“I had no idea we were opening The Calgary Stampede on the main stage in the Saddledome. That was the game changer for The Dungarees.”—Alex Murdoch
The long and colourful history of the Yukon is full of men and women who came from all over the world and found great success up North. The best example of that is probably “Big Alex” McDonald from Antigonish, Nova Scotia. The undisputed “King of the Klondike” owned 30 claims on the four richest creeks before the end of 1897, yet still managed to die broke on Clear Creek in 1909.
But what about those who moved in the other direction? People who were born and raised in the North, but went Outside to find their successes? Ah, that list might be somewhat smaller, but perhaps more interesting. Author Pierre Berton, raised in Dawson City, comes to mind. International fashion designer Catherine Regehr, daughter of Whitehorse lawyer, Henry, is another contender, as is actress Amy Sloan. But how many other “Yugoners” are out there somewhere and what have they done? That is the premise of this new What’s Up Yukon series, which we hope becomes a steady, long-running staple of informative northern success stories. There is only one qualifying rule: The candidates have to be Yukoners by birth and/or upbringing before they became Yugoners as adults. Of course, Atlin counts as the prettiest little ol’ town (NOT) in the Yukon and we will also not be nitpickers about pre-natal technicalities like your mother having a complicated pregnancy that means you were born in Edmonton or Vancouver. (It wasn’t your fault!)
Our first featured Yugoner is a 38-year old country-rock singer and songwriter currently living in Alberta.
James Murdoch is the 38-year-old namesake and only son of the co-creator of the Yukon’s famed Frantic Follies Vaudeville Revue. The Revue closed its doors for good in 2017 after an incredible run of 47 years. During that time, 1.5 million tourists and locals sat in the audience in search of northern comedy and affordable family entertainment.
He is also the grandson of the Yukon’s longest-serving and most productive commissioner, James (“Jimmy”) Smith, so his Yukon credentials are impeccable, or, perhaps more accurately, incomparable. He’s more Yukonish than bannock, mukluks and his Grandpa’s most famous quote: “You can’t eat the scenery.”
He grew up in Whitehorse and Atlin under his middle name, Alexander, and still answers to “Alex” on his frequent northern visits to see his mother and grandmother. HIs grandmother celebrated her 99th birthday on March 9, 2019, then quietly passed on March 23, as if she had no interest in going for 100 without her husband of 74 years. He predeceased her in 2017 at the age of 98.
Alex’s professional name is James everywhere else, a decision he made in 1998 when, at 18, he broke out and left the Yukon to wander around Canada, the U.S. and Mexico for two years, like a troubadour with his knapsack and guitar. Success came quickly and he recorded his first album in 2000. It was nominated for several Western Canadian Music Awards. His first act was called The James Murdoch Band, born in Whitehorse but based in Edmonton.
“I’m not sure how I would describe our music then,” he said while wolfing down a Big Bear Donair in March. “It was a bit of everything. Mostly pop, I guess, with western and northern influences. We played places like casinos, corporate functions, small bars, nearby music festivals and self-produced four albums that did okay. I started my own recording and sound studio in 2005, so was half-techie and half-musician in those days, playing lead guitar and vocals when the band had a gig.”
When he folded JMB in 2009 to concentrate on the business side of producing music (and also movie editing and TV audios), he felt himself becoming more of a technician than a singer and songwriter.
“In a word, I guess I was getting bored with it all and missed the fun of performing. I knew just about everybody in the Edmonton music scene from the studio and The Dungarees happened more by accident than planning. Growing up in Yukon and Atlin, I felt right at home playing country music but had to switch to bass guitar to fit the group. It came together quite quickly and felt more like a progression than a career change, with a gig here and a rodeo hoedown there, mostly in Edmonton but anywhere in Alberta too and it was just what I needed when we officially formed the band in 2010. Instead of tinkering with volume levels inside a small room all the time, I was back in rocking roadhouses, making music and having a good time.”
He laughed recalling that the Dungarees’ first challenge was getting enough songs worked up to finish a set without closing with the same song they opened with. By the spring of 2014, the band was well-established in Edmonton and well-known throughout Alberta. They produced albums and singles from their own studio, but Murdoch knew the band couldn’t go much further unless they got into the Calgary Stampede, which is the big-time of country rock in western Canada.
“Frankly, I was surprised we hadn’t been invited to join the party in Calgary before then, so I began bugging the other guys to find somebody who knew somebody down there. Nothing happened. Finally, one of the guys said his brother knew somebody who knew somebody who was on the committee that arranges entertainment for the Stampede.” Murdoch gave him a call.
“Voila! Just like that we had a 10-day gig booked on our calendar in early July, but nobody told us where, who or what. All they said was bring some clean shirts because we wouldn’t have time to shop or do our laundry,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t care if the gig was opening a new car wash in the suburbs as long as it was in Calgary during the Stampede,” he said.
“About halfway through June, we still didn’t know anything about our rodeo gig so I made another call to find out where we were playing and staying, which was when they blew the rest of my mind apart.”
“We were opening for Reba McEntire, the headline act, in the Saddledome on the main stage for the entire Stampede, which would easily be the biggest audiences we had ever played by a country mile.”
The Saddledome seats 19,289 for NHL games and close to 25,000 for Stampede headline concerts, which are the entertainment highlight of the whole party. (The population of Whitehorse is 25,085.)
“I had no idea we were opening for Reba, but knew immediately the gig could be a game-changer for The Dungarees if we pulled it off. I was nervous at first thinking about it, then scared on opening night and finally determined to conquer a bad case of fear of the unknown and put on the best show we possibly could. We went a little ‘Now or Never’ crazy on stage that first night.”
In a nutshell, they did such a good job pumping up Reba’s crowd, Dwight Yoakam hired them to go on tour to open for him. They have since opened for Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert and Alabama.
When they went on their own tour of Australia in the winter of 2018 (summer down under) they took the island nation by storm and went from nowhere on the Australian country and western charts to the number two spot, behind only “The King,” Garth Brooks.
The tour was such a success, they are going back this year for another winter with an expanded schedule on the beaches, burgs and outback of Oz.
“We went from sandals and shorts to toques and parkas in one long plane ride home,” Murdoch recalled as he sat on the closed patio at Big Bear, co-owned by his Atlin childhood buddy, Travis Milos.
When you have toured Australia with your own band, you are an official Yugoner, but in name only if you are a son of the Frantic Follies and the grandson of Kluane National Park.
“We have a new recording being released in May,” he said in conclusion. “The lead single is called ‘Twenty Something.’ Following that we’ll be touring festivals across Canada and Australia through the summer, culminating in the Canadian Country Music Awards in September, in Calgary.
“Yeah, there will be several performances at our sixth straight Stampede in July and some unsigned big ones still in the works that we can’t announce quite yet.”
For now, even though he gets his mail in Edmonton, Murdoch is less a Yugoner and more a roving Yukoner on temporary loan to Alberta and the rest of the world. He’s also the perfect pioneer to launch this new series into the future—a series of the next generation of young Yukoners taking their chances on the Outside.