A few years back, I inhabited an office overlooking Eglinton Avenue, a block away from Yonge Street, in Toronto, and I could hear the music loud and clear. It was (I thought) a recording of Johnny Cash and June Carter singing their raucous country and western hit, “Jackson.” I walked over to where the musicians were playing in a store on the street, joined the audience of about five, and settled down to a concert of a fine series of country and western classics and some original songs. The lead singer and guitarist wore a cowboy shirt. He was a bit unkempt and was singing duets with a young woman, named Melanie Brule. I bought their CD, went home, and listened to it carefully.
This was a country and western band no doubt. But it was not a cliché. The band had a gritty, small-town sound, the way I imagined Neil Young must have sounded like before he left for the United States and fame. The song lyrics dealt with love, death, and suffering like so much of the genre but I could hear traces of English ballads in the lyrics. One song left me singing its lyrics:
You had nothing to make
When the rent came due …
Got to be cruel
To rip out a heart, with deep, deep roots
I liked what I heard and wanted to know more about them. So, having taken the guitarist’s card, I called him. We agreed to meet and talk after his Sunday show at Opera Bob’s, a small club in downtown Toronto. There, Darcy Windover sang his own and his friends’ songs, accompanied by the first rate playing of Kevin Neal (pedal steel), Stacey Dowswell (guitars/vocals), Kurt Nielsen (bass), and David MacDougall (drums).
Windover is a 40-something young man whom, when we first met, I thought was Albertan, or some sort of western cowboy, which for me would have explained his musical proclivities—except that he is not. Darcy was born in Sarnia, Ontario, in 1977. If one sees country and western music as largely the artistic expression of the English, Scots, and Irish who came to the Americas after Columbus, then Windover comes by his musical calling honestly. His family still owns the farm that they once ran a mere 89 years ago. His paternal ancestors emigrated from Britain to what is now New York State during the 1600s, stayed on, and eventually ended up in southern Ontario, in and around Peterborough.
“I have been told that my grandmother sang like an angel and both of my parents were quite musical. My first guitar, which I got when I was 12, was my father’s. It was beat up. It was meant to have nylon strings but instead it had steel. It was hard to play but that did not stop me from learning. A few years earlier, as a reward for my assiduousness on my paper route, Dad had brought home two sets of tapes: Country Western Gold and a similar series of early rock and roll classics. Dad took me to concerts. I must have been six or eight at the time and the one I remember best was Johnny Cash. Then of course there was the radio!”
Darcy’s memories of growing up in Sarnia in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s are those of someone who had the love and respect of his parents, and the camaraderie and friendship of his brothers and friends. His music is the expression of a lot of stories. Here is just one; let us call him Andy Fitzgerald.
Darcy tells me, “I had no idea that Andy’s family background was unlike my own. I suppose if you are as lucky as I was you assume that other families are just as tight, happy, and supportive. Not so with Andy. His father had left him when he was very young.
“One day when Andy was a grown man and still my guitar teacher his dad showed up out of nowhere. He had not done much for himself. He was down and out. He stayed with Andy and then stole all the money in the house and disappeared. Some time later Andy saw him in the parking lot of a supermarket and ran him down with his car. I lost touch with Andy but years later met up with him again. He said nothing about his dad. I suspect that the psychiatric authorities and the legal system understood what he had gone through. He was a lucky man and I have yet to write a song about it. But it could be a classic country and western piece.”
Unlike Dolly Parton and so many American country and western singers, Darcy did not grow up poor. His religious background, although Protestant, was neither observant nor evangelical. Musically he was not exposed to the ballads of Appalachia, but Cash and other old country music singers imprinted on him from an early age and seemed to have stood in reserve, until he went through and digested the styles of his youth.
“The first songs I heard were old English lullabies sung by my babysitter when I was an infant. These were followed by Christmas carols organized by my principal, who filled the school halls with us kids, played the piano while the school reverberated to a wall of sound of ‘Deck the Halls.’ Radio, records, and tapes were central to my listening, and I went through various stages, including the Monkees and the Beatles, rap in seventh grade (Ice-T in particular), heavy metal, which I learnt how to play, grunge and bands like Nirvana, followed by a variety of singer-songwriters. Perhaps the most important was Neil Young, and then some like the Band, which I discovered when working in the woodshop at Western University where I picked up guitar making skills from an influential professor who played ’60s classics in his studio nonstop.
“When you ask why I have dedicated all my musical time and energy to my band Ole Fashion during the last eight years, I think it has to do with my late father. He died young of a brain tumor. Before he passed, he bought Country Gold again and listened to these songs once more when he was in hospice. I would visit him there and listen to them with him, and then slowly learnt to sing them to him when he could no longer talk. The last memory I have of him is lying in bed and winking at me, almost to say just before dying ‘I get you, and now it is time to go.’”
As I was leaving, I asked Darcy, “what of the future?” he replied, “Kiefer Sutherland (who has a band), came to Opera Bob’s where I performed in Toronto every Sunday night, as he has a house nearby. He came back six months later and asked me to join his tour of western Canada. I joined his tour during the summer before COVID-19 hit. I played for large audiences that had never heard of me. I think they liked me. I had my own bunkie in the touring bus. I spent time with Kiefer and the other musicians. This was what being on the road should be. It was a bit like a country and western song, in and of itself. It felt right.”