Dick Nolan Country
Dick Nolan country
By Stephanie Porter (St. John's)
Sunday, June 26, 2005
Slouched into a small couch in his very modest rented
house on Bell Island, Dick Nolan says he didnt get
much sleep the night before. He was hopping all
night, thrown into a tailspin by a visit to the
Nolan, one of the provinces 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. Johns 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.
Im so goddamn mad, Nolan growls, taking
a deep draw from a cigarette. That fooled me up for
I just went along with (the original diagnosis), I
thought that was that
Now Im frustrated. I
cant play yet, but hes got me on pills, pills
he says are going to knock it out.
Its 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, hes kind of tired of
the whole scene.
But Id still like to be able to do it,
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 Marthas Sheep, are still
Nolan has long since made his mark on the Canadian
recording scene, blazing the way through the industry for
many of Newfoundland and Labradors 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, hes 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 icons 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 wasnt 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 theyd be sticking around a while, but
are already gearing up to move back to Ontario once
again. Bell Island is too quiet and the winters too
rough, they agree, and they miss the friends, family, and
entertainment on the mainland.
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
wouldnt be using it anymore, but the strap was made
for him by a friend and he couldnt bear to let it
A selection from his collection of photographs will make
it into Nolans latest project, a book of memoirs
hes been working on with the help of a fellow
from the university.
Youd be surprised how much you can remember
its the dates are the killer, and
Ive got a lot of dates to deal with; different
record companies, different contracts.
The one I do remember is 1972.
Thats the year Aunt Marthas Sheep hit the
airwaves, bringing the singer face to face with the North
American market. It also marked a change in direction for
Nolans 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.
Nolans 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 (didnt 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.
Ive got some funny stories, and weve
played in some funny places, he says. The
book is about all the trouble I got in, right back in
But theres no girls mentioned
wants to read about a bunch of girls you went out with
when you were young? Now theyre probably all
married and itd just get the husbands after
Nolan had his time living the musicians life
lots of parties, lots of women. Not too much dope,
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 Nolans hands wont let him
A singer as well, Marie smiles from the cover of at least
two of Nolans albums. Just last weekend, the couple
got up for a few songs on a quiet afternoon at a Bell
Confident hes got the ears of the older
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, at home and away,
Nolans determined to bring his music to the next
Ive got to get new fans, a new
following, he says. Hes trying to get BMG
which took over for RCA, Nolans former
label, in Canada to re-release Aunt Marthas
Sheep on CD. Hes got plans to record new work as
well, and cant see himself ever completely
When I die, Im going to be 110 years old and
shot by a jealous husband, he says, offering a
Before the Nolans head to their two-bedroom apartment in
Scarborough, before any new book or CD released,
theyve got a big event on Bell Island to look
A Tribute to Dick Nolan concert is scheduled for Aug. 7,
part of the communitys come-home year festivities,
and a celebration of Nolans 50 years in the music
industry. Promising a host of musical guests, it should
be a fitting send-off for one of the provinces
And Ill be singing too, Nolan says.
I hope the hands are working again by then.
Dick Nolan Country