"Mom, I'm Going To Nashville"
The Measure
April 2006, Volume 13, No. 4
Newsletter of the Music Industry Association of Newfoundland and Labrador
by Wayne Tucker

When Dick Nolan received MusicNL=s Lifetime Achievement Award a few months ago, the audience knew him for AAunt Martha=s Sheep@, a comical song which made him a star in 1972.  But few knew how he struggled to blaze a trail through the music industry jungle before he finally struck gold.

Blessed with a rich baritone voice and a passion for country music, Dick quickly exhausted the opportunities available in his Corner Brook home in the 1950s.  Along with the Blue Valley Boys he sang country songs for loggers on radio and sometimes traveled by boat to do live shows in the Bay of Islands. But Dick craved more than Corner Brook could offer.  So while still in his teens he told his mother AMom, I=m going to Nashville@.  His mother pleaded with him to stay home warning,   AYou=ll end up digging ditches.@   But with his clothes in a paper bag and the few dollars his mother gave him in his pocket he boarded the train for Toronto, driven by a fierce determination to live his dream. 

Dick was unknown in Toronto.  To succeed, he would have to break new ground.  There were few helping hands.  To support himself, he laboured in a publishing warehouse and toiled as a sheet metal worker. But he was restless and unfulfilled.  He felt better when he landed a job as a waiter, slinging beer at a club with live country music.  His good friend, Roy Penney who had played with the Blue Valley Boys in Corner Brook, picked guitar at the club. Knowing Dick could sing he would occasionally pass him the microphone.  The downeast country clientele quickly took to Dick=s deep voice and soon he put down the waiter=s tray.  A record producer in the audience one night quickly recognized that Dick=s voice was remarkably similar to Johnny Cash=s.  Soon Dick was in a studio recording an album of Cash songs called AI Walk the Line@.  Within a few years of arriving in Toronto as an unknown Newfoundlander, Dick could now promote himself as a >recording artist=, a rare feat in those days.  Another album of Cash covers, AHome of the Blues@ soon followed.  With the release of these two albums and his public performances,  Dick=s resemblance to Johnny Cash had become well known.  When an understudy was needed to cover for Cash during an appearance at Massey Hall in Toronto, they chose the unknown Newfoundlander, Dick Nolan!  Dick=s star was rising!

By the early 1960s Dick lead an incarnation of The Blue Valley Boys which included Roy >Guitar-Pickin= Penney from the original Corner Brook group.  They performed at the Drake Hotel which catered to a downeast clientele of workers.  They loved Dick.  And he loved to entertain them.  His next album was an innovative live record entitled AOn Stage At the Drake.@  Each of the Blue Valley Boys shared the spotlight on the album with Dick singing three pure country numbers.  These were happy times for Dick - singing country music at the Drake, joking, bantering with the audience, taking requests, celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, coaxing anyone who could sing a note to join him on-stage.  His shows were more like giant house parties than formal performances by a great country singer.  He was honing the style that became his trademark.

For his next recordings, AAtlantic Lullaby@ and AEchoes of the Atlantic@, Dick chose different material.  For the first time he recorded maritime, Newfoundland, and Irish songs with a touch of country.  He presented the material with a country feel blending his passion for country music with his love of down-east folk songs. While these albums didn=t top the charts, they indicated the direction his career would take.

Step by step, Dick followed his dream.  By the mid 60s, he and the Blue Valley Boys were the house band for the most prestigious country music club in Toronto, the Horseshoe Tavern.  There Dick shared the stage with the greatest Nashville artists including Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, Ferlin Husky, Red Sovine, Dave Dudley and many many more.  Throughout the 1960s, Dick production of long playing albums was outstanding.  At times, he was accompanied by incredible musicians like Buddy Cage who later recorded with Bob Dylan and New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Dave Dudley who became Dick=s personal friend and travel companion.  Dick also played rhythm guitar on a Red Sovine album.

His country releases in the 60s included ATruck Driving Man@AMoving Out@ and AI Want To Live@. The first two albums included songs with down-and-out working class themes such as AThe Fugitive@, ASixteen Tons@, ASix Days On The Road@, and ALast Day In the Mines@.  The third album recorded in the late 60s was more country-folk with selections by Gordon Lightfoot and Bobby Goldsboro.  Dick also released another album of Johnny Cash covers entitled AFolsom Prison@.  This included the hit AJackson@ sung as a duet with Marlene Beaudry who had a hit with AHarper Valley PTA@.  They were a terrific duo and went on to record two albums together.  One was a wonderful album entitled ADuets@ and the other was simply called ACountry@ and it had Dick singing five songs including two by Merle Haggard and a rockin= version of Chuck Berry=s ABrown Eyed Handsome Man@.

Along with the country albums of the 60s, Dick also released several recordings of traditional and contemporary maritime, Newfoundland and Irish tunes.  The first of these was AI=se the B=y What Catches Da Fish@ which was released in 1966 when the Newfoundland government encouraged expatriates to return home for a visit.  For the ACome Home Year@ promotion, Dick penned ACome Where We=re At@, a tune which celebrated the simple virtues of Newfoundlanders and their home.  It was special because few Newfoundlanders were writing original material at the time and the song quickly became a regional hit.  This success encouraged other local musicians to write and perform their own material.  Dick followed this album with ABe True Newfoundlanders@ which included versions of ACharlie Horse@ and ACod Liver Oil@, two songs which Great Big Sea included on their latest album.  ABe True Newfoundlanders@ also included another original composition, the  ACaribou Club@ which Dick wrote to celebrate the opening of Ray Kent=s Newfoundland Club in Toronto.  Yet another album, ALukey=s Boat@ was a curious mix of Irish, Newfoundland, Maritime and country songs and even included an Irish song penned by Johnny Cash,  AForty Shades of Green@.

By 1972  Dick had spent a few years back in Newfoundland, eking out a living playing in clubs throughout the island and Labrador.  He was growing restless and decided he would tour the province in the summer of 1972 and after that he would shift his family to Halifax and try his luck there.  Before he left for the tour, he cut his 18th album, AFisherman=s Boy@.  It included contemporary and traditional songs done in Dick=s Newfoundland-Country style.  That=s the album that included AAunt Martha=s Sheep@ and to everyone=s surprise, it took off!  One hundred days or so after its release, Dick was presented with a gold record for sales which had exceeded 100,000.  Dick was the first Newfoundlander to achieve such success and it sent a message to other aspiring Newfoundland and Labrador musicians, >if Dick can do it, I can too=.

Finally Dick was in demand.  He was now recording with RCA and two more gold albums followed rapidly.  His songs made the charts, he was wooed by national TV, he had his own local TV series, he was nominated for a Juno award and he played in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry, the first Newfoundlander to do so!  At long last Dick could proudly tell his mother AMom, I sang in Nashville@.

Sadly, Dick=s early musical legacy remains locked in the vinyl vaults.  The albums are long out of print and decent copies are rare.  Thankfully, SONY BMG has released AThe Best of Dick Nolan@ which includes Dick=s hand-picked selections from his golden era with RCA.  This marks the first time that these gems have been available on CD.  The remastered tracks sound better than ever and Dick=s fans are rediscovering the music which was the life of house parties more than 30 years ago.  And best of all, a new generation can now discover the music of this remarkable pioneer of the music industry of Newfoundland and Labrador. 

 

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