Home Boys: Songwriters' songwriters Phillips, Pineo and Johnson don't always know when to fold 'em in Phillips' basement rec space, which he proudly calls the "Man Room."
Distinctions: With five albums and years of headlining gigs across the province under his belt buckle, singer/songwriter Phillips (and his six-piece band, the Men of Constant Sorrow) is a Calgary institution, known for his sincere and original take on honky-tonk, country and folk ballads. Pineo is a national musical treasure (yeah, we said treasure) who moves seamlessly between roots, blues and country. A former bandmate of the late great Billy Cowsill in the Co-Dependants, he's also penned hit songs for Prairie Oyster and Paul Brandt (including "Canadian Man"), and is currently a member of the Joe Defendents with Ross Watson, Tim Leacock and Kit Johnson. Johnson, a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and hired gun extraordinaire, has toured with a mix of famed Canadian musicians, like Murray McLaughlan, David Wilcox and George Fox; and he's produced albums for Pineo and Phillips, among others.
Ralph on Ralph: "Grew up in a foster home, quit school at 16. Went to work in the coal mines, threw my back out. Ended up in jail for nine months in that old Lethbridge jail, where they used to hang guys in the yard. Ended up in the hard-rock mines of Thunder Bay. Didn't start making music till I was about 20. No education and no trade, I did jobs nobody else would do. I wrote songs to save my life--I needed an outlet."
The Late, Great Billy Cowsill: "There's a lot of people mentored by him," says Leacock of the Co-Dependent's legendary frontman. "There's no successor--it takes a lot of us to add up to the pieces of the puzzle that was Billy.
Basically, everyone still carries that torch. He showed us this is worth doing." Adds Johnson: "I loved Bill so much, and he loved me." His upcoming May release, titled 1723 9th Street S.W., refers to the red-brick house he used to live in with Cowsill. "It was like living in Sing Sing."
Day Jobs: All three are full-time musicians who can frequently be heard around town in clubs like The Ironwood and Kits. Pineo plays "a couple of gigs here and there," and also takes on arranging jobs while waiting for royalty cheques--sweet, sweet royalties.
Phillips says, "I'm a full-time musician, if you don't count the breaking-and-entering jobs."
Music Isn't Work Here: Phillips plays about 140 shows a year in and around town.
"It doesn't seem like work to me." roots reality: "The prosperity of Calgary is not yet good for its street-level arts. The fabric of the local bar scene has suffered," says Johnson, who ain't complaining about his current lot having just had his best year financially. But that's not the point. "It used to be that everybody was making decent money, but now musicians are working for the door."
Too many clubs have shut down over the last decade--Kaos, the King Eddy, the Mecca, Merlot, Karma, the Red Onion, A Bar Named Sue (see Page 9)--and only a few have opened (like Mikey's Juke Joint, operated by saxman and this posse's pal Mike Clark). Plus, the 30-plus crowd isn't packin' in like they used to. It's a shame, says Johnson, because "there's nothing better than a happening 100-to-300-seat club."
What It Means to Be Country: "A lot of my own favourite songs are about what I have and have not done," Phillips says. "I really get it right when it's tearing you up, about everything falling apart, but you can still dance to it."
Home Is the Range: "I love nothing better than sitting around the house alone, messing around writing songs," Phillips says. "I tend to write when no one's in the house. I need to be alone, in silence. Often in the night. Writing is sometimes a conversation with yourself--in my case, maybe always."
The Rules of the Man Room: Be prepared to stay up till 4 a.m. listening to music (lots of Buck Owens), enjoying beverages, maybe playing some cards or with the NASCAR toy-car track Phillips got from his kids and recently rediscovered in the closet. Women are indeed allowed in the Man Room. "They just have to abide," says Calgary's communist cowboy.
What's a "Communist Cowboy"?: That, dear friends, is an unabashed fan of all things country-music who happens to live in a modest community-coop townhouse--just like the one in which Phillips resides with his lady. And don't expect Phillips, his bandmates or his friends to kowtow for quick capital. "I'm interested in craft," he says, "which drives me onward, which drives us onward--doing original material."
Junofesting: Tom Phillips and The Men of Constant Sorrow play Friday, April 5 at Quincy's, 11 p.m. Steve Pineo plays Saturday, April 5 at Kits on 16th, 10 p.m.