Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
CALGARY, ALBERTA — For many of us who first heard it, Gordie Johnson’s electric rendition of “O Canada!” delivered a jolt of patriotism that went beyond hockey glory and pats on the back for being polite. Johnson did to our national anthem what Jimi Hendrix had done to the “Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock in 1969: He made it cool, he made it relevant to the times, and he told us it was okay to be brash, to show off, and even to break the rules.
In 1994, Johnson played his version of the song on MuchMusic, strangling with the strings of his Gibson guitar our perception that the song should be staid and demure. It was wickedly good, that rock ‘n roll treatment, and it smashed beliefs that we couldn’t be bombastic. During this year’s Calgary Stampede, Johnson was on stage with Big Sugar, the band he formed in the late 1980s, and he closed the show with the anthem, playing his double-neck guitar behind his head while flashing the Canadian flag painted on the back side of the instrument. As usual, it was a rousing moment.
“I find that by and large whenever we play that song, it’s the best song of the night,” says Johnson, who is now based in Austin, Texas, having grown up in Medicine Hat, Alberta and lived in several places in southern Ontario during the 1990s when Big Sugar was at its peak with hits like “Diggin’ a Hole”, “The Scene” and “Ride Like Hell”.
While speaking with Johnson at the very cool Heritage Posters & Music store in Calgary, I asked how “O Canada!” ended up on his play list to begin with. Turns out, Molly Johnson (no relation) had asked him to play a song for the Kumbaya Festival, a charity event that ran from 1993-95 and benefitted victims of AIDS and HIV. It was only after Gordie Johnson agreed that the festival organizer told him it was the national anthem she was requesting.
“I was like, ‘come on, Molly, really?’ But I learned it for that event and afterwards I came up with a little arrangement and I thought that’s really something. I’ve pretty much played it every night after that.”
Big Sugar is in the midst of a cross-Canada tour and Johnson relishes the chance to play in front of small towns as well as large. “We make it a point to go to the small cities. The Invermeres and the Fernies and the Portugal Coves,” says Johnson, who also plays in Wide Mouth Mason and Grady. “They love music too, they deserve to hear good music too. We love playing those spots.”
As a father of three, he’s most content at home, either in Austin, or on his farm in Alberta. The road, he says, isn’t where he finds his motivation for writing his songs. “Life is inspiring and travelling is part of that, but I think you can find great songs can come out of anything that happens to you on a day-to-day basis, even the frustrating parts of life can be a source of inspiration for art.”