As I was growing up in northern Canada, music was as much a staple as frying pan bannock. The rough-and-tumble stories of country and western music was social commentary to our all-too-often tumultuous lives. It was a cathartic experience to hear Loretta Lynn sing about poverty, or Merle Haggard sing about the loneliness of prison. Somehow it validated our existence.
Everyone I knew could sing at least one Hank Williams song, word for word, or at least squawk out “Maiden’s Prayer” on the fiddle. So when I got wind of the Métis Talent Show in St. Albert, a couple of weeks ago, I wasted no time in finding the address.
I got there about 7:30 p.m. and caught the last of the youth category. A little girl, who couldn’t have weighed any more than the guitar around her neck, growled through a whiskey-soaked George Jones classic. She was as saucy as a thirty-nine-and-a-half-year-old divorcee waitin’ on alimony, again. The crowd ate her up like a bowl of duck soup.
Next up were the guys, and it was one tear-jerkin’ hit after another. A big barrel-chested Métis with a perfect mullet crooned through Merle Haggard’s classic country tear jerker, “Wake Up,” a lover’s plea for his wife to wake from the coffin and hold him one more time. So convincing, he was, that we all sat on the edges of our seats and secretly begged for her to wake.
The MC was bang on, cracking jokes like they were cheap. My favourite: him and the wife were sitting in church last Sunday when he whispered to her, “Gee honey, I gotta cut a ‘silent one.’” She hollered into his good ear, “Change the battery in your hearing aid!” I almost fell off my chair from laughter. One thing about being Indian … if you can’t laugh at yourself, we’ll do it for you.
Then the girls got up and went toe to toe with the guys in talent. From a great torch singer, doing Etta James, right down to the sweat on her brow, to a pregnant mom doing the Johnny Cash/June Carter classic, “Jackson,” pointing her finger, swaggering across the stage with mic in hand and making us guys feel guilty for being men.
My favourite was a woman who sang Guns N’ Roses’ “Patience.” She was playing alone cause the band didn’t know the song. The guitar strap was too long and she was having trouble playing the chords; halfway through, she stopped and hung her head in what you could only guess was shame. “You can do it,” someone one yelled out. One by one we hollered encouragement to her. Call it an “act of God” or simple fate, but the guitar player began to play the song. She slung the guitar back over her shoulder like a faded rock star and gripped the mic with both hands, and begged someone, anyone, for just a little … patience. The crowd went bananas. It was a god-damned spiritual experience.
The night was getting on but I figured I paid seven bucks and I was gonna stick it out till the end. The best was yet to come, cause next up was the Elders. The crowd favourite was “Métis Rose,” who, if I’m not mistaken, is in her early eighties. And she brought along her husband, an 88-year-old Elvis impersonator. And you know what she sang? “All Shook Up—in Cree! He was gyrating and grinding what he had left into her, and she was taking it all. We could not help but stand and give them the ovation they deserved.
And the winner of the men’s talent show was the dad of that saucy little girl. And he sang “Wagon Wheel,” to a T, with Calvin Vollrath, world champion fiddler, doing the fiddle breaks, and it was the “second coming of Christ” in three verses.
Till my dying day, I will retell this story over and over again because it had that great of an impact on my life. One night, one stage, one amazing group of people, changed my life forever.