It’s stunning to me that even though we share a border with Canada, Canadian musicians at times might as well be halfway around the world in terms of connecting with the much bigger United States market.
J. P. Cormier and Dave Gunning have enough impressive credentials as acoustic country and folk pickers to paper the Ryman Theater in Nashville. The list of Canadian awards alone could take up this whole article. They’re currently on a 27-date tour of Canada with only two stops in the United States.
J.P. sees himself as a Canadian ambassador to his fans. “There’s a very small pool of musicians in Canada that can do a 12-track recording by themselves and play American music. So, that’s very rare in Canada. It’s a bit isolating, which is why I also play our own music. I play Celtic music, but there’s a small crew of players who could really step into bluegrass music in the middle of Oklahoma and nobody would know they’re from Canada.
“We’re marketed in Canada based on our background. Dave is one of the premier songwriters in Canada, and he’s compared most often to American songwriters. They compare him to the biggest songwriters in the United States.” Their second duo recording, Leather and Dust, drops April Fool’s Day, but they’re selling advance copies on this tour which began at their Eighth Step show in Schenectady, New York on Sunday night, February 19th.
Prior to my writing them up for the New York Capital Region daily arts website Nippertown, The 8th Step, a hallowed four-decade folk music haven, had sold only 40 tickets. Night of the show walk-up was a near sellout of several hundred seats, and the duo sold out all the albums they’d brought with them from Canada, netting $700.
As an aside, Canada subsidizes many of their artists who apply. The duo has never wanted to take the government handout. “We tend to do everything independently,” says Dave. “We pay our own way. Those programs are more for developing artists getting started.”
The two have almost three quarters of a century of touring experience separately, together, and supporting artists like Marty Stuart, Waylon Jennings, and Travis Tritt. They’re playing for the first time live six numbers off the new album. During my advance interview with them calling from Nova Scotia, they admitted that doing these songs in front of an audience for the first time might be considered performing a tightrope act without a net. But not for these veterans.
“One plus one equals one hundred because of the breadth of our careers,” says J.P. Cormier about the chemistry they have together. “The last year was my 40th career on the road. And Dave Gunning’s not far behind me. He’s 35 or so years in. Between the two of us we probably have 20 or 30 East Coast Music Awards. It’s a Canadian award, and I’ve also been nominated twice for a Juno which is the Canadian Grammy.
“In my opinion, (the reason one plus one equals one hundred with us) is because our solo shows are nothing alike. Even though we come from the same genre, we don’t put on the same show alone when we’re by ourselves, and when we get together, we create a third product that’s not like our solo shows at all. It’s because of the way we mix up our experiences, and our years on the road, and all the things we’ve already done. We end up creating a third product that you can’t really see on our solo shows. It’s a whole other beast that we’re creating.
“Everything changes: the way we play guitar, the way we sing, the way we front the show. Everything changes only because we’re together. David and I are super close. We’re both brothers. We have a very close fraternal relationship and that comes out in front of an audience, and it’s usually in the form of humor. So, the shows are really funny. I don’t consider either one of us a Pete Seeger, ’60s communal hippies music kind of thing. We tend to reach out to people more often and more powerfully when we’re together.”
Dave Gunning adds,” When we’re together we try to make two guitars sound like three guitars. And when we’re singing, we try to make two voices sound like a hug, and we genuinely love each other. The reason we’re playing together is because we love hanging out together. To leave our families, it’s not so hard to be leaving home. Being together on the road takes the sting out of being away a little bit.
“J.P. is certainly one of the greatest guitar players on the planet. Musically, guitar players love coming to the show. We’re really trying to connect with the audiences. We tell stories to them. There’s a bit of happy tears. We try hard to take people on, and we go on ourselves on stage. We feel so awesome doing it.”
“What we actually play is Americana,” adds J.P. “That’s how I learned to play music was in the deep south with the biggest bluegrass bands you can imagine including Bill Monroe and everybody else. I’ve performed with Bill Monroe, Waylon Jennings, Earl Scruggs, Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart. I spent a decade down there touring the bluegrass circuit.
“I worked closely with Marty Stuart. He produced the band I was working in which I took his place. He quit the group to do Hillbilly Rock, and I took his place as the mandolin player. That band got nominated for a Grammy for Bluegrass Gospel Recording of the Year, I think it was. I went into the band, and Marty Stuart produced us.
“That’s where we’re at, and the other side of our influence is our Canadian writers like Stompin’ Tom (Connors), Gordon Lightfoot, Stan Rogers, Leonard Cohen and Ian Tyson. So, it’s an interesting mixture. A lot of what we do is through an American filter. That’s just the way the business is.”
Margie Rosenkranz has been running the 8th Step since its beginning. She already is planning on bringing J. P. Cormier and Dave Gunning back.