Country Life: Calgary artist Matt Masters releases his horn-fuelled, classic country covers album Everybody Loves A Winner

Calgary musician and founder of the wildly successful pandemic-driven music venture Curbside Concerts, Matt Master,s hasn’t put an album out since All Western Winners in 2011. Before thinking he’s lazy or unmotivated, consider his reasons for the lull in a recording career that started with The Alberta Reporter, made on his dad’s computer in 2003, followed by 2006’s Centennial Swell — worth the price of the album for the stick-in-your-head title track alone — and 2009’s Don Coyote, (“which was literally recording a rehearsal one night.”)

“Since (All Western Winners) came out, I’ve had three kids, I lost my dad, I lost my grandpa, our house got robbed, my car got stolen,” says Masters from his southwest Calgary home. “I developed mental health issues – you know I just got diagnosed with bipolar disorder – to say nothing of the fact I had throat surgery last summer for a vocal cord polyp. 

“I’ve literally had so much shit go down that past 10 years that I haven’t had the chance to focus on making records. Because they don’t make money for me. They’re fun to make and they get you more festival gigs, but its not my business model for making money.”

During that time period Masters also ran for the NDP against a guy named Stephen Harper in the 2015 federal election, even going door-to-door horseback around the Calgary Heritage riding. Harper won and then resigned.

Masters has also been the program leader for the National Music Centre, facilitated music programming at Lougheed House and Wine-Oh’s, and created the now defunct Spaghetti Western Festival. He produced and toured on Barney Bentall’s annual charity fundraising tour, Cariboo Express, and had time leftover to host a weekly radio show on CKUA.

In addition, he worked for the City of Calgary for six months to draft the current busking by-law. “My big thing was, ‘Please let people amplify, please let the keyboard players play,’ because that was not allowed before. How do you eliminate tickets for busking? Allow amplification. It’s pretty simple and it made a difference.

“There’s more to being a music worker than just making records.”

With everything that’s gone on, Masters is positioned to write the perfect country song – you know, the one that if you play it backwards, our hero becomes footloose and fancy free again, his relatives are safe, his car, phone and computer come back, and his mental health is just fine.

However, Masters’ upcoming album, Everybody Loves a Winner, is an album of euphonious cover songs by Kris Kristofferson, William Bell, Willie Nelson and others. Recorded and produced with Leeroy Stagger at Stagger’s former Rebeltone Ranch Studio in Lethbridge, this is not your everyday Matt Masters album.

He channels his inner Tom Jones on opening track Walk a Mile in My Shoes (Joe South), then delivers a pretty version of Ian Tyson’s Someday Soon with Jill Barber, sashaying through the song while goosed along by horns. The album is a creamy, dreamy delight, offering sweet little surprises around each corner. It is the antithesis of the hell Masters has lived through, including being diagnosed with bipolar disorder six months before his upcoming 45th birthday on March 23, which is the date of the album’s release.

“I had an unfortunate degradation of mental health over the past five or six years. At the onset (there was) significant anxiety and depression, among other things. In part, it’s the loss of my dad and a lot of other things combined. We’ve had some traumas in our life. You know, right after I released All Western Winners, I lost all my hair.

“I was in Niagara Falls. My moustache fell off my face in the shower and so did my beard and so did my hair. I had a gig to go downstairs and play, then I had to go to the Yukon and play for a week of Western Canadian Music Awards before I was allowed to go home and see my doctor. That was traumatic as shit. It was enough to fuck a guy up for a long time.

“But for me it was just like, ‘Well, I got a baby on the way now; better get to work.’ ”

Then, while wife Amanda was expecting the couple’s first son, they were tucking their daughter into bed when someone broke in through the patio door and took Masters’ phone and computer, which held photos of the last year of his father’s life, as well as nearly two years worth of Masters’ music.

“That would be enough to fuck a guy up and make a whole record about, but I was just like, ‘Well, better keep on keeping on here. Thank goodness my pregnant wife and four-year-old daughter weren’t harmed or stressed or traumatized.’

“I’ve had all these things happen and it was just like, ‘Roll with it, baby, you’ve got to keep on truckin’.’”

Matt Masters, courtesy Rob Porter

The musician says he wasn’t aware of how mental health could come crashing down; many of us have learned this the hard way. “I wasn’t taking care of myself. I (didn’t) take breaks or vacations. I work every weekend and we can’t afford to go on vacations because we had to work, so eventually I started to lose it … I didn’t understand that I had these deeper issues.”  A family doctor connected Masters with a superb health-care team who made the diagnosis.

“It gives me some explanations for my behaviours, and that’s something I appreciate. I realize I have a lifelong challenge in front of me, and my wife has a challenge in front of her which is even bigger, I think. But that’s just who I am it turns out. I’m often drawn to a quote from a hockey goalie (NHL’s Robin Lehner): ‘Just because I’m mentally ill doesn’t mean I’m mentally weak.’ ”

Masters says his health is something his family and team deals with. Thus, with an eye to creating a healthy workplace, he built Curbside Concerts in a manner that gives everyone (he has seven full-time employees across Canada at this point) time and space before things get overwhelming. He’d been breaking down on a regular basis, including trips to the Sheldon Chumir Centre in 2019 for emergency care.

“When I say breaking down, I mean, last year when I was on tour with Barney Bentall, there were a couple of nights where I was bawling my eyes out in the dressing room for no particular reason, and then it would be like, ‘Matt, you got 10 seconds,’ and I’d dust off my face, walk out and it would be, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, its time for fun!’

“I remember Scott, the guitar player, saying, ‘How do you do that? Who are you? What is going on with you?’

“I couldn’t explain why I was so sad. I was doing fine, I was on tour, my family healthy, and here I was crying my eyes out before going out in front of an audience who totally loved me.

“It’s been a pretty dark time, to be honest.”

And this explains why a jewel like Everyone Loves a Winner sat in the can for nearly three years. “I didn’t have my shit together. I just didn’t have the ability to release this record … I had it pressed in the fall of 2018, it was ready to go,” Masters says, adding that vocal cord surgery in 2019, which required a week of not talking followed by two months of not singing, also delayed things. Wisely, the forward-thinking Masters had WCB coverage, as damage to his vocal cords was a workplace injury.

Another piece of good fortune was Masters’ deep connection with the musicians of Cariboo Express, who were studio ready to make this album with him. In fact, the album was born when Masters was coming off the stage in 2017 after having sung John D. Loudermilk’s Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye. and Stagger put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Let’s record this song. Let’s make that record.”

They knew they wanted to pay tribute to the Memphis soul-country blend, with the Memphis horns feeling. “Well, we have Vancouver horns, but they still have that feeling.” A special moment for Masters was his wife, Amanda Burgener, who earned a degree in music performance at the U of C, playing flute on Kristofferson’s For the Good Times. When the horn director found out Masters’ wife was playing the part, he suggested writing an easy part but the singer let him know she could handle anything thrown at her; she plays with the Calgary Wind Symphony. And handle it she did.

The songs come with stories. Some Day Soon is one the singer says he’s loved forever; perhaps that love deepened back in the days when Masters was a waiter at Calgary’s legendary double-wide venue The Mecca Café, and Friday night house band, Tom Phillips and the Men of Constant Sorrow, performed it weekly. He was working there in May of 2002 when Bloodshot Records’ Kelly Hogan performed (“It was a big night for me; Neko Case kissed me!”); she’s previously covered Poppa was a Rodeo (next line “Momma was a rock and roll band”), a song that appears on this album.

It was a song that fit his family. “My dad won a saddle at a team roping event. My mother (future Calgary Conservative MLA Jocelyn Burgener) was featured in Teen Beat Magazine in 1964 for her preview of the Stones landing at the airport. Mom was (one of) the first three people at the airport in Toronto with a ladder to see the Beatles land. (She) knitted a scarf for Keith Richards and mailed it to him and got a response from Keith’s mom,” he recalls.

“Mom was an early rock fan. So, to me, mom was a rock and roll band, and my dad was a rodeo. (He) was a total quintessential downtown cowboy.”

On an album full of charmers, Dimitri Tiomkin & Paul Francis Webster’s My Rifle My Pony and Me is the highlight, sung as a duet by Masters and Bentall, just like when they tour. 

Interestingly, after a 10-year gap between records, the songwriter has another album written, and a live album, recorded at his used-to-be weekly live appearance at the King Eddy (“One day the guys just turned on the board and recorded us, so we’ll have a new release maybe later this year”) ready to go.

In this meandering, incredible saga, Masters says it best. “The most stand-up thing on this record, it lets me be a singer in a few different ways. I’m not wearing a cowboy hat on the cover. I’ve still got it on the back cover, but, hey, here’s my big bald head singing songs I love with horns.

“I have a huge smile on my face about the thought of people opening up their vinyl and finding this great record. I’m stoked about it.”

(Main photo courtesy Michelle Spice.)

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who misses to the days of live music at the Mecca when, no matter how many drinks or how much BBQ was enjoyed, the bill always came to $14.00.