Dick Nolan Country

Newfoundland country singing legend Dick Nolan working on his memoirs
The Compass, August 23, 2005

"When I started singing, a lot of people said I sounded like this new singer that was out - Johnny Cash."

-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 well-known singers/songwriters.

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 home.

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 Nashville.

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 Ole Opry.

"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 Satin Sheets.

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 big stage.

Road to Nashville

It's a long road to the Grand Ole Opry, even if you live in Nashville.

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 for me."

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.

Up along

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 Cash.

"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 published."

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 years.

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 good.

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 guitar.

"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 laughter.

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 semi-retired.

Now working on his first book called Up along and back, he still talks of his first love: singing and recording songs.

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 disease.

But he feels fine. "I eat and sleep good," he says.

And with that his dreams of being more active in music continue.

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 younger crowd.

"They don't know me, but when they hear my name, they say, Oh, Aunt Martha's Sheep."


Dick Nolan Country