From full-blown metalhead to top-selling country artist to born-again rock musician, Julian Austin could well be Canada’s most dramatic musical shape-shifter.
Austin, who plays at the Friday kickoff for the Aug. 31 to Sept. 2 Ponoka Summer Send Off Music Festival that features Ian Tyson, Gord Bamford, Doc Walker and others, is happy to be back in the saddle again, so to speak. He will be performing his country music hits such as Little Ol’ Kisses before an enthusiastic Central Alberta audience.
“I’m looking forward to it. Alberta has been the No. 1 spot for me to play. It if wasn’t for Alberta fans, a lot of us (country artists) would be up the creek without a paddle,” said Austin.
Local devotees shouldn’t be surprised to hear Elvis Presley’s Burning Love on Austin’s set list. After all, the singer admitted, “As a boy, I loved Elvis — I even owned a pair of blue suede shoes!”
In fact, Austin’s latest album, One For One, includes country-flavoured renderings of that Presley song, as well as Rod Stewart’s Maggie May, Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls and the Bee Gee’s Islands in the Stream, which was popularized by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers.
But then, musical diversity has always been the 49-year-old’s mainstay.
As a youth, Austin gravitated towards metal and then 1970s and ’80s hair bands, including Whitesnake, Trooper and Slade.
It wasn’t until rock took an unwelcome detour to grunge that Austin, a former member of the Top-40 band Toys in the Attic, developed an affinity for country after hearing the catchy sounds of Tracy Lawrence and Dwight Yoakam in the early 1990s.
But once converted, Austin went country all the way.
He even took up bull riding, briefly, until a terrible tumble landed Austin in a Calgary hospital’s trauma unit with life-threatening injuries.
Two good things came out of that ill-fated experience, recalled Austin: He never, ever rode a bull again; and his popularity as a country artist exploded right across Canada.
“Next thing you know, I was being interviewed by Vicki Gabereau and Mike Bullard and CMT was starting to sponsor bull riders. I think I helped bring CMT fans and professional bull riding fans together.”
Austin, who has been nominated for several Juno Awards, had a lot of good years in country music. He toured as far as Bosnia and Afghanistan entertaining Canadian troops (and gaining the nickname of GI Jules), and he made fans in every province and territory.
One of his most devoted followers was young Britney Hanson from his native New Brunswick. In 2008, Hanson died at age 13 from cystic fibrosis, and Austin became involved in an annual CF fundraiser in her name. Soon he will be headed back to the East Coast to perform at this year’s benefit.
The singer, who lives with his wife in Steinbach, Man., has designed a line of guitars and is again dabbling in the rock music of his youth.
Austin’s next album, The Julian Austin Project, is slated for a fall release and will be a complete reversal from country. He described this CD of original “party rock” music as a throwback to the days of ’80s hair bands.
“I’ll have a totally different voice — I’ll be using my rock voice,” said Austin, who feels this kind of music is fun to play and takes him back to his younger days.
But that doesn’t mean he’s done with country.
Austin’s fans can look forward to the release of a country single this fall, as well as a video on YouTube. The 49-year-old said, “There’s a couple of new songs I’ve written and I’m excited to get them into a studio.”
He’s also planning a best-of country album called Best of the Bad Boy, which will include six new songs.