It’s clear skies ahead as Canadian folk hero Valdy admires the scenery of B.C.’s northern lake district.
Driving along with longtime friend, and touring partner, Gary Fjellgaard between gigs in Burns Lake and Prince George, the cell phone crackles to a stop while the boys park dutifully on the side of the road to chat.
Valdy is, as usual, in a jovial mood as he speaks about his upcoming tour with Fjellgaard in the Okanagan. It’s The Contenders’ 11th annual sojourn through the valley to celebrate George Ryga Week in B.C., and Valdy wouldn’t miss it for the world –– even for an induction into the Order of Canada.
Yes, it’s true, the man who sang that venerable hit Play Me a Rock ‘n’ Roll Song is finally being recognized by his country.
“They offered to do the ceremony in November, but I asked if it could be pushed to April because I was going to be doing this tour in the Okanagan, and I like to honour my commitments,” said Valdy.
After 40-odd years of making music in this country, Fjellgaard says that’s just one of the reasons the Order of Canada should have been bestowed on his mate years ago.
“I’m just pleased as punch for him,” he said. “Years ago when we were touring together, (former PM Brian) Mulroney got the Order of Canada. I was thinking then that Valdy should be getting it, not this guy who gave us the GST and Free Trade. (Valdy) is a part of the very fabric of Canada. He travels back and forth bringing along a beautiful profile of this country. I’ve never heard anyone utter a bad word about Valdy.”
A centre-piece of Canada’s honours system, the Order recognizes a lifetime of outstanding achievement and dedication to the community and nation. To Valdy it’s a catalyst on what has been a long-standing career.
“It’s lovely to be honoured by doing what I love to do in life,” he said. “But the Order is not just about being good about what you do, it’s about making life better for Canadians, and contributing to the value of Canadian life… How good is that? So I think this is not only a catalyst, it’s like rocket propulsion.”
As a folk singer, Valdy has not only conquered playing rock festivals, he has been able to vocalize about the same things that George Ryga did through his words as a writer, giving a voice to those often misaligned. It’s one of the reasons he and Fjellgaard have supported the centre in Ryga’s name, which serves as an artistic retreat in Summerland, with their annual tour.
“As a political songwriter, I like to sometimes express concern/outrage in my songs, but you can’t get funds for that, so that’s why we like to do things like the George Ryga tour to support the centre,” said Valdy. “It’s a place for artists to write and produce. We’re all aiding and abetting political dissent, and continuing the legacy of what George was doing, representing the downtrodden.”
The Contenders, as they are known through the two albums they have released under that moniker, Fjellgaard and Valdy also have some new material to take on the road with them.
A B.C. and Canadian Country Hall of Famer himself, Fjellgaard has just released an album of old cowboy songs called The Collection.
“I’ve often been asked when I’d do an acoustic CD, well, here it is,” said Fjellgaard. “We recorded it live in a church, just me and my guitar, with these lovely acoustics.”
The album features favourite songs, some of which go back to Fjellgaard’s childhood such as Streets of Laredo.
Valdy, in the meantime, has been in Victoria, Vancouver, Toronto and Port Hope working on his upcoming release, Read Between the Lines, with its title track ode to the literacy project spearheaded by the late Peter Gzowski.
Produced by Karl Roessingh, who is a Victoria-based jazz piano player, Valdy says the CD goes in 10 different areas including spiritual matters, political songs including one about fish farms, and historical missives such as one about Vancouver Island labour activist Albert “Ginger” Goodwin.
Both men will also, as usual, perform many of the songs they have co-written as The Contenders.
Produced by Ryga Centre manager Ken Smedley, the tour’s first North Okanagan stop is Armstrong’s Zion United Church Hall, Oct. 28 at 8 p.m. Tickets are at The Brown Derby restaurant in Armstrong. Phone 250-546-8221.
The Contenders also hit Lorenzo’s Café in Ashton Creek, east of Enderby, Oct. 30. Dinner starts at 6 p.m. with the show at 8 p.m. Call 250-838-6700 to reserve a seat.
On Nov. 4 at 8 p.m., they perform at Okanagan College’s Kalamalka campus theatre. Tickets are at The BookNook in Vernon. Phone 250-558-0668.