Songwriter Richard Inman navigates the best of both worlds with his compelling southern storytelling songs

Manitoba songwriter Richard Inman may move between two worlds, but to him it’s all just a part of living one life. Some of these transitions, while demanding, are normal parts of nurturing a career while holding a job and keeping in touch with family. 

First, there’s the movement between his Southern Manitoba Mennonite upbringing and his Alberta Mormon relatives.

“My biological mom’s family is all from southwestern Alberta, from Kainai,” Inman says. “She was adopted by Mormons and grew up in Hill Spring. So I spent my summers with my Mormon grandparents in Hill Spring in Cardston County. It was kind of crazy going between the two religious extremes (Mormon and Mennonite) like that.”

His takeaway from the two extremes of extremity?

“That everybody was going to hell, that’s what I knew.”

Then there’s the journey between writing songs at his home in Gardenton — near where Manitoba, Minnesota and North Dakota collide — and traveling an hour and a half up to Winnipeg, to drive forklift and do deliveries for a siding company before returning to Gardenton at the end of a 13-hour work day.

But for Inman, the biggest movement between two worlds came last year. This was a move away from being a songwriter who spent a decade performing at every dive bar and stage where he could hone his songs and improve his craft elbow to elbow with dozens of others scraping to do the same, to being booked as an Indigenous songwriter in Indigenous showcases. Suddenly, he had offers for lots of gigs.

It turns out this move has been more challenging for him than all the snow-blown highways, far-away relatives, workplace safety trainings, conflicting religions and threats of burning in hell.

“For me it’s a weird thing. It’s pretty frustrating being a songwriter, and trying to be just known as a songwriter and hired as a songwriter. I never identified as an Indigenous artist, I never did any grants, I never did anything like they have — the showcases and stuff — until last September I did the showcase at Folk Music Ontario. 

“Which for me was kind of disheartening because I’ve been doing this for a decade and the only way I can get gigs is by putting this stupid label on. It was a little disheartening, (but) I can’t really complain now, I got a bunch of work from it. But it’s frustrating.”

It would have to be, considering that hearing Inman’s rich baritone and bittersweet, spare songs uncluttered by even a speck of fluff is to picture him playing in Texas or Tennessee alongside Guy Clark or Townes Van Zandt. It’s an organic sound, a sound that seeped into his cells as country songs drifted like ghosts from radio stations in Portage la Prairie while he and his dad drove home from church, where they’d be immersed in another kind of music, in Grunthal, Manitoba, on Sunday mornings.

Inman’s dad had a big book of his own songs and always had guitars around, so Inman picked up the instrument when he was eight or nine, before leaving it alone until he was about 14 and then he started writing songs. “It’s just something I was always doing. I was kind of always storytelling even if I didn’t know it yet. So it came real easy, real natural. When I was about 15 or 16 I started to get more serious about it, I started writing down things and keeping things.”

And while speaking of those times he says that going to school was always tough for him as he had some problems with math, but things like English, history and science were good. His memories of growing up on a dairy farm were “great”; his family switched over to a beef farm about 15 years ago. But it was music that helped him find the peace of mind that his parents — and any — wish for their child to experience.

“They’re proud of me for the most part. They’re glad I found my place. Growing up in a small Mennonite town, that was really hard to do. But I kind of took to the whole music thing; I immediately knew when I was a kid that was what I wanted to do. So they’re just happy I’m not out there causing too much trouble.”

From those days Inman made a brief musical foray into indie music before circling back to that which he knew from nearly the cradle. His late mentor, Aaron Schorzman (“No one will have heard of him,” he says), who introduced him to the Times Change(d) High and Lonesome Club in Winnipeg as well as a bunch of local players, helped Inman re-connect with the influences from his past.

“Texas music was a huge influence. (Kris) Kristofferson and Guy Clark were a big part of it and Townes Van Zandt as well. A huge part of my early twenties was discovering all that and re-discovering it because I’d heard it all when I was a kid.”

Which leads back to Inman’s songs, which often start in medias res, pulling the listener into instant images that linger long after the final note has been played. A standout example is the compelling Sunday Morning from his 2016 self-titled album, which inexplicably shadows Kristofferson’s infamous Sunday Morning Coming Down without tripping over clichés. A follow-up song, Sunday Morning, Pt. 2, on last year’s Hasta La Vista album, does the same.

The song is a standout in any set. “People love it. I kind of do a disclaimer when I play it — I’ve actually just started playing it again. I’m not depressed, and I’m not shooting up. Just take the song for what it is,” Inman explains.

Which is, actually, a reflection of where Inman was.

“I was living in a rundown trailer and drinking a lot and doing a lot of things I shouldn’t have been doing. It was mostly just kind of trying to hang on. My buddy had moved back to the States and I didn’t have a lot of people I could hang out with. I was working a lot and not very happy with where I was at in my life. I kind of found a new circle of friends to play music with. It was just a transitional time. I wasn’t doing very good financially, or anything, really.

“I was getting ready to record that (self-titled) album when I wrote that song. It was one of the last things I wrote before I recorded it.

“Also, I’d been reading a book about Steve Earle, Hardcore Troubadour.”

So after living and writing true to his vision, it begs the question of why Inman ended up in that fateful Indigenous showcase that led to his magnificent songs being enjoyed by a wider audience.

“It’s because I was basically just broke. It was all about the money is what that was. It was about just getting paid,” Inman replies.

“I was talking to one of my bandmates about it a few weeks ago, and he said, ‘You know, you went a long time, no grants, barely getting by, touring. We used to play, like, 160 shows a year in bars and small festivals.’ He said, ‘That was all you. So you don’t feel bad about making some money now.’ ”

Well, you can’t eat songs, but if you are listening to the music of Richard Inman, be ready for a musical feast.

Richard Inman performs at the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s Block Heater on Saturday, Feb. 22 at Festival Hall and the Central Library. For information, go to https://www.calgaryfolkfest.com/

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who just wants to drink Jack Daniels and listen to Richard Inman.