Canadian folk artist Linda McRae, whose music career spans 25 years, is not only fresh off of a tour of the Yukon, but is enjoying the massive success of her latest solo album Rough Edges, Ragged Hearts, which procured her a coveted nomination for Album of the Year from the Canadian Folk Music Awards. Besides her four solo albums, Linda’s music has been included on twenty-seven other albums, either as a guest artist, or as a member of various bands including The Knotty Pines, Rodney DeCroo and the Killers, Accordion Madness, Spirit of the West, Terminal City, Bolero Lava, Herald Nix, and Easy Money. She plays clawhammer banjo, acoustic guitar, accordion, bass, and porchboard stompbox, and blends these instruments on her recordings, giving her music an old-time sound, yet universality, as her songs tackle life’s difficulties with a wisdom that appeals to the masses.
I met Linda several years ago at the Southeastern Regional Folk Alliance conference in Murfreesboro, TN. I was mesmerized by her showcase one night, singing haunting ballads with her banjo, clawhammer-style. Linda is still on the road right now touring in Canada, so I am honored that she has granted me this interview, touching on topics from her Yukon tour, to her latest CD, to her community work with prison convicts and underprivileged youth.
Q: When you mentioned to me a while back that you were going to tour the Yukon in the winter, I was fascinated to hear what that would be like braving icy conditions, the scenery you’d witness, the people you’d meet. What was it actually like touring the Yukon this past winter?
A: I did tour the Yukon this past March and it was an experience and a half! The shows we had were really good and the conditions weren’t bad at all. There was snow on the ground but the roads were completely clear and we had blue skies and no snowfall the entire time we were there.
We traveled from Whitehorse to Atlin to Dawson City and all points in between. Dawson City is an old gold rush town and is preserved very much the way it was during those times. The area attracts a huge tourist trade in the summer but in the winter it’s mostly the locals who are there and give the town its unique atmosphere. The town was built on the Yukon River. One can cross the river during the warmer months by ferry but once it starts getting colder sometime early October the river freezes up and extra water is added to the surface of the ice to create an ice bridge strong enough to hold huge transport trucks! It’s a site to behold!
Kim Beggs, a resident of the Yukon set up the tour for us. She is a former carpenter-turned-songwriter and has a wonderful and unique writing style. That is one thing that I think is unique to the Yukon. Many of the songwriters have their own distinct, unique style but there’s a common thread running through their material. A kind of quirkiness that is borne out of the darkness, but once it’s gradually introduced to the light it radiates outward somehow. Kim Barlow, Anne Louise Genest, Gordie Tentrees, they all have it and it’s wonderful, as are they.
Q: You mentioned that M.C. Hansen of Denmark would be on the tour also. Did you perform together or was one an opener for the other?
A: MC Hansen was part of the pack as well and he was terrific…a great songwriter and musician and a wonderful human being. He and I finished at least 2 songs while we were there and both of them have made it into my regular repertoire, which is so fantastic. Both songs I had been working on for some time so I was so grateful and excited to be able to finish them with him. He and I also did some recording at Bob Hamilton’s Old Crow Recording Studio in Whitehorse recording a song that I found a pretty cool harmony on for one of his songs, “He Was a Young Father” about a tragic accident that happened along The Chilcoot Trail during the gold rush. We’re hoping to collaborate more in the future.
The first half of the show featured each of us doing a short set then coming together in the second half accompanying each other singing harmonies and various instruments. It was pretty fantastic if I do say so myself.
The people we met at the shows were lovely. Warm and friendly and pretty much the same as most music fans I meet wherever I go. I find people who love music to be decent, caring, lovely people.
Q: How did you originally find your way into the folk music scene? Were you raised with an appreciation for folk music or did you discover it later in life? Who are your biggest musical influences?
A: To be honest I am a late-comer to the folk world and its traditions. As a kid I was bottle fed on country music, the old classics like Hank Williams Sr., Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, etc. My mother’s dad forbade country music to be played in the house so naturally she loved it! Little did I know that much of the music of these artists was steeped in the folk traditions of the blues.
I credit my mom and dad as being my most avid supporters and my earliest influences and the music they listened to when I was a kid is pretty much woven through the fabric of the music I make now. Of course there is a mixture of some of the stuff I discovered in my teenage years and later: The Beatles, the Stones, Led Zepplin, Gram Parsons…But when it comes right down to it all of these artists were influenced by folk music in some form or another.
I think I took a real big bite into the hearty folk sandwich when I discovered the banjo in 2005. O Brother Where Art Thou definitely had a big part in that as well. I had never heard music like that before, which of course lead me to discovering The Stanley Brothers and Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, folks like that. I was so blown away with their music, its honesty and raw energy. It actually reminds me of some of the best rock and punk music. Its total balls to the wall, wailin’, hurtin’, angst-ridden, raw, rough and ready and totally captivating.
Q: You are from Vancouver Island, BC, and I know that Canada has a vibrant folk scene. Have you played a big part in that scene for many years? Is it easier gaining appreciation for your craft in Canada than the US, considering so many areas here do not cultivate folk music appreciation?
A: As far as the Canadian vs the US scene, I think because I have somewhat of a name in Canada that definitely helps, but things are getting better in the US as well. My husband and collaborator James Whitmire and I have been working very hard since our meeting up in 2007. We’ve logged a lot of miles since that time and it’s starting to pay off. I’ve attended many of the regional as well as the International Folk Alliance conferences every year for the past 5 years as well which is really helping to raise my profile. I think that is where I actually met the incredibly talented and lovely Abby Parks, come to think of it.
Q: Your latest album Rough Edges, Ragged Hearts has not only been in the top 20 in the US folk charts for 32 straight weeks and topped the Canadian radio charts, but your album was nominated for Contemporary Album of the Year by the Canadian Folk Music Awards for 2012. Why do you think your album has garnered so much success? Tell me what your inspiration was in the making of it.
A: Well, thanks for mentioning that Abby! We’re very proud of the success the recording has received and I’m kind of blown away by the response every time I release a recording. I haven’t had one scathing review yet. I may be tempting fate here but when you put something out in the world like that it’s kind of a vulnerable position to be in and it is really a great feeling when the reviews come in and people like it…not to sound like Sally Field giving her acceptance speech at the Oscars or anything.
I really think I’m becoming a much better songwriter as well, largely due to some of the studying I’ve done in recent years. I’m paying much more attention to my lyric writing. Every word has to be there for a reason…the economy of writing. I make sure everything is exactly as I want it to be said rather than thinking “oh that’s pretty good” and then looking back on it later and thinking I could have made it absolutely right, not “close enough but no cigar”.
The addition of the banjo has definitely changed my sound too. I’ve worked very hard on becoming a better musician, especially as I perform mostly solo these days. I had to up my game to make things not only more interesting for my audiences, but also for myself. I think that’s showing in the reviews and the response to the record as well.
The writing I have been doing with my husband has had a tremendous influence on the songs as well. He has been clean & sober for 26 years and has a unique perspective on life. We have 5 co-writes on this album and I think he has also had a tremendous impact on the songs and the attention it has been getting.
Q: Is there a common theme throughout?
A: The title track “Rough Edges and Ragged Hearts” pretty much says it all. Many of the characters in my songs have been through the wringer but have come out the other side either better for it or wiser somehow…but then again some definitely haven’t made it through. Life, unfortunately, isn’t always a bowl of cherries.
Q: You’ve started a program called “Express Yourself” Youth Self-Esteem Workshops.” Your site states they are designed, “to provide an open forum in which participants can express themselves in a safe and nurturing environment. Focus on building trust and self-esteem through conversation, storytelling, poetry, songwriting, and creative writing.” This sounds like such an exciting idea for reaching out to youth in communities, and at the same time, promoting the arts. What inspired you to start this program? Tell me of your experiences conducting these workshops so far. Do you have some success stories to share?
A: It all started in October of 2011 when I was invited to take part in The Arts and Corrections program at California’s New Folsom Prison. I gave 2 concerts in two different yards there and facilitated a creative writing workshop with the group of inmates from the program…some 18 or so men, all of whom will never experience life on the outside again. I was really blown away by the experience and was pleasantly surprised by the response we got. They were very open and were really inquisitive, asking questions about each song as I finished them. They showed the utmost respect for both James and me and were really blown away by the love we two obviously share and the respect and love James has for me. It was something I think they themselves had never seen let alone experienced before.
The workshop was so well received that I have also been invited to work in various correctional facilities across North America. James and I will be heading there in a couple of weeks again to visit with the remaining inmates we have met there. Many of them, because they have been on such good behavior because of this program, are being transferred to lesser security facilities, which unfortunately is putting their lives in danger. It’s kind of a hard thing to understand but the inmates in these facilities segregate themselves according to race, one not allowed to mix with the other. The only time this occurs is in the visitation room and in the arts program. Their lives are actually in danger in the other facilities when other inmates find out this has been happening. It’s a frightening situation and even though many of us don’t give it any thought, these people are still human beings. Many of these people never had a chance at a good life, not having any appreciation for the fact that there is beauty in life and not all just guns and ugliness. One thing that is true is that this program definitely makes them easier people to deal with.
It has been our work with these inmates that led us to starting our youth program…mostly at risk youth. We are hoping to help them express the frustrations and angst we feel as teens. Being a teen can be a hard row to hoe. Feelings of low self-worth and inferiority can manifest in so many ways, and hopefully can be expressed and somewhat understood through creative writing.
We have had amazing experiences with these kids and there are some budding Pulitzer Prize winners among them. I’m not kidding! Here’s a poem that sixteen year old Jennifer Robles wrote. This poem came from a textbook that one of the inmates at New Folsom Prison gave me. His name is Spoon Jackson and he is an amazing poet himself. The textbook Spoon gave me includes exercises that have been collected by other teachers of at risk youth and this was his only copy. The book is called “Jump Write In! Creative Writing Exercises for Diverse Communities Grades 6-12 by Judith Tannenbaum and Valerie Chow Bush (of Writer’s Corp).
Here’s the poem:
Where I Come From
I come from a long line of
A long line of
And understanding myself
When there’s no one who understands.
I come from
A long line
That never ends
To the right
And then to the left.
I come from a long line of
A line of cutters
Who step in front of me
In a long line
Where I come from.
Jennifer Robles aged 16.
This next piece of writing, written in wrap form was written by one of the students we worked with in a class of 25. His name is Julian and he was one of the popular kids in the class.
I’m a mystical man
I’m almost like whodeenie
I wanted to be a meany
But never wore a beanie
Those tall hats
To make myself look like I had class
But I couldn’t cut glass
So I cut myself on the rough edges
And I can’t cross bridges
But I always had itches
In the back of my neck
I worked my ass off to get my first check
All I wanted to do was buy my deck
But I feel like a reject
Never had respect
And when I came here
I even cried my first tear
Cause there was someone who cared
So I blared across the town
Fought my ego to the ground
And stole my gold crown
Looked at the other me and saw a frown
But I never liked to look like a clown
So I grabbed my ego and ate it by the pound
You can’t adopt me this ain’t a dog pound.
Julian, age unknown Jan. 2013
Julian was one of the first to let his guard down which was great as it set the tone for the rest of the class and most of the kids ended up reading something they had written. We always tell everyone that they don’t have to participate at all as long as they don’t disrupt the class. We hope this will help gain their trust and help them to participate and read their writing for everyone. I also don’t ask them to give me the pieces they write as most of it is incredibly personal and I think it’s good for them to keep what they have written so they can look back on it and see how good it is. It also helps them see how they were feeling at that particular time in their life.
We have gotten some unbelievable testimonials from the teachers of the youth programs we’re working with and it’s been extremely rewarding. We’re also branching out to working with veterans, detox centers, women’s shelters, and anyone who people feel might be helped through our program. We’ll be participating this August for the first time both in San Quentin’s Bread and Roses program as well as a youth detention facility in Prince George. It’s also turned out to be a bit of an added revenue stream for us and allows us the freedom to spend a little more time in each town/city we visit instead of just doing the shows and then heading to the next venue the next day.
For more information on these workshops visit: http://lindamcrae.com/youth_workshops
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This month Linda will be bouncing between the US and Canada for performances in venues, festivals, and conducting her workshops. Check out her touring calendar for a show near you. And if you are in the Birmingham area (near where I am writing from), you can join me to see her perform September 12 at Moonlight on the Mountain.