell itself), and climbed up to the top of Castle Butte. Last summer we canoed down the Qu’Appelle River from the #6 highway to Katepwa. The Valley is so beautiful, and people can drive through the province without even knowing it’s there. I only hope we can find a way to improve the water quality before it’s no good for swimming…
BG: Where is your favorite place to play a show?
BDW: The Qu’Appelle Valley Midsummer Arts Festival has been good to us — we played there last year (and many other years in different configurations). We’re having our CD release show at the Exchange in Regina and that has also been a great place to play through the years. They really support local artists. If I could play only one more show in my life I would hope to play it at the Grand Theatre in Indian Head. We performed there twice for fundraisers to save the Theatre (once with Belle Plaine and once with Connie Kaldor). It’s a beautiful old Theatre, and it’s the town I was born in so what better place to play?
BG: We ask this question to every musician we interview, The Apocalypse is imminent, who would you see in one final show?
BDW: Okay, that depends, is it like nuclear war apocalypse and everyone is about to die? Or is like ‘The Road’ or ‘Walking Dead’ apocalypse and civilization is ending and to stay alive I’ll have to battle off hordes of murderous thugs and/or zombies? If the first one, then I think I’d want to be watching the Regina Symphony Orchestra perform ‘Ode to Joy’ – one last moment of beauty before the world ends.. If the latter, I’d hope to be listening to the quiet acoustic strumming of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings in a well-stocked root cellar somewhere far from the big cities, those two seem like Survivors to me..