ST. JOHN'S -- There were times in the 1970s when no Newfoundland radio station went a day without playing a Dick Nolan song. He recorded 40 albums and was the first Newfoundlander to appear at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., but his greatest success was his song about a stolen ewe.
Aunt Martha's Sheep told the tale of an inept Mountie investigating a case of sheep-rustling, only to end up consuming the evidence. The record sold more than 100,000 copies and became a fixture in the Newfoundland music canon. In all, he sold more than a million records.
A Juno Award nominee, Mr. Nolan had one platinum and two gold records to his credit and last month received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Music Industry Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (NL Award) for, among other things, pioneering a type of country music that combined an American country-and-western matrix with lyrics and themes from Atlantic Canada.
The songs he chose to sing -- usually story-style ballads containing contemporary references -- suited his voice. "That deep baritone was pure country," said his friend Wayne Tucker.
For all that, his voice also suited songs that weren't his own. He loved the music of Johnny Cash and frequently covered it. His first two albums, recorded with Arc Sound and which he once said earned him about $100 each, consisted of Johnny Cash tunes. Even his most recent recording was a tribute to the American country-and-western icon. All the same, it was the music of his roots that he most wanted to record.
"I was born into country," he recently told The Independent, a St. John's newspaper. "But I wanted to do Newfie [music] more, I could write it more, knew what it was about."
His first success came with Aunt Martha's Sheep, which he soon followed with Come Where We're At, Newfie Girl and Home Again This Year. He also recorded such Newfoundland staples as Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary's, Badger Drive and such Irish shanties as Black Velvet Band and Whisky On A Sunday.
But it was his songs of The Rock that struck a chord with listeners.
"When I was a kid and they were playing Aunt Martha's Sheep on the radio, we understood that this was a Newfoundland hit and Dick Nolan was a Newfoundland voice singing a Newfoundland story," said Jamie Fitzpatrick, a CBC Radio producer with a strong interest in Newfoundland music. "I considered it a novelty song, because of the tempo, and because melodically it was simple and almost repetitive. But I appreciated it better as I got older. It's a rockin' tune.
"Dick was so unashamed to tell a purely local story," he added. "He tells the story for what it is and makes no attempt to appeal to a wider audience."
Mr. Nolan, along with such other Newfoundland performers as Harry Hibbs, represented a distinct generation of musicians, said Mr. Fitzpatrick. "They were not particularly self-conscious about preserving Newfoundland culture. The crowd that came after them, like Figgy Duff with the folk-music revival, were on a bit of a mission. They had to find this music before the people who knew it died and the music was lost. Dick didn't think that way. He was just as proud of his albums of Johnny Cash covers."
Aside from his recordings, Mr. Nolan was also noted for his live performances. "His distinctive voice was part of the appeal," said Mr. Tucker. "And he had a great live show -- light and breezy and fun. After a hard day's work, you'd go to his show and leave cheered up. He had great audience rapport, and loved banter."
Recently, Mr. Tucker was working with Mr. Nolan on a new release, The Best of Dick Nolan, a compact disc due to be released next month by Sony BMG. The album includes songs from five best-selling RCA albums made during the 1970s that have never been produced in CD format. Mr. Tucker also nominated Mr. Nolan for the Music NL award.
The fact that Mr. Nolan won "was a no-brainer," said Music NL executive director Denis Parker. "The guy's a legend. He has paved the way for making a living by performing music. And touring, he played all over North America. That's a great legacy and great inspiration."
Mr. Fitzpatrick said he recalled interviewing Mr. Nolan at the ceremony. "I never got to ask him what he thought his mission was, but I'm sure he would have said it was to play good music that gets people out on the dance floor. . . . It was meant to be danced to and that brought a kind of energy to it.
"This music was meant to be played in night clubs, and usually the Newfoundland clubs in Toronto," he added. "It was played off the island, for expatriate Newfoundlanders."
Mr. Nolan had planned on more performances. The 8-Track Favourites, a St. John's-based band, had just booked a gig with him as a special guest at the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre for Feb. 20.
"He had a great sense of humour and a great sense of performance," said 8-Track member Sandy Morris. "All you had to do was hear the voice. He had a fabulous voice, he really did sound remarkably like Johnny Cash -- deep and powerful and resonant. In a room, he was like a magnet and we were the iron filings. I'm not sure why, because he wasn't a pretty man."
The son of James and Marjorie Nolan of Corner Brook, he was 15 when he made his debut on a CBC radio program called Woodland Echoes that was sponsored by Bowater's Newfoundland Limited. Four years later, he set out for Toronto, where he played with the Blue Valley Boys Band at the famed Horseshoe Tavern. Along the way, he played backup for such up-and-coming stars as Loretta Lynn.
Over the years, he resided for long periods in Ontario but habitually shuttled back and forth between Central and Eastern Canada. Last summer, he had returned to Newfoundland with his wife, Marie, whom he had married in 1982 after years spent going from gig to gig and living the life of a musician with "lots of parties, lots of women," he told The Independent in June. "My wife used to tell me it took me 20 minutes to go to work and three days to come home."
The couple settled in a rented home on Bell Island near St. John's but had been considering a move back to Ontario and a return to performing. Doubtless, Mr. Nolan's repertoire would have included Aunt Martha's Sheep. Co-written with fellow islander Ellis Cole, the song had originally been published on the album Fisherman's Boy and related how a band of sheep thieves steal a sheep and make a stew. They are discovered by a Mountie, who is sent to look into the matter. They convince him the stew is made from moose and cunningly extend an invitation.
He said, thanks a lot and he sat right down,
And I gave him a piece of the sheep.
This is the finest piece of moose I knows I ever eat.
About two o'clock in the morning he bid us all good-day,
If we get any clues on the sheep, sir, we'll phone you right away.
He said thanks a lot, you're a darn fine bunch,
And your promise I know you'll keep.
And if everyone was as good as you,
She wouldn't have lost her sheep.
After he left we had the piece we had in the oven to roast,
We might have stole the sheep, boys, but the Mountie ate the most.
Richard Francis Nolan was born in Corner Brook, Nfld., on Feb. 4, 1939. He died in Carbonear, Nfld., on Dec. 13, 2005. He was 66. In recent years, he had been in poor health and last week suffered a stroke. He leaves his wife, Marie, and daughters Donna and Bonnie Lou.