Alberta roots artist Dave McCann puts stories in song in his wonderful and ‘understated’ new acoustic offering Westbound Til Light

Everyone has a story, and every songwriter has many.

How they choose to tell them, though, is always the key.

To discover that, Lethbridge roots veteran Dave McCann just needed a nudge in the proper direction.

Yes, he’d built a strong following and reputation over five albums and two decades, but he needed a little encouragement to take the first step in telling those stories as, well, stories.

For that, he credits Austin artist Kevin Welch, whom he met in late 2017 at a songwriters’ residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

“He was really the one who started pushing me,” says McCann. “He said, ‘You should write story songs … you should really invest in a narrative as opposed to some of these other songs.’

“It was kind of interesting to me, and it’s pretty stuff to do that tell a story that makes sense in some regard. But I’ve always loved that sort of stuff.”

He points to his exposure to such artists as Steve Earle, Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt as being his gateway into that as a fan and as a musician, musicians that he was trying to emulate when he was growing up in Peterborough, ON.

“They forced me to abandon my early fascination with Iron Maiden and AC/DC and metal,”  he says. “I decided once I got an acoustic guitar you could do that, so it was progressing as opposed to playing Sepultura on an acoustic guitar, feeling like you weren’t progressing.”

Yet, despite those early influences helping to shape the musical path he would eventually travel when he hit this province more than 20 years ago, the idea of storytelling songwriting was one that remained fairly foreign to him for the same reason it wasn’t one that marked the early work of those Americana artists he cites.

“Steve Earle has this great story that he tells about how him and Guy Clark loved these really long story songs, but their publishers were like, ‘No, no — people want quick, fast country hits,’ and they were kind of bummed out about it. A couple of months later there was this Canadian by the name of Gordon Lightfoot who comes out with an eight-minute song about a shipwreck that goes to No. 1,” he says of the 1976 classic The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

“And they were like, ‘Yeah, way to be, Canada! This is great.’ ”

McCann continues. “I love that stuff. Every friend that I have is trying to emulate Wilco in their band and for some reason I’m going backwards and trying to unearth what Gordon Lightfoot was chasing, so that’s interesting to me.”

He’s finally captured it with his latest release Westbound Til Light, a gentle rocking, easy amble of an acoustic record that takes its time to show and to tell.

Pulled back, earthy and honest, it features McCann weaving tales inside of simple yet warmly layered acoustic instrumentation. And the album, which he’ll release with a show at the Ironwood on Saturday, March 9, should find a wider audience, stick its landing due in great part to the fact that it is slow, purposeful, dignified with songs that are obviously, lovingly crafted — it sounds like The Band with a little more prairie imbued inside of them, a little more restraint in the delivery.

“It’s really hard to make those story songs work with a lot of instrumentation,” he says, explaining that with too much going on the words don’t draw as much attention, and that the result on his sixth release is something that’s as much a revelation to him as it will be to the listener.

“It’s magical,” he says. “It’s more of a certainly understated record. For the last two records I’ve wanted to make an acoustic based record … and with Leeroy (Stagger, who produced McCann’s exceptional last effort, 2014’s Circle of Light), the first day of the session it hammered into a rock record.”

He laughs. “It’s hard to do an acoustic record when the producer sees a band and is like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this,’ and pushes us in that way.”

Westbound Til Light was recorded slightly north of McCann’s home in this province’s frostier version of L.A., over the course of a year in Nanton with Steve Loree. Not only did the producer encourage the strummy acoustic approach from McCann and his band, but he also helped facilitate it further by bringing in the two members of eastern band The Mayhemingways, percussionist Josh Fewings and multi-instrumentalist Benj Rowland, to help in the recording.

McCann says they hit it off immediately, due in part to sharing the same hometown and same musical, experiences sneaking into bars at an early age to see “strange roots bands” such as Washboard Hank and the Honkers.

Also added into the mix were other musicians, such as Shawn Worden, “harmonica ace” Ethan Askey and Canmore singer Lori Reid, who lent some beautiful background vocals to the tunes.  

“They really brought an amazing spark to the whole project, which was really fun,” McCann says.

As for the songs themselves and the stories they tell, they are many and memorable, including the mournful, soulful Swing Your Lantern, which tells the story of “hobos caught in a Lake Superior Blizzard at the tail end of the Great Depression,” and Johannah’s Line, which tells the story of the Black Donnellys, a family who emigrated to Canada in the 1800s, most of the members murdered and their farm burned to the ground by their neighbours, with no one ever convicted of the act.

It all begins with opening cut Can’t Cheat the Mountain, which is about Frank Slide, a story that should be familiar to anyone who grew up or lives on this land.

Being a non-native to this province, McCann nonetheless admits a fascination with “Alberta culture,” which he’s more than proud to help share with those who don’t call it home.

“It was something amazing and that was really unique, and so I think it’s worth investigating and singing about and celebrating and understanding — it’s pretty unique, this part of the world.”

And now that he’s discovered that storytelling is sometimes the best way to tell stories in songs, McCann is ready to try it again. Or, rather, he’s ready to maybe try again, but also ready to see where it all leads.

“I don’t know if I could do this all the time but certainly story songs are an interesting way to work.”

He pauses. “I like it all, that’s my problem.”

“And that’s the thing with our band, we’ve never been folky enough to be considered folk, we’ve never been rock enough to be considered rock, and we’re not country enough to be remotely country, but in that roots world we bounce around between all of that. It’s pretty loose as far as we can pull out story songs, we can pull out folk songs — you can pull all of that stuff out and work with it.

“There’s no narrow mindedness to it, it’s pretty broad, as far as what you can bring to the table.

“And that’s what I love.”

Dave McCann celebrates the release of Westbound Til Light with a show Saturday, March 9 at the Ironwood. For reservations please call 403-269-5581.