Well, Barney Bentall looks like the world has caught up to you.
After a half decade layoff from recording on his own, Barney Bentall returns with his finest, his most powerful, and most incisive album to date, The Drifter & The Preacher on True North Records.
A rugged, fiercely ambitious work, The Drifter & The Preacher combines an intensely personal artistry with a broader vision of a public figure coming to terms with his ordered life as a musician, as a songwriter, as a husband, as a father, and as a son while turning in his most urgent, and forceful performance in memory.
The album was recorded and mixed in Vancouver by John Raham at Afterlife Studios, excepting “Moon At The Door,” recorded and mixed by Sheldon Zaharko at Monarch Studios.
While his catalog overflows with stellar music, this masterful, expertly crafted album is in the vein of the best recordings of Blue Rodeo, Jackson Browne, John Prine, Ian Tyson, Ron Hynes, and Tom Cochrane, and may prove to be a truly defining moment in Barney’s musical legacy.
Despite several sabbaticals from the musical wars, Barney remains very much part of the fabric of Canadian music culture.
As frequent collaborator Jim Cuddy, who guested on “Won’t Change The World,” notes, “Barney had a similar trajectory as a neo-roots troubadour to the one we experienced in Blue Rodeo. He has so successfully transitioned from fronting a rock band to being a true Canadian troubadour in the tradition of Lightfoot, McLauchlan, and Cohen. I have loved his solo records, and they have frequently brought me to tears. He is a very poignant songwriter. His voice has the ring of authenticity, and I am easily swept up in the narrative of his songs. His records are my ‘go to’ ones when I need some familiarity to soothe my worries. Quite a man, quite an artist.”
A jeans and T-shirt kind of guy, Barney is foremost a journeyman artist who is writing better than he ever has; feeling that he’s still got something that he wants to say, and there might be people out there who want to hear it.
With “In The Morning” — co-written with Cory Tetford — underscored by the poignant line, “There’s the life of the village and the life of the quest,” Barney addresses the nomadic spirit of the troubadour life playing tug-and-pull with home life.
To some extent, Barney acknowledges, he has had few anxieties about controlling his own life. Somehow, he just slipped into it, and it works. “But… I have often wrassled with the tug-and-pull between the nomadic path of the troubadour and the peaceful, predictable life of the village. This life and career sometimes felt like a chaotic circus. You would say to yourself, ‘This is all crazy and I should have done this or I should have done that.’ Thankfully, there seems to come a time in your life when you feel the choices you made in the past have a purpose, and that, by and large, the journey now makes sense. I feel like I am getting closer to that point of peace in my life.”
While each album is an experience in itself, how does an artist know a set of songs are ready to record? “Just labour, it’s a gift,” offered craftsman Leonard Cohen in the ‘70s. “Like any safecracker, you just know there’s a moment when it opens. When it comes together.”
"Another description comes from Joe Henry,” counters Barney. “He said something to the effect, ‘We write songs. That’s what we do. All of a sudden, you notice that some of these songs are forming a gang, and that’s a message, that a body of work is on its way to becoming a record.’ When I read that quote, I felt that it summed up the process beautifully.”
“In this case of The Drifter & The Preacher, I thought I had the record but, as I would listen to it, it didn’t feel complete. So, I dug a little deeper, and some new songs spilled out. A handful of those new ones inevitably bumped some of the songs I had already recorded.”
Barney acknowledges that songs often write themselves. “There are times I look back, and think, ‘Well, that’s not where I thought this one was going to go.’ I examine that in ‘Won’t Change The World.’ A song takes you where it wants to take you, if you are open and you surrender to those moments. With ‘Don’t Wait For Me Marie’ I thought, ‘I’m going to write a song about a guy leaving the Fraser Valley near Vancouver in the 1800s to look for gold in the Cariboo.’ I wanted it to be an uptempo bluegrass song because we were starting The High Bar Gang; I was very immersed in that style of music. Ultimately, it didn’t quite feel right so I decided to try the song with minor chords and an edgier feel. The feeling, subtext and meaning of the song did a one-eighty and I thought ‘This was what I was looking for!’ I love the way music can do that to words.”
Barney says he somewhat randomly wrote “Hey Mama” in 2014, a day following the passing of American folk legend Pete Seeger, and while carrying out a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Seated in front of a nine-foot grand Bösendorfer piano on a winter’s day, he let his mind wander. “So much of what I knew about Pete Seeger was through artists like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, but it really struck me when he died. He genuinely cared about the plight of the people.”
At the core of The Drifter & The Preacher are two integral figures of the past that burn brilliantly: Barney’s father Howard, once a senior minister at Calgary’s First Baptist Church; and Barney’s father-in-law, a grand old man who set high standards, and broke new ground.
Inspired by his father-in-law, “The Miner” marks the first time Barney and his son Dustin, who enjoys a successful musical career in his own right, have written together. “When we started working on the song, I didn’t necessarily want to lead with my ideas,” says Barney. “I felt that this was an invitation to create together. ‘Let’s see where you want to go with this.’ Dustin wanted to talk about his grandfather, and he started writing it about how the guy was always heading north to pan for gold in the Cariboo. The eccentricity and adventure of that spirit. Even with his professional career as a dentist, he would head up there because he loved the land. Again, songs go where they want to go and gradually it became more about a mutual friend we have, but with this subtext of the elder who we both so admired.”
“‘The Drifter’ is directly based on that elder (my father-in-law) who was such a pivotal character to me. His stories about riding the rails and about World War II were riveting and entertaining. He was one of the most interesting, and most intelligent people I have ever met. He taught me many valuable things, and gave me my best friend, my wife Kath. He died with his boots on at the age of ninety-three. I wrote this song at our ranch shortly afterwards on a star-studded night. The feel that the band laid down on this track gets me every time.”
With “The Preacher,” Barney says he was attempting to capture some of the rock & roll rebellion spirit which had taken place in his early years. “It’s not fully autobiographical,” he cautions, “it’s about my situation, though. I had to really think about what I wanted or didn’t want to say in this one. I used to think, when I was young, that being a preacher’s kid would somehow keep me from a career in music… until I read a biography or two. I realized you couldn’t pick a better past!”
Dive deeper into The Drifter & The Preacher, and listeners will be drawn throughout to an evocative Canadian landscape dotted by robust adventurers, and heroic characters; reflecting Barney’s deep love of history, though he is not trying to teach history. Instead, he lets listeners feel for themselves how these individuals grappled with and came to terms with their natural adversaries.
The memorable character of “Albert Comfort” first appeared on Barney’s Flesh & Bone album in 2012 in the song “Say Goodbye To Albert Comfort.”
“Albert was fascinating to talk to,” says Barney. “I love the old timers. I could spend endless hours talking to them. When my future son-in-law was young, he bought this ranch from Albert in the Kootenays. Albert was getting old, and he said, ‘I just want to keep ten acres by the lake. I’m going to build a house there, and grow old there.’ Ten years later, he said, ‘I’m going to sell these ten acres,’ and he sold them to my daughter, and my son-in-law. Albert then said, ‘There’s a little cabin by the lake. I’d like to be able to stay there when I am strong enough.’ He stayed there as long as he could. The guy knew how to negotiate!”
Many of the songs on The Drifter & The Preacher have an undeniable atmospheric charm, but Barney’s fierce frankness is strikingly underlined in “On The Shores Of Grise Fjord,” a gripping account of one of the most shameful events in Canadian history.
Some 87 families, comprising 250 Inuit from the Ungava region around Hudson Bay, were dumped in 1953 at Grise Fiord, 1,200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle on Ellesmere Island, in an attempt to establish Canadian sovereignty over the Arctic.
“That is a tragic story in Canadian history,” says Barney quietly. “The Canadian Coast Guard took 250 people up there, and dropped them off with tents. They so arrogantly figured these people could figure out how to survive. But coming from the Labrador environment, the Ungava Inuit had no experience in the High Arctic or any local knowledge. The Coast Guard returned the following year, and only half of people had survived. The others had starved. The government then decided to put more Inuit there from Baffin Island, which is closer. They didn’t say, ‘Sorry, we should bring you back home.’ They kept hammering away at this misguided plan.”
“While visiting Grise Fiord we met this guy Larry, who is one of the architects of Nunavut and one of the survivors of the relocation. He was two-years-old when that first ship sailed away. He took my 1952 Martin guitar and started playing. He had owned one somewhere in his past. He sang one song in Inuktitut, and then he did the Rolling Stones’ ‘As Time Goes By.’ At one point, he said to us, ‘I’m really proud to be a Canadian’ which inspired my line, ‘The strength and grace to forgive, from what ash does it rise. I thought I caught a glimpse when I looked in Larry’s eyes.’ Where does that come from after all that happened there? They have made a real vital community in Grise against all odds.”
Then there’s a discussion of the power of life choices radiating in “Moon At The Door,” a buoyant song co-written with Newfoundland novelist Michael Crummey. “I had this idea — and I still might do it — of making a record of co-writes with Canadian authors,” says Barney. “I started talking to people, but the only guy that was so eager to write lyrics right away was Michael. We wrote three songs without meeting. I guess that’s a form of internet dating, but it wasn’t crucial that we were in the same room.”
Barney treasures Newfoundland life enough to return there often for gigs, and to use the province as part of his canvas, previously penning “Sending Out A Message” about Signal Hill overlooking St. John’s harbour, and “L’Anse Aux Meadows,” about the archaeological site on the northern tip of the island.
“Though I come from a very different background, than say Alan Doyle or Cory Tetford, Newfoundland accepted me from the early days of playing there,” recalls Barney. “Those guys have collaborated with me, and they don’t always do that (with outsiders). You don’t have to be from there, but if you have an understanding and appreciation of how it works there, they will embrace you. When Cory and I wrote ‘In The Morning,’ we were touring and it was so striking to be there with the harsh February weather. We went to find Cory’s old girlfriend’s house, and he couldn’t find it. There was a moment of panic. Then we went down a few other streets, and there it was.”
Set on the other coast of Canada, “The Ocean and You” resonates with the enduring strength of belonging to Canada’s musical family. It pays tribute to Vancouver’s Spirit of the West frontman John Mann coping as his own young-onset Alzheimer’s has progressed, and of the equally courageous role of his partner Jill. “It’s a hard circumstance,” says Barney soberly. “What Kendel (Carson) pulls off with the fiddle on the track is pretty amazing.”
Canadians first met Barney in 1988 as leader of the Legendary Hearts when MuchMusic embraced an indie video of the heartland anthem “Something to Live For.”
“It’s the reason I am still in music,” laughs Barney. “I have a great sense of appreciation for that song.”
Next came a self-titled Epic Records’ album which sold over 100,000 units, and earned the group a JUNO Award for Best New Group.
As his life began moving at a dizzying speed, Barney was swept into a circle of peers that included Blue Rodeo, k.d. lang, The Tragically Hip, Colin James, 54.40, and The Odds.
His career education took place in parlaying strong grassroots popularity into a national following; and by playing to crowds in seedy bars to concert halls and arenas all over Canada. At its peak, the band was playing 200 dates a year, graduating from touring in a van to a motorhome to tour buses.
“I’m often struck by how resilient we were because we were a band,” says Barney. “I don’t know if I had been a solo artist if it would have just knocked the stuffing out of me.”
Barney Bentall and the Legendary Hearts released four further studio albums: The “Lonely Avenue (1991), Ain't Life Strange (1993), Gin Palace (1995), and Till Tomorrow (1997). A Greatest Hits 1986-1996 was released in 1997.
By the mid-‘90s, the Legendary Hearts were struggling with the economic realities of a Canadian rock and roll band and, sadly, a deteriorating relationship with Sony Music. Barney grew wary of the music industry and the insistent pressure to create hits along the lines of “Something to Live For,” “Life Could Be Worse,” “Do Ya,” “Crime Against Love,” “I’m Shattered,” or "Living in the ‘90s.” As international success eluded him, Barney decided to focus more on music that satisfied his own creative impulses while members of the Legendary Hearts transitioned into other careers.
By Gin Palace he was writing more of his own words (earlier lyrics were largely penned by his childhood friend Gary Fraser). “I started to find more of my songwriting voice, and I started to express myself instead of standing behind somebody else’s words,” he recalls. “To this day, there are some Legendary Hearts songs that I don’t play because they don’t feel like me.”
There is one period of his life that Barney often returns to when reflecting on his past – a decision that changed everything. Barney decided in 2000 to take time from music to reflect on the next phase of his career. With his brother-in-law, he and his wife then purchased a cattle ranch in the Cariboo region of British Columbia.
It's an independence he's embraced to this day.
“It's hard to leave that security of a major record label, but if it's not the right fit then you have to move on. When things went sour with Sony, there was an awakening, and an emancipation. That’s when I said, ‘I’m going to step back, and I’m going to run a ranch, and play less.’ That was the other part of my coming into my own place.”
Although he spent a sizeable amount of time running the ranch, Barney never quite removed himself from music. While remaining on the borders of the music landscape, he’d peek in to see if he saw anything he liked.
This includes returning to recording with his solo albums Gift Horse (2006), which received a JUNO nomination, followed by The Inside Passage (2008), and Flesh & Bone (2012).
This also encompasses working with the boisterous old-time Vancouver bluegrass band The High Bar Gang; with the BTU trio (Shari Ulrich and Tom Taylor); and with The Cariboo Express, a traveling, fundraising old-time musical revue.
Comfortable in his own skin, Barney today doesn’t have dramatic, extravagant feelings about his work. He’ll keep doing what he’s doing to the best of his ability. He doesn’t see one moment of inspiration as any big climax. It’s just a matter of sharing his tools, keeping in shape, and self-discipline.
“My solo work is very important to me,” he sums up. “I wouldn’t want to be playing only with the Legendary Hearts. It’s wonderful when we do get together for some gigs because I do have my solo career and the Cariboo Express project. Right now, I’m focused on what I am doing on my own, but the other projects keep me learning, traveling new pathways, and keeps music vital for me.”
Musing more about life and music, Barney wistfully starts talking about living on Bowen Island, and trekking to his ranch from Vancouver to Whistler through the interior of British Columbia to Lillooet, and about his deep love of the country along the murky waters of the Fraser River up to the Cariboo.
“It is one of the most beautiful drives, anywhere,” he says firmly.
The Drifter & The Preacher is available on October 13, 2017 on True North Records.