Calgary performers persist in the face of uncertainty, and use music to voice dissent and to create community. (Shutterstock)

When the Calgary Stampede rises again, so too will local roots, folk & country musicians

While the pandemic means some of us are scrambling to transition to more time online or to supplement Canada’s Emergency Response Benefit with a little more income, Alberta’s horses are taking a much-deserved vacation. So are the cattle.

As June descends towards the province’s hottest and busiest month of the year, primarily because of the Calgary Stampede, livestock are normally in their last period of rodeo training. Concentrated care and extra rest help the animals ready themselves for a 10-day stretch of entertaining crowds on the city’s fairgrounds.

Not this year. As with other public events, the Stampede was cancelled earlier this spring because of coronavirus.

The scheduled July 3 opening day proved too soon — and too risky — to take a chance. This says a lot for a city that persisted in stampeding through the Great Depression, Second World War and the great flood of 2013. In fact, it’s the first cancellation since it became an annual event in 1923.

Alberta’s horses are taking a much-deserved vacation with the cancellation of the Calgary Stampede due to COVID-19. Here, people pet a horse at the Stampede in July 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Lost city revenues

Maybe the horses are happy to avoid their frightful, sometimes fatal, rotations around the chuckwagon track. But for a city already decimated by the crash in oil prices and the economic fallout of the pandemic, the cancellation is bad news. The Stampede first announced staff layoffs in mid-March.

It’s estimated that the 10-day affair gives the city a $227-million boost, and more than double that amount through the rest of the year. And it’s only growing: last year’s attendance was second only to the city’s centennial celebrations in 2012. The income isn’t just from what goes down on the grounds either; for every dollar spent there, the rest of the city gobbles up $2.65.

That means restaurants, clubs, hotels and shops, also already debilitated by coronavirus, will lose a big chunk of their annual revenue.

Mariel Buckley and Tim Buckley, sister and brother, perform on Calgary’s Stephen Ave. in July 2018. (Gillian Turnbull), Author provided

Added musician uncertainty

For the city’s local musicians, this is added uncertainty. Many of Calgary’s entertainers are able to call themselves full-time musicians because of the Stampede — and that’s saying something in the age of musician precarity.

As gigs decline from closing venues throughout North America and recording revenue dries up thanks to online streaming platforms, some musicians are already succumbing to economic instability and increased mental health problems.

The Stampede bills its Coca-Cola stage as the place for “the biggest names in music” and stocks it with a mix of international, Canadian and cross-Alberta performers of various genres from hip hop to rock, alternative pop and country music. The Nashville North tent is also typically piled with commercial, often American, country acts.

Places like the Western Oasis schedule traditional folk and country acts for their Window on the West series. But many local Calgary country, folk and roots musicians are likely to be found performing throughout in the city.

Roots musicians benefited

Go anywhere in Calgary — a pancake breakfast, a grocery-store barbecue, a corporate afternoon beer garden — and there are those local country, folk and roots musicians, a constant soundtrack to the city’s party.

These musicians typically have a particularly easy go at Stampede time of year, primed as they are to amplify the western theme of the season. It’s here where they can make the majority of their year’s income, sometimes pulling in salaries in the tens of thousands as they play upwards of four gigs a day.

This has led the city’s roots music scene to stay relatively contained and for the performers to carve out a somewhat middle-class existence, unlike other cities in Canada that force musicians to travel far and wide to build their audience.

Oil prices, gigs shrinking

The Stampede was the last vestige of strong financial support for local musicians, whose income bouquets have been thrashed by their volatile partner, the economy. As I was winding down a two-decade research project on the city’s independent country and roots music scene, oil prices hit a low from which Calgary has found it near-impossible to recover.

By 2018, my last fieldwork trip to the city, venues were beginning to shut down, gigs were drying up and musicians were panicking. Many considered returning to past careers they’d been able to temporarily relinquish; some quit making music altogether.

Meanwhile, climate change and political turmoil at provincial and federal levels further exacerbated the oil industry’s uncertainty, challenging the way many people conceived of their local heritage and identity. Musicians took on challenging topics of the era, grappling with environmental issues and politics in song, changing the face of Calgary.

Prior to then, from the late 1990s to 2015, Calgary had reached historical heights in population increase and economic activity.


Read more: Canada's most livable city is not Vancouver...it's Calgary


Money flowed, then slowed

As much as we may fear the very real fact of arts economies’ dependence on broader economic growth in our late-capitalist world, that proved to be true in the case of Calgary. Money flowed from the corporate office to bars, clubs, venues, festivals, house concerts and record shops. Then it slowed, and stopped.

Yet as I found, performers persist, and thrive, in the face of uncertainty, showing us a progressive community who use music to voice solidarity, dissent and to create community. Their musical commentary has ranged from critique of the Conservatives’ spending policies around education and health care to diversifying the narrative of Canadian folk music history to countering the prevailing notion that Calgary is a socially regressive city.

“Calgary has been seen as a redneck place … which it isn’t,” says musician Tom Phillips. Here, he reflects on the Calgary music scene and his song ‘Like a Rodeo.’

While some Canadians unfairly stereotype Alberta as an all-round conservative province seeing only staunch opposition to weaning itself from an oil-based economy, in fact the horses that typify the Stampede have always spoken to a far more complex spirit of risk, creativity and bucking the system. Albertans are protective of the land, love their animals and treasure their heritage and culture. When the Stampede rises again, so too will Calgary musicians.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 110,700 academics and researchers from 3,634 institutions.

Register now