Calgary folk fest: Barney Bentall gets the ‘gang’ together, set to release a new record

Juno-winning, Calgary-raised artist juggling like on the road and on the ranch, making songs and mending fences, as he gets set to celebrate a different duality with The Drifter & The Preacher.

Steady, tuneful, classy, classic — during nearly four decades of making music, singer-songwriter Barney Bentall has held that course.

Raised in Calgary (he attended Western Canada High School), where he started playing music as a folk singer, Bentall followed his future wife to Vancouver in 1980 and emerged on the scene with his band of pop-rock darlings, The Legendary Hearts, around 1988. They released several hit singles including Something to Live For, Life Could Be Worse and Come Back to Me, taken from five albums that all went gold or platinum in Canada.

In the late ‘90s, Bentall bought a ranch in interior British Columbia, doing a complete about-face and walking away from the music industry to raise cattle and his four children, cut hay, and fix fences.

He took a break from the industry, but not the music. In 2006 he released Gift Horse, the first of a series of solo albums that also includes The Inside Passage (2009), Flesh and Bone (2012), and the upcoming The Drifter & The Preacher, to be released in October.

To see Bentall play these songs live is to enjoy the offerings of an artist seasoned by hundreds of thousands of highway miles, thousands of stages, an unquenchable passion for melody and detail, and a life well and interestingly lived.

In his seventh decade, it is still a busy one in which the soft-spoken singer has to squeeze a conversation about music in between chores, flights, and a rehearsal for the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Canada 150 project, Canada Far & Wide: Grands Esprits, a free concert at the Jubilee Auditorium on Wednesday, July 26. Bentall will also play on Friday, Saturday and Sunday on Prince’s Island as part of the festival.

“Very quickly after being booked for the festival, I was involved in the Canada 150 thing. I was keen to do it; the three songs I’m doing, I’m very happy and honoured to be doing them,” he says.

“I’m so excited to be playing this festival because I’ve worked really hard to try and get there and sometimes you just can’t force these things. I’m very excited to be involved in a bunch of workshops, too.”

The songwriter is equally enthusiastic about the upcoming release of his album in the fall, although when he was reading a bio that stated it would be his first album in five years, he was surprised. “It’s really funny, when I found out that was the case — it just flipped me out because it didn’t seem that long to me at all. You work a record for a couple of years, and I’ve been writing and recording probably for a good two years to put this together.

“The rest is life, family, grandchildren, and touring, lots of touring, I’ve been super busy. There’s lots to be done. I still work my farm a bit. I hay. Time just flies by.”

Part of the half-decade gap in between albums was also about getting it right, which has been a Bentall tradition since the start. “I love the Joe Henry quote,” he says of the producer and artist who will also be performing Thursday at the fest, “where he said, ‘You write songs because that’s what we do, and at a certain point you notice that some of them are forming a gang, and that’s when you know you are going to make a record.’

“It didn’t feel like a long time, but I really wanted to have good management and record company support. I wanted everything to be in place to have the best chance possible to get out there. I mean, I don’t want to re-invent the wheel — I don’t want to become super famous or set the world on fire. You just work really hard on a work of art and you want it to get out there. That was part of the process, too, was just lining that up.”

As that happened, Bentall recorded almost another whole record of material, so he picked the best tracks of the two and combined them to make the album.

“I just wasn’t in any rush. I was talking to Dust (son and musician Dustin Bentall) about this. At 21, you have so much youth on your side, but you think, ‘I’ve got to get right at it or the world’s passing me by!’ From my perspective, that’s a point in time when you do have lots of time and you can take a breath and contemplate and think about things. Oddly enough, it’s in later years when you actually believe that, if that makes sense.”

The songs on The Drifter & The Preacher seemed to form that “gang” around different characters. The Drifter is based on Bentall’s beloved father-in-law, who fought in WWII then came back to Canada and rode the rails in British Columbia before moving on to a white-collar life. The Preacher is based on Bentall’s father, who practiced in Calgary.

“The song was so central in that you’re going through that dialogue within yourself. In a way, there’re these two central themes. It’s the about two major influences, my father-in-law who was such a positive influence, and my father, who was a preacher in Calgary. It’s a complex career in a way, with different pressures of the church. It struck me that this was a story that you’d like to know more about.”

In keeping things all in the family, the song The Miner was co-written with Dustin, who enjoys a successful musical career in his own right and who will appear with his father at the festival. Interestingly, although the elder Bentall has collaborated musically with people like Donovan Woods, Jim Cuddy and authors Guy Vanderhaeghe and Michael Crummey (“It’s a long-term plan I have — I plan to make a record with a bunch of authors. I’ll get to it at some point”), writing with his offspring was a slightly sensitive subject.

“We were both staying up at the ranch and I just mentioned to him, ‘Would you like to write a song together?’ and he went, ‘Sure.’ And then we didn’t do it right away. I won’t speak for Dust, but I think I was a bit nervous about it. We had played a lot together, but to do something like that together, there were a lot of nerves.

“So we did it a couple of nights later. We sat down and had a glass of wine. It was kind of, ‘What have you got?’ ‘I don’t know, what have you got?’ It went from there. He started it; he had the initial idea of the miner and some of the chords. It was a very natural process once you go through the barrier of starting.

He continues. “I don’t collaborate a lot. I wrote a couple of songs with Donovan Woods a while back and you just realize when you’re in the presence of somebody who does that all the time, it just flows. Whereas I’d be more like someone who has been married for 25 years going out in the dating scene again. ‘I’m just not a go down to Nashville, do a bunch of co-writes, go from one room to the other kind of guy. That’s why it’s not a slick process for me. There has to be some kind of connection for me.”

While Bentall splits his time between his home on Bowen Island, his ranch, and the road, including participating in music and food tours with Jim Cuddy in Europe through Gold Medal Plates, he sometimes yearns for the peacefulness a routine brings. “I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t like to spend a little more time at home. Just in a pastoral way. I go up to the ranch, and it’s never ending, the simplicity of the work there. When you’re looking after animals or checking fence, life kind of makes sense. Animals appreciate it if you get in a routine, because animals love routines. My life is so removed from routines, but one longs for a bit more routine. Although people look at what I do and they think my life is so exciting and liberating, so I am grateful for the life I have.”

Barney Bentall performs Wednesday, July 26, at the Southern Jubilee Auditorium as part of the Canada Far and Wide concert. He also performs Friday, July 28, Saturday, July 29, and Sunday, July 30 at the Calgary Folk Music Festival on Prince’s Island. For tickets, call 403-233-0904 or visit the festival’s website,

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who covers her two passions, music and horses. She has written in the Calgary Herald, FFWD Weekly, Swerve, Western Horsemen, Western Horse Review, Horses All and other publications, for over 25 years.