Listen to John Wort Hannam sing and you might picture him as weathered and stark; the unforgiving prairie wind having etched his face, life’s sorrows hardening the lines it. The Alberta troubadour – living where the Rocky Mountains ebb into prairie at Fort Macleod – sings parables of distance and longing, love and loss. His tales strum the sinews that connect heart and earth. They champion a time long past and nurture the remnants it has left behind.
Talking to Hannam, one is forced to alter aural impressions. He is youthful, articulate, and is more comfortable sitting in a classroom than a combine. A graduate of the University of Lethbridge with a degree in Native Studies, Hannam’s connection to the country is more intellectual and emotional – through his study of its history, people and the connections he has forged with them – than it is literal.
“I am not a farmer,” says Hannam, frankly. “It is important that people know that my songs are not influenced so much by a rural upbringing, but by listening – to two ranchers talking when I go to pick up my mail, to the folks in town.”
It is town (Fort Macleod) that is Hannam’s muse, providing lyrical fodder for many of his songs. Commuting from Lethbridge to the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta to teach native students, Hannam would spend hours traveling flat prairie highway, and eventually settled closer to the reserve in Fort Macleod. “I like the simplicity here,” says Hannam. “It is very easy to live here. In the summer, I have a little apple box on the back of my bike and I just putt around town. Go down to the liquor store, the post office.”
Hannam’s writing threads two prominent country themes: women and a working man’s way of life. While he may not be breaking any new ground, his approach to this more traditional material is fresh and sincere. “I come from a blue collar family,” says Hannam. “My dad is a carpenter, his dad was a farmer, and his dad was a part-time preacher, part-time potato farmer,” he chuckles. “But, going back, I think both sides of my family have really struggled and that definitely is where my music is coming from.”
And as far as women go, it is as much Hannam’s soft spot for tear-in-your-beer country as it is homage to some of his favourite songwriters, like Steve Earle and Ontario’s Fred Eaglesmith. “I am a real sucker for a love song. Not that ‘ooh ooh baby’ stuff, but songs that deal with hurting and being apart.” Hannam’s love songs do not talk about cheating and drinking, but rather about what is left unsaid and undone – a brushing of cheeks that should have been a kiss, so close yet so far away. In “Sweet, Sweet Rose” Hannam sings: “And I never felt as far from the ocean as the day I stood next to the sea, and I knew despite all my dying devotion you may never be for me.”
Two-Bit Suit, Hannam’s third and latest full-length release, is his most complete chronicle of a prairie life to date. The culmination of a three year musical hiatus, it is a lyrical and musical progression from 2004’s Dynamite and Dozers. “I wish it had not been so long between albums,” Hannam confides. “But part of it was me not feeling that the album was quite there. I had a lot of extra time on this album, and I am glad because it gave me time to reflect and to find and fix some of the flaws.”
With the success of Two-Bit Suit, Hannam is determined not to get bogged down and to keep writing songs. “I am really trying to keep writing and not get caught up in the business side of music. That is what happened with Dozers. I was spending more time sending out e-mails and press packages than I was working on songs.”
Finding time still might be tough for the blue collar prairie poet, what with his recent selection at Texas’ Kerrville Folk Festival in the New Folk category. Hannam is one of 32 songwriters chosen from a pool of 800 submissions and the sole Canadian selected. “It is exciting,” says Hannam, at times a man of few words. “Pretty exciting.”