Riding the Mystic Highway

Canadian acid-folk super-group embraces southern Ontario sound

“The lighter side of the name is that it’s the Osmond brother that didn’t get the nurturing he needed during childhood” says Tom Wilson when asked to explain the name of his new project Lee Harvey Osmond. “Sometimes that’s how I introduce myself in the States. For some reason it resonates with people. It’s a name that I’ve been fooling around with since the ’80s. When I was in Junkhouse and I wanted to go out and just play acoustic guitar in bars I’d use the name Lee Harvey Osmond. At the time I was having the Canadian equivalent of 15 minutes of fame which is about 1.5 minutes.”

While Wilson may never again go out of his head with the sort of fame he enjoyed during that brief mid-’90s window he certainly hasn’t shied away from the spotlight in subsequent years. As Junkhouse was winding down he was busy forming Blackie and the Rodeo Kings with Stephen Fearing and Colin Linden a project that started as an homage to the legendary Willie P. Bennett but eventually morphed into one of the country’s most respected musical outfits. Then with Linden’s recent departure to play guitar on tour with Emmylou Harris Wilson took another stab at supergroup status by rounding up a gang of southern Ontario sharpshooters including members of Cowboy Junkies. They met up to record what he called acid folk in a Toronto garage and Lee Harvey Osmond was born.

“It might be a departure for anybody who’s listened to me with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings or Junkhouse but it’s not a departure from the way I think about music” says the gravelly voiced front man. “I believe that things don’t necessarily have to be rushed and a song doesn’t have to have a certain framework to be considered folk music or singer-songwriter music. And I’ve found that it doesn’t need to copy anything else that’s going on.”

If nothing else Lee Harvey Osmond’s debut album A Quiet Evil achieves a distinctive sound. While unmistakably built around a core that embeds folk traditions in a rollicking groove the album gives time to a motley assortment of sounds that shouldn’t necessarily fit. Fortunately from the addictive pitch-bent keyboard hook of “Cuckoo’s Nest” to the subtle electronic interventions that tug at the edges of “Blade of Grass” the album’s ingenious departures from tradition mix well. To explain how they managed this feat Wilson recalls his experience with two of the nation’s most respected musical talents.

“Something I learned from both Daniel and Bob Lanois is that it’s really interesting when people play music without trying to show off” he says. “And what they mean by that is just because you can sing the phone book that doesn’t mean people necessarily want to hear the Yellow Pages. This is an entire record that’s put together with a bunch of people who really don’t have big egos going on. There’s no competition and nobody’s trying to show off. As a result what shines through is kind of a unification of people playing music together.”

This sense of continuity is certainly a strong selling point but the most impressive dimension of the project is its deep roots in southern Ontario’s musical heritage. When listeners flock to the mainstage at the folk fest to catch Lee Harvey Osmond’s set they can expect to be transported to a distinctly different locale. Specifically it’s a place Wilson calls the Mystic Highway a stretch of road between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie from Hamilton to Port Dover. In addition to its vast fields of tobacco (or more recently echinacea) the region is a unique cultural tapestry that blends a western esthetic with aboriginal influences from the Six Nations reserve and the traditions of migrant workers from all over the world.

“If you travel down Highway 6 to some of the bars you can hear that sound and it’s sometimes confused with riding down an Arkansas highway or going to Memphis” he explains. “It’s a pretty cool little area as far as music goes but not many people talk about it. I started talking about it over in Europe because I kind of got fed up with people calling our sound ‘southern.’ I’m also fed up with Canadians calling music from this area ‘swamp’ or ‘southern rock’ because it’s really southern Ontario’s music.”