It’s been a heck of a year for Sylvan Lake’s The Boom Chucka Boys, culminating with five award nominations from the Association of Country Music in Alberta.
The local band that’s now signed to Gord Bamford’s Cache Entertainment label is nominated for Group of the Year, Fans’ Choice, Song of the Year, Album of the Year and the Rising Star Awards.
Winners will be announced when the ACMA holds its third-annual awards show on Saturday, Jan. 25, at Westerner Park in Red Deer. But just getting nominated is a great career boost and a huge honour, said the group’s guitarist Joel Rathjen, a big supporter of the fledgling provincial music awards.
“We really try to be involved in Alberta’s music industry and try to promote it,” Rathjen added. “We enjoy the community, and collaborations with other artists on our projects. . . . There’s a real wealth of talent here that needs to be exposed.”
On the career front, he and other members of The Boom Chucka Boys — vocalist Ryan Langlois, drummer Dave Grobe and bassist Teddy Roy Michaylow — have seen their band’s success grow exponentially over the last year.
The Boys’ 2013 self-titled debut CD yielded a Top 40 Billboard single — Find My Peace of Mind. (The album was co-written with eminent Nashville songwriter Byron Hill, who also co-produced it with Bamford. Both shared a Producer of the Year Award for it from the Canadian Country Music Association.)
As well as appearing regularly at The Hideout, the band has also played at many high-profile gigs, most notably the CCMA (Canadian Country Music Association) weekend in Edmonton, the Ponoka Summer Send-off with The Mavericks, Ian Tyson and Dierks Bentley, and curling’s Brier and Scotties Tournament of Hearts.
But on the personal front, Rathjen has been facing a personal “dichotomy.”
Just as the Boys were seeing their public profile spike, Rathjen’s wife, Cristina, mother of their two children, aged three and six, was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer.
When the band was booked to appear in Toronto to film a half-hour special for CMT in early December, 35-year-old Cristina was scheduled for a double mastectomy. She insisted Rathjen should follow through with his band commitments but it was a difficult situation for both of them.
Rathjen provided some of his support long-distance. “Talk about sacrifice — that was sacrifice,” said Cristina, with a wry chuckle. But she appreciated how hard her husband and his fellow musicians work at their craft, and how much their music means to fans. Cristina recalled seeing a couple who had experienced their own family tragedy get up and dance for the first time in a long while to Find My Peace of Mind.
“I saw that flash of joy in their faces.”
Cristina is now considered cancer-free, although she will still undergo chemotherapy as a precaution. Rathjen is trying to process both the good and the bad that his family has experienced this year.
“It’s such a dichotomy. Everything was going so well and then this happened,” said the guitarist, who now understands why country artists such as Bamford leverage their success to back good causes.
“Gord’s got a big heart for raising money. I think it’s not by chance that we were thrown together. He showed me that you can use what you do with music to influence people and make a difference to others.”
Rathjen also feels the need to give back — particularly since the country music community has been so good to his family. “This has been about the country community pulling together to help us pull through.”
He and Cristina appreciate the many musicians and wives, radio and music industry people who called in to express their concern and good wishes. Friends volunteered services and left care packages. One female member of the Calgary band Wildflower drove all the way to Sylvan Lake with a gift of frozen food and muffins.
“Bands have been incredibly supportive . . . I can’t believe the generosity . . . I feel we are standing tall. We are standing on the shoulders of giants,” said Cristina, who is grateful for all the personal and medical support in Alberta.
“These people barely talk about (their altruism) because they are too busy doing good.”
Rathjen, who co-writes with Langlois, believes his family’s ordeal will undoubtably help shape what the band sounds like. And the next step for The Boom Chucka Boys will be gathering material for a new album.
One new song, I’ll Never Stop Trying, co-written with Duane Steele, already contains a realist tone: “It’s not sombre, it’s about fighting your way through life,” said Rathjen.
The Boom Chucka Boys was formed in 2010, after Rathjen and Langlois met at their day job at ATCO Gas and discovered their common love of music and songwriting.
Rathjen, who was formerly with the band Welcome, which opened for Big Sugar, Big Naked and 54-40 in the late 1990s, came from a pop-rock perspective. Langlois was a Stompin’ Tom Connors and Dwight Yoakam fan who soon sold him on country music.
The duo had no sooner began playing in coffee shops than they yearned to become a full band. Michaylow “came in quick,” recalled Rathjen. Although a pro at playing the electric bass, Michaylow soon taught himself the stand-up bass to join the group, excelling to the point that other acoustic musicians began approaching him for playing tips.
Drummer Grobe was recruited about four years ago. He worked at a local music store, heard the band and told us “I really like what you guys are doing,” recalled Rathjen.
The two have since learned to harmonize together, adding a dimension to Langlois’ vocals on songs that have been described as walking a fine line between country, rockabilly, gospel and a touch of soul.
Although The Boom Chucka Boys have also produced comic songs such as Caffeine, Rathjen doesn’t want to be slotted into any particular country music category.
“We’re writing about the journey of life and we’re going to expand on that . . The idea is to be honest about what we are and what we are doing.”