James Keelaghan sings the praises of Calgary’s folk music scene

Calgary is, arguably, the unofficial folk music capital of the world.

The number of clubs, venues, area festivals, performers and fans of the music that it boasts is unparalleled.

So, not surprisingly, when it comes to celebrating one of the longest running folk events in the city — the Chinook Musical Society’s Saturday Night Special, which is marking its 40th anniversary this weekend — organizers should turn to the biggest name the local scene has produced, Mr. James Keelaghan.

The now Perth, ON-based Juno-winning singer-songwriter was born here, got his start here and continues to sing this city’s praises when it comes to all things folk.

Prior to heading back to where it all began and where it all takes place, Keelaghan spoke with theYYSCENE.

Q: Thanks for doing this, sir. How is life with you these days?

A: Life is good, life is busy. With anything in the music biz, as you know, a lot of it is about keeping fingers in pies, and that really helps things move along. I’ve been staying a little bit closer to home for the past 18 months or so, just because I’ve got two boys now, 11 and 7, and I want to be around them. So I’ve been trying to do just some weekend run-out stuff and not going out on tour, which is a different thing for me. And I’m also running a festival north of Toronto, the Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival in Owen Sound, and I’ve been doing that for, it’s coming up on year six, so that’s been occupying some of my time as well. So it’s flexing different muscles artistically.

Q: Well you’re heading home soon, but I see you’re also heading out for a pretty great trip in May to Ireland.

A: Yeah and it’s a funny little trip — I’m actually leading a tour group. It’s this group called Inishfree and they do these tours, and David Francey leads them and Chuck Brodsky, and they’ve been after me for a couple of years to lead one and I finally had a window to do it. So, yeah, I’m going back to the old country as it were and leading this tour for nine days through Cork and Kerry and County Clare. It’s a tight little tour with about 25 people and there’s a private concert in the middle of it and I also jam with local musicians as we stop at various pubs along the way.

It’s going to be good. I was actually surprised at how quickly it sold out, so we’ve got another one on the books for next year. We’ll see how it all works out, but I’m anticipating that it’s going to be a great deal of fun. And then as soon as that’s over, Hugh McMillan and I — because Hugh’s coming with me — are heading out on a tour of the U.K. right after that.

Q: But before that you’re heading back out across the prairies. When was the last time you were home?

A: I came last year to do a special thing at the Nickleodeon (Music Club). It’s astounding to me that I can come back within a period of a year and a half and do the Nickelodeon and now the Saturday Night Special for their anniversary. The Calgary folk scene is the most amazing one on the face of the planet … I’m not exaggerating when I say that it is the best folk music scene on the planet. I know of no other city anywhere in the world that hosts this number of folk clubs. And a number of them are effectively sold out on subscription, often there isn’t tickets, it’s very hard to get tickets for the public … Some times they line them up so that you can play the Saturday Night Special on the Saturday night and you can play the Calgary Folk Club on the Friday night and you’re actually playing to an audience of almost 700 because there’s no crossover between the two clubs — they’re two completely separate audiences. That’s an astounding thing.

I cherish the folk scene in Calgary. It’s one of the great incubators of people’s careers and folk music in general. It’s certainly where I got my start and it just continues and continues and continues to support what I do. Even when playing the Jack Singer Hall we still come back and also do folk clubs in the midst of all that. To think that it was a scene that basically grew out of someone’s basement — I think the whole scene really kind of started in Lyn and Barry Luft’s basement — and the Calgary (Folk Club) came out of that and the Nickelodeon. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing had it not been for the Calgary folk scene.

Q: You’ve said you’ve got your finger in a number of different pies, but musically can we expect a new album soon? (Keelaghan’s last release was 2013’s greatest hits package, History: The First 25 Years and his last proper studio album was 2009’s House of Cards.)

A: I think there’s going to be a new album out in the fall. It’s not going to be originals, it’s going to be a trad-based album that I’m working on right now. I’m in sort of a fallow period in terms of the writing, that’s a natural thing to happen. I’m more than a pen, I’m also a voice, so doing an album of traditional stuff — I love playing traditional music, it’s some of the first stuff that I played, so it’s really about going back into the roots. So there’ll be a new traditional album coming out this fall. And then the plans are that sometime in 2018 Jez Lowe and I are going to record an album of all new original stuff.

James Keelaghan performs at the Braeside Community Centre (11024 Braeside Dr. S.W.) Friday as part of the Saturday Night Special’s 40th Anniversary Festival Weekend.

Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for, and the co-host of the show Saved By the Bell, which airs Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at He likes beer. Buy him one.