The story’s nowhere near over, but maybe it’s time to share some of the chapters.
And for Calgary pride and joy Paul Brandt, there are no better people to help tell his tale than Mount Royal University, where he graduated in the school’s nursing program in 1992, and the National Music’s Studio Bell home, where the musician recently saw a plaque put up to commemorate his induction into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame.
On Friday, June 15 The Paul Brandt Legacy Collection: YYC to BNA opened in Studio Bell, featuring items ranging from awards, albums, articles, photos and letters to costumes and concert T-shirts.
The temporary exhibition is accessible with paid admission to the East Village landmark until Dec. 31, 2018, and only really tells a brief part of the story of Canada’s most awarded male country artist and features only a fraction of the 1,600 items the artist has made available for display.
“Three years ago Paul gifted us this Legacy collection and 200 students at Mount Royal University have digitized the collection and this is a small sampling,” said Patti Derbyshire, the chair of marketing, social innovation and entrepreneurship in the Bissett School of Business at MRU, prior to the opening. “This is really Chapter One of the Paul Brandt Legacy.”
Again, it’s an impressive chapter, with Junos, gold records, letters of recognition from past premieres and prime ministers and objects that came long before Brandt’s legacy was even something to consider.
It’s there where he takes me on the first stop on a personal tour through YYC to BNA — the call letters for our airport, of course, and that in Nashville, where he got his big break and which he still considers his second home.
He proudly shows off the shirt his mom made for him and a photo from when he was competing in the Stampede youth talent search for the third time — he placed in the Top 10 the first year, out of contention the next.
“The third year I thought, ‘I’m going to do my best Garth Brooks impersonation,” Brandt says.
“I was a huge fan … and I had a bang-on impersonation, so I did Friends In Low Places and The Dance. My mom made me these shirts, there’s about four or five of them and this is a picture of the moment I won.
“That set this chain reaction into play where the labels we were talking to me, I entered another talent contest that went to a national level in Toronto … and I got to go to an international one in Memphis.”
The latter one, he says, featured performers on an entirely “different level” from what he was doing.
He again didn’t place, but one of the judges offered him some advice: ditch the Garth “schtick” and focus on his own music, be Paul Brandt..
“That encouragement was enough for me to go, ‘OK, I’m not going to impersonate people any more. I’ve got something to say,’ ” he says.
He did and, well, the story so far since that time — 11 studio albums, headlining tours and all of those awards and accolades — would probably speak for itself, without any need of an exhibit, but it’s nice to have one.
It’s also nice that Brandt has a story to tell about how far he’s come as he points to another of the artifacts in the collection.
“Twenty years later, almost to the day, I got to headline at the Calgary Stampede for the Grandstand Show,” he says of the 1993 to 2013 journey.
“And this is the guitar that I had when I was hovering 80 feet up in the air on the contraption that they had and we saw over a quarter of a million people in a week. The moment for me where — I don’t compare myself in any way to Garth … but the last night of Stampede I’m (80) feet in the air, I’ve got this guitar, fireworks blowing up, and I look down over at the Saddledome and Garth’s playing there. He’s got 18,000 people in there, I’ve got 20,000.”
He beams. “That’s my bragging — I’ve got 20.
“And all I had ever wanted to do at that point was swing out over the audience like Garth and be that guy, and I got to do it. Everything that you can do in this career, we’ve had the opportunity to do it. And it’s been amazing.
“And to see that journey in 20 years and that connection with the Stampede locally here in Calgary and then bringing it to the world was just a real thrill, a huge honour.”
Not all of the objects in the exhibition are of the musical side of his journey.
In fact, one of the central and more prominent pieces has nothing to do with a career in C&W, it’s one that speaks to to Brandt’s philanthropic side.
In the centre of the space is a dress made by local designer Paul Harvey featuring a design that is the signature of his Not In My City movement, which raises awareness on the issue of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. It became an important one to him when he and his wife on a trip to Southeast Asia 14 years ago.
“I was in an area where a California businessman was building a sex destination hotel — a three-storey building, because it’s an incredibly lucrative business, high profit, low risk,” Brandt says, noting that it was in a community where those “businessmen” and their pedophile customers were taking advantage of the youngest of victims.
In fact, one girl he met, aged five, was being sold for sex six to eight times a night.
“And I’ve got a young girl and I thought to myself, ‘What am I going to tell her?’ Once you know about this stuff there’s only two sides to be on: it’s either you’re going to ignore it or you’re going to do something. And I wanted to make sure I could tell my daughter I did something about it.”
What he did was help by that building and turn it into a school and health clinic, run by a church ministry.
That, though, was only the beginning of that story as well, with Brandt launching the movement in Canada, where those affected by trafficking are the most vulnerable, those in the Indigenous community, the connection to the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women an obvious and tragic one.
Coming full-circle, helping him with Not In My City — which is actually hosting a fundraiser Wednesday, June 20 at the Deane House — were the students of MRU, where he not only bequeathed his Legacy items to, but was also the Storyteller In Residence from 2016 to this year.
“I walked in as the Storyteller In Residence the first day at Mount Royal and these Millennial business students are looking at me like, ‘Who the hell is this guy?’ Like seriously, they don’t have a clue. And by the end of that semester, we were wiping tears away because we changed the world. We’re doing things that are changing culture.
“And they know who Paul Brandt is now, and we’re buddies and it’s awesome.”
And those students will get to know him better when Chapter Two of the artist’s story will be told, next fall when more artifacts dubbed BNA to YYC will go on display in the new Riddell Library and Learning Centre — which Derbyshire says an “entirely new exhibit, with a new set of artifacts and a new set of stories”
As she explains, it will likely be the second of many more to come, with those who can’t pay that or the first one at Studio Bell a visit able to check them all out digitally online soon.
“Paul’s only stipulation when he brought the collection over is that it get used,” Derbyshire says. “It get used to inspire, it get used to educate and then share it, of course, in the communities.”
(Photos courtesy Neil Zeller.)
The Paul Brandt Legacy Collection: YYC to BNA is on display at Studio Bell free with paid admission until Dec. 31, 2018. For hours of operation and other exhibits and programming, please click here.
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 theYYSCENE.com. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at email@example.com. He likes beer. Buy him one.