Mark “Boots” Graham, guitarist and lead singer of Boots and the Hoots, is a master of the cold call, usually to honky-tonk dive bars so remote they don’t have a website or an e-mail address. It’s helped meet the goal set out in 2014 — to play every dive bar in Alberta. And while he states the band hasn’t brought their droll, old time country sound to quite every bar, they have toured from Yellowknife to Waterton, through most of Saskatchewan and even figured out the trick for breaking through in B.C.
“It’s basically where we make our bread and butter is playing the hotel bars in the small towns. B.C. doesn’t really have dive bars,” Graham, originally from Clive, Alberta, explains in a phone call from his Red Deer home.” It’s a little bit classier — it’s all gourmet and high-falutin’. About four years ago we’d call B.C., call every bar and pretty much as soon as we said were a country band they’d hang up or lose interest. We said, ‘What’s going on? They’re really scared of country music?’ So we started calling and saying we were a bluegrass band and they all booked us. You just had to change your angle.”
Rounded out by Olds-raised Tyler Allen on guitar and banjo and Sean VandenBrink, formerly of Bentley, Alberta, on upright bass, the band members come by their vintage twang and strum naturally. But rural roots aside, Graham started playing live at 14 in punk bands for about five years before the group formed around 2013. He credits growing up in a musical family where there was always an upright piano and acoustic guitars around for his start.
The jump from punk to the classic country sound — which a national paper nailed down as “a cactus in the ass of modern, power-ballad country crooners” — was due in part to touring with his punk band, Scrap.
“A lot of it had to do with the modern country. I was on tour with Scrap in 2009 and you get bored of the few CDs that you have. This was before MP3 players were really popular. You tune into the radio, and the country music on the radio is just garbage. I told (my bandmates), ‘There’s good stuff out there, but its 46 years old and done by the grandfathers of country music.’
“Being a bunch of punk rockers they didn’t believe me, so I ended up buying a bunch of CDs on that tour — Hank Williams and Merle Haggard — and by the end of it we all were heavily into country music. It’s very similar to punk rock: it’s really blue collar and anyone can play it.”
Ironically, the cactus in the ass review was out for months before the band realized their first album, 2013’s Pinecone Cowboy (a play on Rhinestone Cowboy), had earned ink.
“That was huge for us. We didn’t find the review until three months later. We didn’t realize they’d answered our letter. We’d sent them the CD in the mail and we didn’t realize they’d opened it and listened to it, let alone reviewed it. Everything they said in that review wrote our bio for us and helped us get on our way,” Graham says.
While the band was unaware this had happened, they noticed their bookings started to pick up. Around the same time, they were featured on a CKUA special playing live, which also helped. Graham found the review Googling the band’s name. “In the same month they’d reviewed Dolly Parton’s and Merle Haggard’s latest albums and they didn’t get four stars and we did. I thought, ‘It’s a pretty nice pat on the back to beat your heroes.’ ”
The band went on to release Too Hot to Hoot in 2015 and have a Kickstarter fund on their Facebook page to raise money to put out their third album.
Playing 200 nights a year in addition to festivals during the summer, Graham’s learned to field the inevitable family reunion questions about his future, and the family members have learned to quit asking. “Hopefully, we’ll be on the road the next 50 or 60 years,” Graham says without a trace of irony.
He adds that unlike many artists, the road doesn’t get in the way of his songwriting, which relies on wit without kitsch. “I can’t stop. It’s like a faucet that was turned on years ago and I just can’t turn it off. When we went in to record our third album, I had the fourth one written in my head already.”
What about the joys of loading equipment at 2 a.m. in a blizzard and staying in shitty bars? Graham’s stoic: “That part of it — I’ve read every book of all my heroes (including autobiographies by Stompin’ Tom Connors, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard) — and that’s just a part of it. You learn to kind of love those shitty hotels and you get pretty good at the load in and the load out. Honestly, the hardest part of the job is cold calling bars three provinces away and trying to convince them to let you play in their bar where they never heard of you.”
(Photo courtesy of Twitchy Finger Photography.)
Boots and the Hoots play Nite Owl Thursday, March 29. For more information, go to https://m.facebook.com/NiteOwlYYC/ .
Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who hates writing but loves music, horses, books and whiskey.