Ruth Purves Smith went from leading pack horses into the Alberta wilderness to singing country songs for a rough and tumble crowd at Calgary’s notorious St. Louis Hotel.
All it took was answering a quirky want ad seeking a “girl country singer.”
Purves Smith, who performs on Saturday, Aug. 17, at the three-day Central Music Festival just outside Red Deer, recalled her abrupt initiation into the music business. It happened like this: she’d just come off a job of guiding horses for an outfitter near Carstairs when she decided to hone her campfire singing talents by replying to the advertisement in a Calgary newspaper in the fall of 1987.
Purves Smith got a quick once-over from the male musician who’d placed the ad, and must have made the grade. Next thing you know, the then 20-year-old was standing on stage at the St. Louis Hotel, with bouffant hair and a mini-skirt, crooning country classics for his one-man band.
Her musician boss had made his name by playing the bass guitar with his foot, while strumming a regular guitar with one hand and playing the keyboards with the other. Besides his multi-tasking talents, Purves Smith remembers he had an eccentric penchant for Dolly Parton-style country singers.
“As long as my hair was big enough and my skirt was short enough, (he) would play the songs at their proper tempo. Otherwise it was Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain at 90 miles an hour.”
It took Purves Smith only a short while to leave this stressful gig and take up with a “B” circuit country band that toured rural Alberta.
It took her much longer to gain the confidence to write original songs and strike out as a professional musician with her own band, the 581. Her country-roots group is named for the highway Purves Smith regularly commuted on between Calgary, where her mom lived and the teenager attended the artsy Bishop Caroll High School, and Carstairs, where her dad ran a woolen mill and Purves Smith rode horses and later worked for an outfitter.
The Three Hills-based singer credits the friendship between her sister, Calgary actress Esther Purves-Smith and musician Fred Eaglesmith for giving her the boost she needed to write her own music.
By 2000, she was raising two children and trying to make it as a soloist. Eaglesmith, who’d written “about grannies and dogs” and all manner of things, decided to write a song about Purves Smith’s sister, Esther, who had starred in a short movie with him called The Gift.
When Purves Smith heard this tune, she had an epiphany. She realized she didn’t have to wait for some profound mood to strike in order to be a songwriter. “When I heard Fred . . . I realized a song is what it is. Just do it. I decided I wanted to write for myself.”
Her well-received debut 2010 album Out In the Storm was the culmination of a decade of songwriting. She describes this first CD as being darker in tone than her upcoming Faster Than the Speed of Dark, which is slated for a fall release.
The new album will contain the song Shoulda Known, which Purves Smith wrote about herself, her sister and Eaglesmith. It also has a title track that’s a waltz, and a comic ditty called Alberta Horse Thief Swing, which is about “stealing horses and riding off to Drumheller.”
This latter song was inspired by seeing a corral of cow ponies, she said. “They were just so fat and full of beans.”
But the world isn’t always a happy place, and Purves Smith has been shaken by seeing some of the economic disparity between people in Calgary. She said she’s saving some of her “heavier” material for a third album to be recorded in future.
Meanwhile, the 46-year-old is looking forward to performing at the Central Music Festival, saying that any time she gets to sing to fans outdoors, she’s there.
“If I could play at festivals all the time, I would. It’s about the connection with the audience and community.”
For more information about the Aug. 16-18 festival, please visit www.centralmusicfest.com.