Nice Horse is perhaps the most unlikely country band in Canadian history, if you assess each band member and how they came together. The four are Katie Rox on banjo and guitar, Tara McLeod on electric guitar, Brandi Sidoryk on bass and Krista Wodelet on drums. All of them sing exceptionally well.
Together Nice Horse is bashing the national airwaves with sizzling party anthems like Pony Up and Jim, Jack, Johnnie & Jose.
Their initial offering is an album called There Goes The Neighborhood. The overall atmosphere of this package is getting comparisons to Brett Kissell and Washboard Union (perhaps a result of their main producer, Jeff Dalziel, also being their producer), but you can also feel lines tied back to the likes of Farmer's Daughter, Alabama, Roseanne Cash, The Gatlin Brothers and The Zac Brown Band.
McLeod is the lead guitar player in famed Ontario metal band Kittie. She was listed as a "guitar player to know" by Guitar World Magazine, while Guitar Player Magazine did a feature breaking down her gear preferences and playing style.
Rox is the founding vocalist in Goth-pop band Jakalope with techno-metal star Dave Ogilvie of Skinny Puppy and Nine Inch Nails Fame. She also sang backup for Mandy Moore and had a duo with Simple Plan guitarist Sbastien Lefebvre.
Sidoryk was trained as an opera singer, French horn player, she was in the navy (which has a band), and simultaneously had two quirky Vancouver indie bands going at once - Beekeeper and Sidney York.
Which brings us to Wodelet, who was the other half of Sidney York. They were getting plenty of pop culture attention with tunes like Cold In Here, Weapons-Grade Love, Weird For You and Electrolove. With Sidoryk's French horn and Wodelet's bassoon, how could an indie-pop band fail, right?
Wodelet said they just performed a Sidney York show the other day at a fundraiser. It was the first time they'd done that material in about four years. They powered down their previous projects when they and their buddy Rox started songwriting and attending industry functions together as mutual support.
Eventually, it became chronic and somehow, it became country. Wodelet said that despite their metal, techno, Gothic, geek-rock, operatic and classical backgrounds, there was a lot of agriculture in the family upbringings of some Nice Horse members, and without trying at it, the rich soils of Alberta yielded this flourishing new band.
"If, 10 years ago, someone had said to me 'you're going to be the drummer in a country band' I'd be like ummmmm, what?," said Wodelet, laughing. "I did start my musical career in classical music. I was into rock and pop, mostly, growing up, but what I did myself was classical. That's what I went to school for. Actually, I have more degrees than I need, as an orchestral bassoon player."
She joked, but not really a joke, that her parents are finally starting to see the value in all that schooling.
She and Sidoryk actually attended the University of Toronto's music school at the same time but somehow never met. They were introduced when Sidoryk was working as a WestJet flight attendant, met Wodelet's sister who was also in that job, and the introductions got made because of the family music connection.
Wodelet did meet someone else at university, though, who would indirectly play a role in all of this. Canadian bassoon star Nadina Mackie Jackson is a prof at U of T, she's a renowned presence on the Canadian symphony orchestra scene, has a flair for blue hair and fantastical performances, and also does a duet project with folk legend Valdy. She was born and raised in Francois Lake and Prince George.
Wodelet nearly melted when she heard that her university mentor was from this area.
"I'm really glad you brought her up. When I started playing in Sidney York, and started doing kooky things like getting a pickup installed in my horn and running it through guitar effects pedals, Nadina was one of the few classical players who looked at me and went 'that's really cool, and you have something to offer' instead of thinking 'you obviously aren't a serious bassoonist.' When I started crossing genres, there were many in the orchestral world who didn't think that was right. That was an attitude I encountered among quite a few people I knew in the classical world. Nadina was never one of those people. As you can tell from her career, she has done incredibly very well making music a little left of centre and a little out of the ordinary, and she really embraced what I was doing. In fact, she had me out to Toronto, flew me there, to be part of the Bassoon Days events she was putting on at the university, and give a master class to the students. I don't think anybody else would have done that. I am so grateful to her for that. I can't tell you how excited I am that I got to talk about her, I just admire her so much."
Crooked story straight, the Nice Horse members managed to find each other and nurture the seeds of their first music project all in the last three years or so.
This was not the forte of any of them, yet producer Dalziel (along with another producer who knows something about bending genres, a guy named Bob Rock) insisted that he was going to buck the trend for rookie ensembles like theirs. It might be surprising to the casual fan, but the first albums of new bands are often recorded using session players in the studio. The band learns the songs after the fact so they can perform on the road.
Dalziel and Rock knew these players were consummate musicians. No other players could capture their unique musical personality. No, they were the only ones who could track the original recordings.
Before they had a presence outside of their base town of Calgary, their substantial reputations confluenced in the ears of another Canadian music industry giant who dealt them another important card in the Nice Horse game.
"We booked our first tour opening for Tom Cochrane. Uh oh. Suddenly we had to wonder, did we just make a big mistake?" Wodelet wondered.
Or did Tom Cochrane? But the hall-of-famer is famous for strategically selecting opening acts. He gave big votes of his confidence, over the years, to acts like Amanda Marshall, the Grapes Of Wrath, the Northern Pikes and most recently Meghan Patrick who picked up the CCMA trophy for Female Vocalist of the Year only a year after she shared a cross-Canada tour with the legendary Red Rider.
"He took a chance on us, and we are very grateful to him for it. At the time, we did not have a lot of performing under our belt as a group. We didn't have a lot of stuff online. We were so young as a band. And he let us come on the road with them, and he and his whole band and crew were so nice to us. Not only was it our first stadium tour, it was our first tour period. In retrospect, he was really one of the big influences in the foundation of the band because he did take that first chance on us. We would probably be in a much different place right now if he hadn't."
The place they are in now is opening for another mega-act from the world of country rock. Nice Horse opens for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band tonight at CN Centre.