Dick Nolan Country
Newfoundland country singing legend
Dick Nolan working on his memoirs
By DAVE WHITE
The Compass, August 23, 2005
"When I started singing, a lot of people said I
sounded like this new singer that was out - Johnny
-Dick Nolan, Newfoundland country singer
It's a warm summer's day in South River - the back door
is wide open and the sounds of Newfoundland music from a
table top radio can be heard outside.
Four raps on the door... and before any introductions are
even made, a warm voice shouts, "Come on in,"
followed with, "Would you like a piece of freshly
baked coconut cream pie?"
Marie, wife of Newfoundland country singer Dick Nolan,
hasn't lost her hospitable Newfoundland ways although she
lived in Ontario for 43 years.
Sitting in the next room, with a floor stand cigarette
ashtray beside him, is one of Newfoundland's most
Dick Nolan and his wife of 26 years moved to the
Conception Bay North community a little over a month ago.
They are retreating from Ontario life and the cold winter
winds that swirl around Bell Island - Marie's native
Nolan extends his right hand and with a firm shake he
says, "It's nice to meet you."
The deep lower gut sound of his voice that any radio
announcer in the world would die for, is still rich, and
as he offers a seat a wide smile spreads across his face.
Dick Nolan is legendary in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Although he lived most of his 66 years singing and
playing music in Ontario, everyone who lived in this
province in the early 1970s knows his name.
It was then that Nolan recorded a song that would not
only be played at kitchen parties up to the present day,
but it would change his life forever.
"Come gather all around me, and I'll sing to you a
tale," is a line any Newfoundlander is familiar with
no matter where they live.
It's the opening line to Aunt Martha's Sheep - a comical
song set in a Newfoundland town about a couple of guys
who stole an old lady's sheep. During his investigation
into the theft, a mainland RCMP officer eats most of the
sheep, thinking it is moose.
And so the song ends... "If we get any clues on the
sheep sir, we'll phone you right away."
It was those words, written by Nolan and Ellis Coles of
Carmenville that landed Nolan at the Grand Ole Opry in
It was 1973, a year after Aunt Martha's Sheep was
released and sung by Newfoundlanders everywhere, that a
nervous 34-year-old walked onto the stage at the Grand
"I had to drink some Colorado cool aid before I
walked on that place," Nolan recalls with a devilish
grin. "It was a nervous situation."
Also performing at the Grand Ole Opry that night was
well-known country singer Dolly Parton, Porter Wagner and
Jeanne Pruett, who became best known for her hit song
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Nolan.
"You had to have a hit song, in one country or
other, to make it to the Opry," says Nolan.
It was RCA and Aunt Martha's Sheep that got him on the
Road to Nashville
It's a long road to the Grand Ole Opry, even if you live
A youthful Dick Nolan, who hadn't finished high school,
was convinced if he continued his job at Bowater's Paper
Mill, he would die a young man like his father.
"That's where you live and die," says Nolan
about the Corner Brook mill. "I said it was no life
The Juno Award nominee recalls watching his father die
from lung cancer in his early 50s.
"He had it for a couple of years but he was never a
drinking or smoking man. He always had cigarettes but
never inhaled," says Nolan.
In the 1960s, Ontario was booming.
Nolan quit his mill job and headed to Toronto. He knew he
had a good voice, so he took a broadcasting course.
"I finished the course but I wanted to go
singing," he recalls.
"I picked up a job as a waiter at a hotel. There was
a country band there, and they used to call me up to sing
a song. So I ended up being a singer instead of a
waiter," he laughs.
Someone from a record company heard Nolan sing one night
and asked him to do a record.
You tell me and Good-bye little darlin' were Nolan's
first two recordings, earning him $15.
"They were two Johnny Cash songs," says Nolan.
"At that time they were putting out albums that
copied the hit albums. So they wanted someone that was
close (to sounding like the original artists).
"At first, when I started singing, a lot of people
said I sounded like this new singer that was out - Johnny
"I always enjoyed his songs and his life. I read a
couple of nice stories on him," Nolan says taking
another draw from his cigarette.
Come Home Year
Nolan was singing country songs in bars around Toronto
when Newfoundland, under the leadership of Joey
Smallwood, made the request that all Newfoundlanders
away, return for Come Home Year in 1966.
That was the year Nolan changed his music style and
recorded an entire album of Newfoundland songs.
"And that kinda changed me because it changed my
image," says Nolan.
He wrote a song called: Come Home to Newfoundland,
especially for the celebrations and Nolan's love for the
island and its people was obvious.
The people that live here are genuine,
They'll shake your hand and greet you with a smile;
They're friendly folk and they just love to mix,
So come to Newfoundland in '66.
Come home to Newfoundland, it's come home year,
All the Newfies will be gathered here;
There's lots of fish and brewis and treats like that,
So don't stay where you're to, come where we're at.
No, don't stay where you're to, come where we're at.
Aunt Martha's Sheep
The bigger market is in country music and the competition
is in the United States; the Newfoundlander in Nolan
directed him to his roots.
"And when I had Aunt Martha's Sheep, well, that
opened a lot of doors for me.
"It got me commercials for Black Horse (beer) -
well, it got me a lot of things," he says hesitant
to list all the work he got from that one song.
Nolan says he doesn't exactly know how much input he had
in writing Aunt Martha's Sheep.
"I couldn't tell you how much I wrote. I had to
rewrite it... and it was rewritten a couple of times.
Ellis Coles got the other portion and I got 50 per cent
(in credits). And that's the way it stands
Taking another cigarette from the package, Nolan says a
lot of money is made when a song gets big.
"Everybody could make a lot of money," he adds.
It has changed
A lot has happened to Newfoundland music over the past 30
The days of singing in Cambridge, Ont. with Joan
Morrissey, John White, Harry Hibbs and Roy Payne are
over. The style and sound of Newfoundland music has
changed in the hands of Barry Canning, the Ennis Sisters,
Pamela Morgan, Ron Hynes, Kevin Collins and others.
But Nolan is unsure if the music has improved.
"I don't know. A few of these singers are really
Glenn Simmons (The Fables) has been a good musician all
his life, and still is. The rest of them - I don't know
too much about. I've heard their names but I don't
particularly listen to them a lot."
Nolan enjoys listening to the old songs on VOWR. These
songs, especially the country tunes, are the ones closest
to his heart.
He tries to recall the first song he learned on the
"It probably was an old Carl Smith
song. He used to be one of my favourite singers."
But in his early years, Nolan says there wasn't much in
Newfoundland songs apart from traditional music like the
Squid Jiggin' Ground. And although his mother, who died
last year at 94, played accordian he never learned to
play it himself.
"I heard too much of it," he laughs. "I
appreciate it and love it, but I never got interested
enough to play it.
"I tried it once... Roses are blooming and I
couldn't get through that," he says shaking with
But on a serious note, Nolan says there wouldn't be
Newfoundland music without the accordian.
The west coast of Newfoundland is known for its accordian
and fiddle players, but Nolan says, "I didn't play
the instruments because there wasn't any room for me -
everyone else was playing it," he says, again
demonstrating his sense of humour.
In quiet South River in 2005 Nolan says he is
Now working on his first book called Up along and back,
he still talks of his first love: singing and recording
After an attempt to settle down on Bell Island in their
retired years, Dick and Marie are sure South River is
where they want to be. But why?
"I don't know. I like it around the bay. Spaniard's
Bay to Carbonear - I played there years ago and used a
lot of bands from here. I know a lot of people from here
and I'm still getting to know more."
Just can't stop
Dick Nolan is not used to retirement. His voice is still
strong but his hands prevent him from playing guitar. He
is still taking treatments for something, he is unsure
what, that was misdiagnosed years ago as Parkinsons
But he feels fine. "I eat and sleep good," he
And with that his dreams of being more active in music
After a lifetime of recording 41 albums - three that went
gold, he is still making arrangements for a CD, and
people still recognize Nolan as a singer - even the
"They don't know me, but when they hear my name,
they say, Oh, Aunt Martha's Sheep."