TORONTO — Deric Ruttan still remembers exactly where he was the first time he heard Shania Twain on the radio in Nashville.
It was 1994, and a then-22-year-old Ruttan had just moved to the country-music hotbed in pursuit of a music career. He was driving his burgundy ’87 Dodge Omni hatchback down historic Old Hickory Boulevard when a familiar voice strained through his car radio, singing Any Man of Mine.
In the 17 ensuing years, Ruttan has remained in Nashville and forged a successful career as a country singer/songwriter who finally earned his first Juno nomination for country album of the year going into this weekend’s awards in Toronto.
The show will also mark the 45-year-old Twain’s induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, an honour that seems like something of a no-brainer to her peers given her achievements: over 75 million albums sold worldwide, 12 Junos, five Grammys, 16 top 10 hits and multi-platinum album sales in 32 countries.
But, of course, Twain hasn’t released an album of new music since 2002’s Up, and while country music continues to flourish in Canada, no Canuck artist has managed to claim even a fraction of Twain’s Stateside success since the telegenic star shuffled out of the spotlight.
While several of this year’s countrified Juno nominees have carved out successful careers in Nashville, the question remains: what will it take for Canada to produce another country star who shines like Shania?
“I think, probably, a beautiful mid-section,” cracked Johnny Reid, who’s up for four Junos at this weekend’s show. “I gotta tell you, I don’t think anybody knows the secret. I think when you turn on the television or you turn on your radio, the question is: ‘Is this truthful?’ There’s a connection that takes place between an artist and people, and it’s pretty hard to know the recipe.
“It’s just something that happens.”
Still, while Reid’s right that there might not be a recipe for Canucks looking to find international stardom, a few of his peers have zeroed in on some of the ingredients.
Dean Brody, a Smithers, B.C., product who is up for country album of the year for his sophomore effort, Trail in Life, had a hit on U.S. country radio with his first-ever single, Brothers. At the time, he lived in Nashville — and while he’s since relocated to Nova Scotia, he says a Tennessee address is essential for Canuck country singers hopeful for U.S. attention.
“I think the biggest thing, the toughest things for Canadians . . . is to make it in the biggest market, you have to be able to live there,” he said. “That’s the biggest struggle I’ve had. Some of my friends who have had great success on the country side, it’s taken them over 10 years. It takes a long time.”
Past Juno winner Carolyn Dawn Johnson — nominated again this year for her album, “Love Rules” — agrees.
But beyond simply living in Nashville, she says it’s essential for artists to immerse themselves in the local music community. And for singers who are already established stars at home in Canada, that can sometimes require an ego adjustment.
“If you’re a big deal here, it means nothing in Nashville,” said Johnson, who has lived in the Music City for 15 years. “You really have to go there and realize that you’re a big fish in the Canadian pond possibly, but you start at the bottom of the ladder there.”
“I think there’s a lot of respect for Canadian artists, but I do think there is a certain way that Nashville does things … and Canadians probably go outside the box a little more often. So (people there) go, ’If this is too different, then I can’t make this work within the system that we know how to do.’
“So, if they can’t do that, then they’ll be like: ’Hey, it’s great, you sound Canadian — it doesn’t work here.”’
Then there’s simply the fact that the country-music scene is inarguably more competitive in the U.S. than it is in Canada.
“When I first moved to Nashville, I had a little demo tape I’d recorded (at) Fanshawe College in London, Ont.,” Ruttan said.
“And man, once I got to Nashville and heard the calibre of the other writers — who were from all over the place and just starting-out writers like me, a lot of them — I heard the calibre of those songs and I put my demo quietly in a drawer, closed the drawer and never played it for anyone else ever again.
“The level of the bar was raised so high as soon as I stepped out of the car and onto 16th Avenue. So yeah, it forces you to really rise to the occasion of the town.”
Thus, perseverance is key.
“The thing I had going for me was that I was completely devoid of any other marketable skills other than writing songs and singing them,” Ruttan said. “You might think I’m trying to be humble, but that’s the honest truth. I can’t do anything else.
“So when I moved to Nashville, I was like: ’I’m going to do this.’ I didn’t have a one-year plan, a five-year plan, I had a life plan. I was going to do it and if it wasn’t successful, I was just going to keep trying.
“That’s kind of the attitude you have to take. Because if you have any kind of escape route in mind, the town is so hard on people you’ll be tempted to take it.”
Of course, Reid is one of the biggest homegrown country stars to emerge in Canada in years. His last two discs have been certified double platinum here, with his latest, “A Place Called Love,” occupying the top spot on the album charts for four weeks.
The Scottish-born, Toronto-bred singer will dip his toes into the American market on May 3 with the release of “Introducing Johnny Reid,” a compilation of the 36-year-old’s hits. The CD will receive a limited pressing, but Reid says his next album — which he’s planning on recording soon and hopes to finish by October — will be given a wider release in the U.S.
Unsurprisingly, the relentlessly humble singer was reluctant to speculate on his chances for Stateside success.
“I’m looking forward to EMI getting the music out there to the people, and then what happens when the people hear the music — I mean, who knows?” he said.
“But one thing’s for sure, what they’re going to hear is the truth, and I look forward to representing this country on every level possible. And even though I’m taking a step into other territories, I’ll always make sure I’ve got one foot firmly planted on Canadian soil.”
Reid is also quick to point out that he’s never labelled himself a country singer — he’s proud of his country heritage, but also points to his Motown and R&B roots.
However, that unique blend of influences could work in his favour. Because with Nashville’s saturation of cowboy-hatted country hopefuls, up-and-coming artists seem defined by what makes them different.
“They see so much talent that it’s like, there’s gotta be something that sticks out that’s just a little bit different,” Johnson said.
“Probably every week, my publisher gets asked or I get asked to write with a new female artist who’s trying to break through. And I’ll come home to my husband and say: ’Wow, she’s really good, she looks great, she sounds great, she can sing, she can play, she can write.’ And then next week I’ll do another person and most of the time I go home and go, ’This person is talented. Which one is it going to be?”’
“The (executives) who have been around for a long time, you get to the place where you’ve seen all the stuff, and at some point something’s going to have to pop with this person in order for me to really notice, because they’re really good but so this is person and so is this person.”
So, any aspiring Canuck country stars looking to shuffle their stuff across an international stage will face an uphill battle.
But regardless, many in the business still believe Canada can eventually spawn another country sensation.
“Man, of course I think it’s possible, absolutely I think it’s possible,” Ruttan said. “I think it’s possible for another Canadian to do that, absolutely.
“It’s possible for anybody to do that if they have those things: just remarkable songs, a unique voice, unbelievable perseverance and a little bit of luck.”