Cruising Through Canada: A Road Trip Through Canadian Music
With the Junos coming up, I thought it fitting to touch on some of the amazing music that has come out of our great country. While we have many incredible international stars in Canada, my goal is to highlight parts of our Canadiana music scene that some may not know about and to honour some of the classics that have been popular within the country over the years.
Connecting to place through music
For me, music has always been synonymous with travel. Whether it was recording mixtapes or burning CDs (yes kids, tapes and CDs) for a road trip playlist, throwing on headphones on a flight, seeing a live performance in a new destination or just hearing a catchy song on the radio, music somehow has always attached itself to my journeys.
Travelling abroad, I always love discovering music that is way off my radar. It always seems to strengthen my connection to the place, creating another medium through which I can reflect on those travel experiences. Whether or not the music is related to the place I’m visiting, the songs that I listen to on any given trip seem to embed themselves in my memory so that even years later, they can evoke feelings and imagery from that time and place. When I was in high school, for example, I spent a month living with a friend and his family in Greece. Now, almost 20 years later, every time a song from M83’s Before the Dawn Heals Us come on, I can close my eyes and be once again basking in the sun on Crete’s beautiful beaches or looking out the airplane window at dots of islands in the Aegean.
When I used to guide camping and hiking tours across BC and Alberta, I always made a point to play Canadian content in the van for my international guests. I wanted to highlight Canada’s homegrown artistic talent and play music that reflected the amazing natural wonders of Western Canada, but part of me also hoped the visitors would hear something that caught their ear and would allow them a similar portal back to Canada once they returned home from their trip.
In trying to find music to inspire these guests or to share with friends abroad, I developed a habit of listening to mostly Canadian music. And no, not just what came up on the radio to meet Canadian content quotas (ahem, like Nickelback or Sam Roberts Band) but the more independent artists that may not be as well-known.
The habit stuck and, over the year, this music has been present for so many trips that it is now embedded into how I think of Canada. Even when I hear a new song (or an old song that’s new to me) that I know is Canadian, it fills me with a sense of pride and connection.
I’ve seen quite a bit of Canada and always look to find local musicians wherever I go. I’ve found some favourites for most provinces and territories and I’m constantly pleased with the quality and variety of music we have produced in the country.
With that in mind, I wanted to share some of the songs that have stuck with me over the years. Some are old, some new, some obscure and others more mainstream. What they all have in common is their Canadian roots.
Do you have a favourite Canadian song or artist you’d like to share? Send an email. I’d love to hear your picks and may add them to our summer road trip playlist…coming soon.
“I want a Bird” by Current Swell
There are so many amazing West Coast artists to choose from but I really want to highlight Current Swell, a great band from Victoria on Vancouver Island. This track in particular takes me back to a very happy time exploring BC’s magical west coast: a stunning ferry ride through the Inside Passage, awe-inspiring West Coast sunsets from Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park, browsing the sea life in the tidal pools of Botanical Beach and hiking through the groves of Arbutus trees on the Sunshine Coast.
“Alright” by The Rural Alberta Advantage
A band that takes me back to my high school and university days is the Rural Alberta Advantage. I’ve found that few people outside the province know about this band, which is such a shame. Their music transports me back to long drives across southern Alberta, with the golden sun setting over the horizon. Whether it’s driving Hwy 2 from Calgary to Edmonton or west through the foothills with the Rockies in my sights, this band always takes me home and sits close to my heart.
“I Don’t Know” by The Sheepdogs
Arguably one of the greatest bands out of Saskatchewan, the Sheepdogs have a timeless sound that spans generations. I can’t think of a band more fitting to kicking up dust across the Prairies. Think grain elevators, big skies and endless farmer’s fields. The Sheepdogs are the perfect complement to the Saskatchewan scenery — whether you’re heading east to Saskatoon on the 570 (pro tip) or driving the southern backroads between the East and West blocks of Grassland National Park.
“Bobcaygeon” by the Tragically Hip
Choosing this song feels a bit like cheating. It’s one that everyone knows, probably one of the most iconic songs from one of the most iconic Canadian bands of all time. But personally, I did not discover The Hip until later in life, right around the time of Gord Downie’s final tour after being diagnosed with brain cancer. This is a track that although I can’t tie to any specific personal memories, makes me feel connected to the shared experiences of other Canadians. In witnessing the outpouring of support for Gord Downie, I realized what an important band The Hip are to Canada.
As a western Canadian, my images of “home” are big mountains, stunning coastal wilderness or endless prairies and big sky. But having recently spent a lot more time out east, I’m realizing there are a lot (probably a majority) of Canadians for whom the imagery of home looks more like big freshwater lakes lined with rocky shores and windswept pines or vast swaths of forests filled with maples, oaks and birch. This track makes me feel connected to the whole country and is always on my playlist when I head to Ontario.
“Sky Women” by Anachnid
Québec is admittedly one of the provincial music scenes with which I am least familiar. It is also one of the most unique and one that I am very keen to discover (I would love your suggestions). Of course the province’s most known musician is the incomparable Celine Dion, but she needs no introduction so I’m going to lean on my personal experience and highlight Anachnid, a Felix-Award-winning Indigenous artist who hails from Montreal. I couldn’t stop playing this track on repeat on a recent trip to Montreal. Some of my favourite memories — going for a morning jog in the Old Town, people watching in the Plateau neighbourhood and taking in the epic views from atop Mount Royal — are linked to this song and every time I hear it, it takes me back to one of Canada’s great cities.
“Followed Her Around” by Jimmy Rankin
Any self-respecting Canadian music buff will know the name Rankin. The Rankin Family has to be one of Canada’s all-time iconic music families. I discovered them through my in-laws, sharing many a beverage in the kitchen while listening to the Mull River Shuffle. This particular track from Jimmy Rankin takes me to the stunning scenery of Cape Breton and makes me think of great times and tunes at the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou (owned by the Rankin sisters) or sipping some of Canada’s best whisky at the Glenora Distillery.
“The Night Pat Murphy Died” – Great Big Sea
Another massive name in the realm of Canadian Music, Great Big Sea should absolutely be on the list for any East Coast adventure. My wife and I went through all their albums as we traversed Newfoundland a few years back. Whether its kissing cod on George Street, hiking the Skerwink Trail near Trinity, photographing the stunning “sheds” in Tilting on Fogo Island or an epic boat ride between the sheer cliffs of Western Brook Pond in Gros Morne National Park, the Great Big Sea is embedded in my memories of Newfoundland’s majesty.
“Ukiuq” by The Jerry Cans
I came across this song the first time I went to Yellowknife. It is an awesomely catchy track that is totally at home in the North. Although I don’t understand any of the words, the energy is contagious and it brings back so many fond memories of travelling through the Northwest Territories. Think driving west from Yellowknife to see wild herds of wood bison, cruising across the water of Great Slave Lake, eating fresh caught Pike at Bullocks Bistro and staying up late to catch some stunning fall Aurora.
“KD and Lunch Meet” – Boy Golden
I spent 10 days driving around the Yukon and this is the fun track that accompanied me on that awesome trip. It has a groovy, old-school feel and the lyrics make me feel young again — at least young as in before I had kids. It is always on my playlist when I travel to the Yukon and it takes me back North whenever I hear it, with memories of driving the beautiful scenery near Carcross, blowing glass at Lumel Studios in Whitehorse or wandering boardwalks in Dawson City on a bluebird winter’s day. Although the artist hails from Manitoba, I can’t help of associating Boy Golden (and this track in particular) with my time in the territory.
“Northwest Passage” – Stan Rodgers
As a self admitted nerd to all things Canada, this song always gives me goosebumps. The lyrics recall the history of early explorers who were trying to discover a route across Canada to the Pacific. They also reference numerous place names across the country from the Fraser River to the Davis Straight. The Northwest Passage is a legendary route deeply tied to Canadian history and one that I hope to travel one day. But regardless of where I am this track makes me think of the North, and Canada as a whole.