By the time Ed Peekeekoot arrives in Watson Lake for a house concert on November 24, he will have given nearly 50 performances since July.
Those shows have ranged from the Calgary Stampede to the farmers’ market in Duncan, B.C., and from a powwow in Post Falls, Idaho to a three-day showcase in Parry Sound, Ontario.
At 62, the Cree singer-songwriter admits it’s a busy pace.
“I’m not a young puppy anymore. It’s a young person’s game pretty well. But I’m still playing music and I’m still a contender, I guess you could say,” he laughs.
“Lots of things I have to do here at the house are way behind,” he confesses in a phone conversation from his Vancouver Island home.
Still, he says, he gets a lot from being on the road.
“I get to see the countryside and get to meet the folks. It’s very educational, you know. I get to visit historic sites and stuff.”
History, and the legends of the plains Cree people, form the subject matter of many of Peekeekoot’s songs. He was born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan and grew up on what was then the Sandy Lake Reserve, since renamed in honour of its founder, Chief Ahtahkakoop.
His album, in the key of cree, was nominated for Best Country CD at the 2008 Aboriginal People’s Choice Awards. Performing at the awards show exposed him to a national television audience.
The soft-spoken Peekeekoot is a multi-instrumentalist who plays finger-style guitar, fiddle, banjo and American Indian flute. He’s also a third-generation performer.
It began, he explains, when his grandfather bought some instruments at an auction and brought them back to the reserve.
“My great grandfather saw those instruments and he wasn’t very happy, bringing those white man’s instruments into the reserve,” Peekeekoot recounts. “But my grandpa, he was a rebel, I guess, when he was just a teenager, and he didn’t listen to his dad, so he started playing.”
He was soon playing at parties with a number of Métis friends and farmers from nearby communities.
“My uncles were influenced by the music, and they had guitars, banjos all around when I was growing up.”
His mother also played guitar, and often took young Ed to community dances when she couldn’t get a babysitter.
“And I fell asleep in the back of the stage, and listened to music way into the night – fiddle, banjo, guitar and a piano.”
When his mother bought him his first guitar, she open-tuned it so he could use a slide to play chords.
“I learned how to play slide, kind of Hawaiian-style guitar when I was a little boy, because my fingers weren’t big enough to play chords.”
Besides his family, another early influence for Peekeekoot was radio – a battery-operated one, since there was no power on the reserve.
“They had a show called Saturday Night Barn Dance, and it had all kinds of country and old-time, and some guitar-picking, and accordion, polkas and stuff. A real mixture of dance music.”
By the age of 16, living in the sawmill town of Vavenby, B.C., Peekeekoot had developed his instrumental talent to the point that he was able to start performing professionally.
“I worked in the mill there for six or seven years, and bought my own guitars and amplifiers, and I started a teen band, and we would play for teen dances. Nobody sang; it was an instrumental band, like the Ventures or the Shadows.”
Anyone who has heard Peekeekoot play recently knows he has come a long way from having to use a slide to form chords on his guitar. His rapid finger-work is a trademark.
“I listened to a lot of Chet Atkins when I was growing up, and a lot of guitar players like Lenny Breau, and jazz guitar players like Howard Roberts and Barney Kessel… [flamenco guitarist] Carlos Montoya.”
With other influences such as the Ventures (“Walk Don’t Run”) on guitar, as well as his uncles and Canadian icon Don Messer on fiddle, Peekeekoot was mainly interested in being an instrumentalist.
“I never sang, really. I didn’t want to be a singer. Nothing inspired me to be a singer.”
Although he never had any formal training as an instrumentalist, he did take a few voice lessons to build up his confidence.
“I was kind of a little bit timid and shy to bring out my voice, and so I learned how to bring it out more and be more confident with it. So it really helped me performing.”
A typical Ed Peekeekoot concert has a variety of musical flavours – country, old-time, jazz, classical – interwoven with his characteristic humour and stories.
“I tell stories when I’m doing my show about growing up on the prairies. And legends, but they’re short. It goes with the music, the songs that I play.”
And while he respects the “healing” power of humor, he considers himself a musician first and foremost.
“People always tell me that they never laughed so hard, or how funny I was, or stuff like that. But I don’t call myself a comedian, I just do my thing up there.”
Ed Peekeekoot will be doing his thing in 12 house concerts in Yukon and Atlin, B.C. between November 24 and December 9, as part of the Home Routes series.
Performance dates are at www.peekeekoot.ca/. For information about specific venues and performance times, email [email protected] or call toll-free 1-866-925-6889 ext.