Doc Walker lead singer Chris Thorsteinson just finished a three-hour ride on his bobcat and is now ready to talk country.
Seated at his cabin on the lake after doing some landscaping (he said it helps him clear his mind), Thorsteinson said growing up in small towns on the prairies has always been central to the band’s identity.
“I grew up in a tough little prairie town where you’re at the bar until two and fighting until three and then licking your wounds Sunday morning,” he said with a chuckle.
And while he is not an advocate of bar fights, he recognizes the role his sometimes rough ‘n’ tumble upbringing played in his development as a musician.
The band is billed as being from Portage la Prairie, but Thorsteinson actually grew up in Westbourne, Man. During his youth, Westbourne’s population was about 50.
“Everything we do kind of comes from who we are … We’re country guys who love being out in the open,” he said. “And I think when playing country music and singing stories about country music, you’ve got to have that attachment.”
The band has toured across North America and won multiple Canadian Country Music Awards during the course of their career.
Their musical influences range from Tom Waits, to The Wailin’ Jennys, Lyle Lovett and The Beatles.
He describes them as a mid-western prairie rock and roll sound. He believes the sound itself is linked to the prairies.
“When you’re in Toronto you’re influenced by New York and in Vancouver they’re influenced by L.A. or Seattle,” he said. “When you’re stuck in the middle of Manitoba, by the time what’s cool and popular gets to you, you’re out of the loop.
“So I think musically, it’s still engrained in a lot of the musicians in the prairies that they dance to the beat of their own drum,” he added.
And while that’s changed somewhat with the internet and music from all corners of the globe becoming more accessible and influencing musicians in different ways, Thorsteinson still hears a distinct sound that comes out of the prairies.
And it’s one they hope to keep alive.
“That’s something we’ve always been really proud of – that heartland kind of attachment to the prairies,” he said.
But country music is not exactly obscure in the prairies. Thorsteinson said he sings from the heart and tries to avoid country cliches to set the band apart.
“There’s this whole bro country thing with the farm hats and pickup trucks and Budweiser,” he said. “And I lived that my whole life – but it’s not what I want to sing about because I have a lot of other things I’d rather sing about. We’ve always had so much more to say.”
He’s excited to have several upcoming gigs in Manitoba and Alberta because the band tends to get booked more in Ontario.
And while small-town southern Ontario certainly appreciates country music, they don’t get down quite like in the west, Thorsteinson said.
“I notice in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and especially in Alberta, the crowd gets up and dances,” he said. “And for me coming from playing a background of bars and socials … it’s great, seeing people get up and dance and two stepping by the second song.”
Thorsteinson has been performing since he was 12 and it doesn’t look like he’ll be getting bored of it any time soon.
He said he and his band mates feed off the crowd and try to get them involved in the show.
“We want people to come away from the show knowing us a little better,” he said. “And no matter how many people are there we try and make it as intimate as possible.”
He added that the band doesn’t usually have a set list and “tends to wing it”. They feed off the crowd and try to tailor their set to whatever the crowd is most into.
Thorsteinson said he and his band mates love playing in small towns because people tend to appreciate the musicians more.
“I love getting outside of the cities,” Thorsteinson said. “We’ve been doing this small town touring for a couple of years now … I really love it, being from a town of 50 people. Because it’s such an event.”
He’s played intimate shows in Toronto to 50 people, but the memories that stand out in his mind are the shows in small towns, no matter the size.
He recalls when the band held a benefit concert in Thorsteinson’s hometown of Westbourne and attracted about 2,400 people and raised more than $20,000 for a charitable cause.
To him, that illustrates the role local, grassroots music can play in small towns.
“I saw what that did for our community and the role it played in bringing people together,” he said. “Small communities just have to stay active and stick together or otherwise they’re gonna die.
“And it’s unfortunate, because to me, that’s where the heart of the country is.”
Doc Walker plays at the Beaumont Blues & Roots Festival on Saturday, June 20 at 9:30 p.m.