Over at radio CKMO in the late 40's bassist Andy Fraser would sing on air when he wasn't spinning the latest discs while Bill Rea, a young dreamer from Saskatchewan, tuned in and made plans.
The mercurial and irascible Rea would soon found the mighty CKNW where country music was the staple into the 60s. He regularly invited local talent to his Bill Rea's Round-up like the Beckett Brothers, Evan Kemp - later a big name in Canada and the States - and the Rhythm Pals, who went on to work in national TV in Toronto.
The biggest hit the Rhythm Pals never had was called "My Home By the Fraser", recorded in 1947. Written by one Keray Regan, the song was a local hit until the Fraser River swelled its banks in '48, carrying off homes and dreams. Suddenly tributes to the mighty, muddy Fraser weren’t so popular. Later Evan Kemp hosed off the song, made it a hit and kept it in his repertoire for years.
Songwriter Keray Regan's brother was Bob Regan, a partner with Lucille Starr in the Canadian Sweethearts. The two had a serious run of success locally and south of the border in the latter 50s but their marriage would later crumble in rancor over Lucille's solo stardom, peaking with her mid 60's international hit, "The French Song".
In October 1962 the mighty Hurricane Frieda blew in up the Pacific coast knocking down 3000 trees in Stanley Park and plunging the entire Lower Mainland area from Horseshoe Bay to Hope into darkness for hours. A former morning man at CKNW tagged “Uncle Joe”, Chesney had just been granted a license for a 1000 watt country station out of Langley. Through the 60s and until the 50,000 watt CKWX went with the format in 1973, CJJC – JC for Joe Chesney – was the home of country music in the Lower Mainland.
Running CJJC gave Chesney the chance to meet and help plenty of rising country stars from Johnny Cash to Dolly Parton but especially a young Loretta Lynn, based in nearby Custer, Washington, just down the road from White Rock, who received many a career boost in these parts from Uncle Joe.
Meanwhile in 1964 entrepreneur Jim Howe began running a West Burnaby club called The Lamplighter which, in an era when nightlifers still packed illicit bottles, boasted BC's first liquor license. While local country music remained a mainstay of the legions, the Lamplighter was where you went to catch country radio stars of the day like Waylon Jennings and Bobby Bare.
Howe was also an early promoter of a BC country legend, Ray McAuley. Working with guitarist/songwriter Ed Molyski and managed by 50's Vancouver rocker/talent promoter/restaurateur Les Vogt and, later, Howe himself, McAuley had a pending international RCA record contract when he died young and suddenly of a brain aneurysm in the mid 70's.
After his death Molyski went on to found the Midnight Rodeo Band featuring Jess Lee on vocals, bassist Al Hildebrand and one Chris Volkaert on drums, brother of ace guitarist Redd Volkaert who in 1997 began a long association with Merle Haggard playing lead guitar in his band The Strangers.
Through the latter 70's and into the 80's country music in Vancouver diverged. On one hand CKWX's Super Country man, fiddling Elmer Tippe, maintained the traditional, cozy feel of the genre, playing records and interviewing visiting Nashville glitteratti and emerging local stars like Laurie Thain and Rocky Swanson on his mid-day show.
On the other hand the 80's saw the rise of hip, left of centre acts like Danny Mack's Cement City Cowboys and the Billy Cowsill/Ray O'Toole led Blue Northern harmonizing on their memorable "Can't Make No Sense Out of Loving You."
When entrepreneur Jimmy Pattison's JR Country began broadcasting in the mid 80s, a friendly rivalry with 'WX emerged and local country singers, musicians, songwriters and producers won unprecedented attention and support. Bootleg and Alibi were two big bands of the time, the latter managed by Claude Lelievre and Diana Kelly who later mounted the massive, annual Merritt Mountain Music Festival summer gala. Both have also been enthusiastic presidents of the BC Country Music Association.
The brainchild of a woman named Charlie Galbraith, the non-profit BCCMA was conceived in 1975 as an awards vehicle for local country music and today holds an annual conference and awards show. It has encouraged and jump-started national and international careers for the likes of Patricia Conroy, Lisa Brokop, Gary Fjellgaard, Rick Tippe and Farmer’s Daughter.
The once dominant CKWX switched to an all news format in 1996 and 'New Country' JRfm is Vancouver's country music home now, winning multiple national Station of the Year awards over the years. A longtime JRfm staple is one Carolyn Dawn Johnson, an Alberta native who spent formative years in Vancouver honing her songwriting skills before heading to Nashville and finding big success, first as a writer and soon after a solo artist.
By 2006 and the 30th anniversary of the BCCMA the big smoke in B.C. was coming from a pair of excellent stage and recording artists, Aaron Pritchett and Karen Lee Batten, plus the Cruzeros trio out of Kelowna while up and comers like Damian Marshall and Rachel Matkin were showing real promise.
Meanwhile traditionalist artists like Wolfe Milestone and the indefatigable country stalwart Kenny Hess are ever on guard to remind the young ‘uns what the real thing is all about.
From Billy Blinkhorn to Lisa Brokop, hillbillys and hoedowns to the sleek sounds of a new millennium, country music has always been integral to Vancouver's cultural life and, so long as hearts ache and the beer is pouring, it always will.