When Alberta’s booming economy brought more “urban” problems, such as drugs and gangs, Big Sugar frontman Gordie Johnson figured it was time to get the heck out of Dodge.
In 2004, Johnson left Central Alberta, where all three of his children had been born at the Red Deer hospital and where his family had been residing on his in-laws’ ranch. He moved his wife and kids down to Texas, of all places.
But the singer and guitarist — who’s returning to his old stomping grounds to perform on Saturday night with his resurrected reggae-blues-rock band at Cowboys nightclub — still doesn’t see any irony in relocating to the fabled land of big guns.
Texas didn’t come with the kind of crime that “smug” Canadians assume comes with a gun culture, he maintains. “When even an old lady with a beaded purse can pull out a Colt revolver,” a chuckling Johnson added, there’s less likelihood that anyone’s going to steal her bag.
In all seriousness, he believes the down-home U.S. state retains more of the neighbourly 1950s values than Alberta did when he left. But that doesn’t mean Johnson isn’t looking forward to heading back to Central Alberta, where he expects to see a lot of familiar faces at the Cowboys concert.
“My kids were all born in Red Deer, although they’ve grown up in Texas . . . we still have a lot of ties to Red Deer.”
As it turns out, Big Sugar has also forged a strong connection with fans across the country, who were disappointed when the band broke up at around the same time as Johnson headed to the U.S.
Over the next seven years, while Johnson played with the “red-neck rock/heavy metal” band Grady, he kept hearing requests from Big Sugar fans to reunite his old band.
He kept saying no — especially to record industry offers that Big Sugar reunite for a “greatest hits” tour.
Then, one day in 2010, Johnson woke up and suddenly felt a hankering to play with his former bandmates.
After talking to the other Big Sugar musicians and realizing they were also interested in reforming the band — not to do a nostalgia tour, but to cut a new album and continue creating original music — he was thrilled to give it another go.
And the result is a new album called Revolution Per Minute, which has been praised by fans and critics alike.
Johnson is obviously pleased with the reception Big Sugar has been getting across Western Canada, including playing to two soldout houses at The Commodore in Vancouver. “We’re just enjoying playing music together. We have lots of laughs about old times and new times . . .” said the musician, who describes Big Sugar as a “living, breathing entity” that’s finding new audiences even more receptive to its hybrid sound of reggae, soul, rock and blues than listeners were a decade ago.
He attributes this to the Internet exposing people to all kinds of new music. “I believe it’s easier to be a creative person today than ever before. . . .
“If I wanna make a record,” said Johnson, who also produces other people’s music, he just goes into his home recording studio and makes one. “If I wanna make a video, I shoot it with my iPhone, edit it on my laptop and post it on YouTube. . . . If I wanna make lunch, I go into the kitchen to cook it. If my horse is sick, I fill up a needle and poke it.” He laughs.
“I can do anything I want to.”
If he wants to play with a band like Wide Mouth Mason, Johnson just picks up a bass guitar and plays with the group.
Really, he does.
This means the crowd at Cowboys in Red Deer will get two doses of Johnson — when he plays bass with the opening band, Wide Mouth Mason, and later when he sings and plays guitar with Big Sugar.
He admitted “it’s a long, long night” when you play in two bands, but it’s a heck of a lot of fun.
Tickets are $20, available at the Bell Fever Lounge downtown. For more information about the show, call 403-341-6060.