Dick Nolan Country

Dick Nolan country

By Stephanie Porter (St. John's)
The Independent
Sunday, June 26, 2005

Slouched into a small couch in his very modest rented house on Bell Island, Dick Nolan says he didn’t get much sleep the night before. He was “hopping all night,” thrown into a tailspin by a visit to the doctor.

Nolan, one of the province’s most prolific singers, with 40 albums and 50 years of gigs under his belt, was diagnosed with Parkinson disease six years ago. His hands already shaking so badly he could no longer hold on to his guitar pick, he was told he would never play his instrument of choice again.

Just last week, a physician in St. John’s offered a different opinion. No Parkinson disease, said the doctor — the brain disorder would be causing other symptoms by now — and he prescribed a new series of medication he thinks could clear up the symptoms.

“I’m so goddamn mad,” Nolan growls, taking a deep draw from a cigarette. “That fooled me up for six years.

“I just went along with (the original diagnosis), I thought that was that … Now I’m frustrated. I can’t play yet, but he’s got me on pills, pills he says are going to knock it out.”

It’s not that Nolan is that interested in playing bars anymore; after hitting practically every community in Newfoundland and Labrador, and performing across Canada and into the States, he’s kind of tired of the whole scene.

“But I’d still like to be able to do it,” he says.

And as long as Nolan wanted to perform — with or without being able to play guitar — he would no doubt have an audience eager to listen. Generations of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have grown up hearing his “Newfoundland-country” music. Many of his songs, particularly Aunt Martha’s Sheep, are still beloved.

Nolan has long since made his mark on the Canadian recording scene, blazing the way through the industry for many of Newfoundland and Labrador’s musicians. He was the first Newfoundlander to be nominated for a Juno award, the first to play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, the first to have a gold (50,000 copies sold) or platinum (100,000) record. In some circles, he’s also credited as the first artist to cater to — and make a living from — playing to homesick Newfoundlanders in Toronto and Alberta.

From his first recording of Johnny Cash covers in the late-’50s to his most recent CD (a tribute to Cash, completed after the country icon’s death in 2003), Nolan has sold more than a million records, a feat few from the province have yet to match.

Born in Corner Brook, Nolan moved to Toronto in search of work and adventure at age 19. A job slinging beer in a country bar evolved into a job behind the microphone — and it wasn’t long before Nolan met a producer from Arc Records and began his recording career.

Nolan spent the next 50 years travelling back and forth between central and eastern Canada, making a name for himself in Toronto and his home province.

For the past year, Nolan has been living on Bell Island with Marie, his wife of 25 years.

They thought they’d be sticking around a while, but are already gearing up to move back to Ontario once again. Bell Island is too quiet and the winter’s too rough, they agree, and they miss the friends, family, and entertainment on the mainland.

Nolan’s living room, thick with smoke and the strains of old country tunes, is crammed full of photos and music memorabilia. His three gold records hang in a proud row on the wall. A thick leather guitar strap peeks out of a box on the floor — Nolan sold his guitar when he was told he wouldn’t be using it anymore, but the strap was made for him by a friend and he couldn’t bear to let it go.

A selection from his collection of photographs will make it into Nolan’s latest project, a book of memoirs he’s been working on with the help of a “fellow from the university.

“You’d be surprised how much you can remember … it’s the dates are the killer, and I’ve got a lot of dates to deal with; different record companies, different contracts.

“The one I do remember is 1972.”

That’s the year Aunt Martha’s Sheep hit the airwaves, bringing the singer face to face with the North American market. It also marked a change in direction for Nolan’s music — away from country cover songs, and towards Newfoundland-themed songs.

“I was born into country,” he says. “But I wanted to do Newfie (music) more, I could write it more, knew what it was about.”

Nolan’s tales are endless, wound about in his deep gravelly voice, laced with deadpan humour and punctuated by full-body bursts of laughter: taking a boat through a storm to a gig in a small town in Quebec; downing half a bottle of rum before taking the stage at the Grand Ole Opry (“didn’t help though, I was scared when I went on, scared when I came off …”); backing a young Loretta Lynn at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto; letting his five-year-old daughter, Mary Lou, sing the first set at the Legion in Wabush before tucking her into bed at the hotel.

“I’ve got some funny stories, and we’ve played in some funny places,” he says. “The book is about all the trouble I got in, right back in school days.

“But there’s no girls mentioned … who wants to read about a bunch of girls you went out with when you were young? Now they’re probably all married and it’d just get the husbands after me.”

Nolan had his time living the musician’s life — “lots of parties, lots of women. Not too much dope, though …

“My wife used to tell me it took me 20 minutes to go to work and three days to come home” — and got married for the first, and only, time at age 43.

It was the second marriage for Marie, who had lost her previous partner in a tragic hunting accident.

Meeting Nolan, she says, brought her “back to life,” and now she sticks by his side, helping put on his sweater, adjust his collar, fixing a cup of coffee, the things Nolan’s hands won’t let him do himself.

A singer as well, Marie smiles from the cover of at least two of Nolan’s albums. Just last weekend, the couple got up for a few songs on a quiet afternoon at a Bell Island pub.

Confident he’s got the ears of the older Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, at home and away, Nolan’s determined to bring his music to the next generation.

“I’ve got to get new fans, a new following,” he says. He’s trying to get BMG — which took over for RCA, Nolan’s former label, in Canada — to re-release Aunt Martha’s Sheep on CD. He’s got plans to record new work as well, and can’t see himself ever completely retiring.

“When I die, I’m going to be 110 years old and shot by a jealous husband,” he says, offering a toothy grin.

Before the Nolans head to their two-bedroom apartment in Scarborough, before any new book or CD released, they’ve got a big event on Bell Island to look forward to.

A Tribute to Dick Nolan concert is scheduled for Aug. 7, part of the community’s come-home year festivities, and a celebration of Nolan’s 50 years in the music industry. Promising a host of musical guests, it should be a fitting send-off for one of the province’s best-known voices.

“And I’ll be singing too,” Nolan says. “I hope the hands are working again by then.”

Dick Nolan Country