Dennis Victor Allen grew up far from the cradle of country music.
Born and raised in Inuvik, NWT, Allen heard the musical style that emerged from the southern United States speak to the residents of the remote northern community.
“It was on the radio, it was on the record player. All the usual suspects, Johnny Cash, Porter Wagner, Kitty Wells and Hank Williams, of course!”
If country music was born in the South, it came of age in the North, where people heard music they could relate to.
“They talk about sorrow and hard drinking and womanizing and pain and suffering. It brought comfort to people because it validated their pain,” Allen says of the style that’s often mocked for its maudlin telling of life stories.
“When Kitty Wells sings about her husband two-timing, or when George Jones sings about hard times, that’s what people identify with.”
Filmmaker and singer Dennis Victor Allen will perform this Saturday at the 39th annual Skookum Jim Folklore Show PHOTO: Rick Massie www.rickmassie.com
Not satisfied with simply identifying with the stories he heard on the radio, Allen began to play the music himself.
“When you grow up in a small town, everybody plays guitar, everybody plays music, either fiddle music or country and western.”
Starting on his brother’s guitar when he was 12 years old, Allen picked up lessons where he could.
“One of my buddies had a brother who taught us some chords,” Allen starts with a small chuckle that grows into contagious laughter as he recalls the beginnings of his musical education.
“My buddy’s brother, he was always in and out of jail, so he would come back with these classic jailbird, heartbreaking, suicide country songs. And it stuck.”
It wasn’t long before Allen was writing his own songs.
“I was about 15 years old, and my friend and I wrote a song about a guy who was the town joker. That was probably the first time I wrote a song.”
This would be the first of many songs that Allen would write based on experiences in his life, and the lives he witnessed around him.
“I was influenced by the people I saw and knew. I didn’t know any blondes, and no one had a fast car, so I wrote about what I knew.”
After establishing a filmmaking career and a short stint in Vancouver, Allen settled in the Yukon with his family. It was his return to the North that saw Allen go from performing artist to recording artist with the release of his 2008 CD Wayward Son.
Allen’s debut album stayed true to his country music upbringing, with tracks about drinking, travelling and facing life.
When David Allen Coe schooled Steve Goodman on the perfect country and western song being about “Mama, trains, drinkin’ and prison,” Allen picked up a lesson or two as well.
The title track on Allen’s first recording venture is about Mama, and the rest of the album goes a long way toward fulfilling the other requirements.
Allen returned to the studio in August of 2011 to begin work on his next CD, with a departure from his first love of country music.
“It’s a blues guitar album. I wanted to explore that because besides playing country music, I love to play blues guitar,” he says.
“It’s an outlet for me because you can really emote while you’re playing, you can transfer your emotions through your instrument.”
Though weaned on the style that has been good to him so far, Allen bristles at the idea of being boxed into one genre.
“I want to do a bluegrass album, I want to do a gospel album,” the musician offers of his wish list.
He does, though, promise a return to his singer/songwriting work, listing masters in the field such as Guy Clark, Kris Kristofferson, and John Prine among his influences.
“I don’t listen to anyone under 40,” Allen says, as he laments a decline in the tradition of storytelling in music.
“I think a whole generation of people haven’t been exposed to Americana, folk, blues, country and western, bluegrass,” Allen submits as a theory for why some modern music lacks the substance of the old standards.
For his part in keeping the singer/songwriter tradition alive, Allen performs live when he can, while continuing to work as a filmmaker, and raising his young family with his wife. He will also continue to tell peoples stories set to music.
“That’s what country music is,” Allen says. “It’s X-rated storytelling.”
Allen will be performing this weekend at the 39th annual Skookum Jim Folklore Show.
Other highlights of the event include the award-winning Northern Cree Singers and the Tr’ondëkHwëch’in Han Singers.
The show takes place Saturday, February 4 at the Yukon Arts Centre, starting at 7 p.m.