‘I find solace in the fact that I’m two blocks away from everything in Fort MacLeod—grocery store, liquor store, postal office. I look west and see the Porcupine Hills.”
You can tell a lot about a man by his priorities, and John Wort Hannam has his down: food, beer, mail and breathtaking scenery. The Fort also confers certain survival advantages, such as overall cheapness and a town full of characters, vital to his absolute top priority—songwriting.
“I have this dream where I sit in my house writing songs and people come and slip $100 under the door and I give them a song,” Hannam laughs. “It’s my favourite part of the artistic process, sitting alone and writing.”
He seems good at it, racking up recognitions in a career that only spans four years, including a 2005 CBC Galaxie Rising Star Award, and Canadian Folk Music Awards and Western Canadian Music Awards nominations.
His newly released third album should propel him towards further honours and opportunities. Two-Bit Suit confirms Hannam’s niche as a kind of prairie Springsteen, documenting the Everyday of the working-class Everyman. Over 11 tracks, he makes rash and grand promises of a better future to his lovers and puts himself in the work boots of soldiers, coal miners, farmers, bar-goers and gold panners.
“I vividly remember seeing 21-year old Billy Bragg on this precursor to MuchMusic,” Hannam recalls. “It was his first Canadian tour and he’s got this Fender and there’s all this distortion and he’s singing with his not-so-great voice really passionately about union busting. And I was, ‘whoa—I’ve never heard music before, not like this.’”
Of course, he’d heard music before—Hannam’s emotive cashmere tenor is a grown-up version of whatever he had as a boy, when he sang in the Calgary Boys Choir. He also admits to hearing a bit of Celtic music in his youth, an influence felt in a handful of his songs. But mostly it was AM radio, and Hannam’s teenage mind was blown by Billy Bragg.
“I was excited about these genres I didn’t even know existed,” he says. “The narrative style was what I liked, so when I started writing, I fell into that naturally.”
Musically, the skeletons of Hannam’s songs are hybrids of western-tinged, rootsy folk. His instrumentation choices are less conventional, and Two-Bit Suit is stuffed with the influence and aural textures of Vancouver-based producer/multi-instrumentalist/roots guru Steve Dawson. (Two-Bit Suit is the first of Hannam’s records to be released on Dawson’s Black Hen label.) Hannam’s narrative prowess and willingness to stretch genre boundaries are complemented by Dawson’s craftsman-like approach to music making.
“Steve has this magical studio with every kind of instrument in there, and he’s proficient on every single one,” Hannam states. “I find being in the studio nerve-wracking, but this was my most comfortable experience.”
He’s slightly apologetic about a lack of straightforward descriptors about his work. “The problem is, I like so much music that different genres sneak themselves in. And being in the prairies, based in a rural area, that’s where the Country & Western feeling comes from. It’s everywhere here.”
As are the stories, which is part of why Hannam calls it home. Two-Bit Suit even has a homage to the place, a sun-dappled slice of southern Albertacana framed around a bickering small town couple.
“‘Damn it Gwenivere’ is me trying to capture little bitty snapshots of Fort MacLeod. I don’t own a truck, but there are bar fights here over whether your truck is a Dodge or Chevy. Rosie’s Café doesn’t really exist, except in my imagination, but there actually is a place where the old war vets gather and talk about the weather and news and WWII.”
And when he’s at home, all that inspiration is only a couple blocks away from Hannam: the grocery store, the liquor store and the postal office.
-Mary Christa O'Keefe