Canadian country music star Gord Bamford was last in Australia when he joined the Wolfe Brothers’ This Crazy Life tour in 2016. It certainly wasn’t his first time here: Bamford was born in Australia and lived here until he was five. But that visit saw his fan base here start to grow, and he’s now back in the country for a few dates after playing at the CMC Rocks festival. I spoke with him not long before he departed cold Canadian shores for our summer heat.
It’s pretty good. I’m actually in British Columbia right now – we’re wrapping up our Canadian tour. We’ve got two shows tonight and tomorrow then we’re done. We had 29 shows in 35 days so we’re looking forward to it coming an end, then a little time off and we’re over to Aussie, so we’re looking forward to that.
Thinking of the name of your single, ‘Livin’ on Summertime’, are you coming here to escape the end of the Canadian winter?
[laughs] I’ll be honest with you, I’m looking forward to that. It’s been quite a winter here. We’ve had a pile of snow in Alberta, where I live. It’s been cold. So it will be a nice change.
Are there any logistical issues, touring Canada in the winter? I would imagine sometimes now causes flights to be cancelled and things like that.
For sure – we’ve had a few issues with our bus because it gets so cold and it freezes up. But, knock on wood, we’ve been pretty lucky on this tour and we’ve been coast to coast. It gets a little bit dicey up in the mountains during the wintertime, that’s for sure.
Do you find that audiences change as you go across the country? In the Maritimes there’s a strong Celtic music influence and every second person seems to have a fiddle but as you go westwards is there a more natural audience for country music?
You’ve obviously done your research – that’s kind of how it is. But I’ve got a fiddle player in the band – I’m one of the rare [performers] in country music these days to carry a fiddle. My fan base is pretty passionate – it’s been growing here in Canada for 20 years. This has been our best tour ever. All the shows have sold out. There definitely is a difference in how the audience reacts as you come from the east coast back to the west. But it’s good.
You mentioned growing that audience – country music in Canada obviously doesn’t have the prominence that it has in the United States, but when I was there in the mid 1990s I don’t remember much country music being around at all, and I went to see a lot of bands. So it seems like it is relatively new to come to prominence.
Yes. America’s a different beast on its own. It’s tough down there. We’ve got such an opportunity. Being from Canada and having markets like Canada and Australia gives a better opportunity than anything. You can build yourself a career. There’s not as much politics involved. I’m more excited to get into the Australian market than any place, outside of where we’re playing now. We play in Europe a bit. Obviously being born in Australia and my dad being there, and some of my family’s still there, it’s been pretty great to reconnect with them. It’s been a bonus to be able to play music there. It’s really starting to build for me – I can feel that the Aussie fans are liking my stuff and I want to make sure I dedicate as much time to being there and building that market as I did Canada. It’s exciting for us. This is the first time the whole band’s come over; it will be a change for everybody to see that whole show. I’ve appreciated everything the Wolfe Brothers have done for me – I’ve been able to play with them and it’s been great – but there’s going to be a big difference when everybody sees our full show and our band. My band and crew have been with me, most of them, for ten years. It’s pretty comfortable up there and it’s going to be fun.
I’m surprised I’m not seeing the Wolfe Brothers travelling with you.
[Laughs] I think that’s coming, actually. I think that’s the plan this year. I think we’re going to back at the end of September and tour with the boys. I think that would be a lot of fun so I hope that comes together.
Trying to develop your audience in Australia is quite a challenge when you live in another hemisphere. It involves becoming aware of and learning about another audience. Is that easier to do with social media?
I think that makes a big difference but I’m still a big believer in people seeing the product and coming to the shows. The one-on-one connection that you can have with your fans is better than any type of social media. I just want to dedicate the time to touring. It’s a bit of a change because I’m used to having 10 000 people coming to my shows. But you go in and play these little clubs and hope people show up. That’s how you start. That’s how it started here [in Canada]. So I’m excited to start from scratch and see if it can come together like I hope it does.
It sounds as though you to challenge yourself and do new things, but a lot of artists who are at the stage of having 10 000 people at their shows would probably think there’s no way you’re going back to a small venue.
I think there is a lot of us who think they’re beyond that but I don’t think that. I prefer the smaller venues, to be honest with you. It’s all about people. And if people want to come to watch a show in a stadium or a small theatre or a honkytonk or a pub, I’ll go play it. And people ask me all the time how to compare my career, and it’s pretty simple: if you look at Lee Kernaghan and what he’s done in Australia, that’s kind of what I’ve done in Canada. I’ve talked to Lee about it and it’s kind of haunting how similar the thought process and the careers have gone. Really we’re two Aussies – I’ve just been over in Canada so long. But it’s the same approach and it’s been neat to talk about it.
You would know about the close relationship the Wolfe Brothers have with Lee – their work ethic and relationship with their fans is a lot like his and that’s probably one of the reasons they work together so well. Lee works really hard; he’s always open to communication and contact with fans. He really dives into everything he does. It’s not the most relaxing path to take for any of you but I guess it’s quite rewarding, as you see the fans respond.
It sure has been. We’re looking at ways to introduce the Wolfe Brothers’ music in Canada as a return favour – those guys put me in front of their fan base and they’re willing to keep helping me do that. They’ve been really great to me. And I’ve had the chance to get to know Lee a bit now and spend some time with him and see his show. It’s been really, really great. I can see how both of them are successful. Lee’s a down-to-earth, genuine guy.
You mentioned that you’re bringing your full band, and you’re bringing some crew too. How many people is that and are they all well behaved?
Well, they’re going to have to be or they won’t be allowed in [laughs]. I think there’s eight of them, plus myself. Everybody’s really excited. To go to Australia is exciting on its own but to get to play some music and see the country – I think they all want to see kangaroos and koala bears.
I was more thinking are they well behaved for you, because it’s your band and I would imagine you’re the band leader. Do you get to relax much or do you feel a sense of responsibility?
We have one guy who’s the band leader. Our production manager is coming. They’re all really good. It’s a pretty great group of musicians. They’re all award-winning musicians here in Canada. So it’s a great show.
I’d like to go back into your musical past and find out a bit about when you first became interested in country music and what music you were listening to growing up.
I left Australia when I was five but my mum and dad were really into music, both of them. Country music – the Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton days. My dad was a big Merle Haggard fan. I grew up as a big Merle fan. He was one of my childhood heroes. More the traditional stuff – the George Strait stuff, the Alan Jackson stuff. Back in the early 90s Garth Brooks was the guy, and everybody who had a cowboy hat seemed to get a record deal. [Country music has] really changed over the years. But I’ve tried to stay pretty close to where I came from in what I do. The production values have changed but I say you take George Strait and Eric Church and Blake Shelton, place them all together and that’s what I do.
At what age did you start to play and sing and write songs?
I started singing when I was just a little young guy in school – I guess I started in the music festivals and that sort of thing. But it wasn’t until high school that I started playing guitar and learning how to write songs. I went to Nashville and met a guy over there by the name of Byron Hill who really took me under his wing. For years he taught me the craft of writing songs. We made six records together. So I was lucky enough to surround myself with really great people who I was able to learn from. It just kind of went from there.
Given that you’re wrapping up this Canadian tour, you’re coming out here, you’re thinking you might return to Australia later this year – when you’re thinking about recording new music, do you organise your time really tightly. You have a songwriting block, a recording block … or do you make notes as you go?
I kind of go with the flow, but a bit of both, I guess. I’ve got my wife and three kids too, so I’ve got to balance all that out. I’m working with Steve White [in Australia], he’s managing me – obviously he’s got Lee and the Wolfe Brothers. Him and his management company have done a great job for me. We make sure our calendars are all lined up. It does take a lot of planning, that’s for sure.
How far ahead are you? Have you already done some 2019 planning?
Yes, we’ve done some stuff. I want to try to get to Tamworth if I can, finally. We’ve got a big tour towards the end of the year in Canada again, and it’s four or five weeks we’ll be back in Australia.
And maybe take some time to rest – have a holiday.
[Laughs] Well, I moved back from Nashville last spring and we’ve been loving in an RV for the last eight or nine months while we’re building our house. We’ve got to get into that at some point otherwise my wife might leave me.
Apart from your music, you have your foundation, which has raised over three million dollars. The focus is kids and communities – how did you come to choose that focus?
I love kids. I’ve got three young kids and obviously that changes your life. I just love being involved with youths and children. We do lots of children’s hospitals. We build multi-facilities across Canada. We’re involved in Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and we do something with a company called Music Counts, which keeps instruments and school music programs alive in schools across the country. It’s really youth driven – 95% is youth and kids. It’s been an amazing journey so far. It’s gone to heights that we never dreamed it would go. We have a big charity golf event once a year and it seems to raise all this money. It’s been pretty much life changing for me. I’ve been able to see how lucky I have it. I’ve been in situations that are pretty unique which I get to experience because of who I am.
You mentioned school music programs – are they under threat, or challenged? Is there not much support for those?
The education system in Canada is cutting music programs because of budgets. I feel that it’s important – that shouldn’t be the stuff that gets cut from our education. Not everybody wants to play cricket or football or hockey. I think music is a great source of healing for people. A place people can go to, to do something different. Cutting it out of school education programs is a mistake. I feel it’s important for me as an artist to continue to make sure that doesn’t happen.
I’m surprised – when I lived in Canada I was impressed with how much the Canadian government supported the arts.
There’s still lots of support for the arts but in different areas. More and more this Music Counts runs for the Junos, which is like the Canadian Grammys, so it’s really making an impact across Canada. The foundation has donated about $250 000 to them now. It’s the biggest contribution from any artist of any genre in Canada, so hopefully it’s a step forward for people to get on board with it.
The parallel with Lee is there again, because he’s done great work here with various causes. Country musicians seem to be really good at understanding the connections across generations – seeing how storytelling and music connect people across time and across space. And in your case you see the opportunity to put music into the hands of children, but that’s an investment in the future Canadian culture, really.
Absolutely. Lee does a lot of great work that way. It’s the next generation of children who want to come up and be the next Lee Kernaghan one day, or the next Gord Bamford. We really love the program and it’s something we’ll continue to support for many, many years, I would think.
Gord Bamford on tour:
Thursday 22nd March 2018
Lizottes, NEWCASTLE NSW
Friday 23rd March 2018
Rooty Hill RSL Club, SYDNEY NSW
(02) 9625 5500
Saturday 24th March 2018
Village Green Hotel, MELBOURNE VIC
(03) 9560 8400
Sunday 25th March 2018
Longley International Hotel, HOBART TAS
(03) 6239 6378