After attending Hillbilly Night at the Wheel Club in NDG, I will no longer let anyone tell me that Iwould not enjoy spending an evening with a bunch of middle to golden-aged white English people, listening to country music.
Arriving at the club around 9:30 p.m, I took in the scene with a bit of skepticism. I felt as though I was in a Tennessee Legion hall, minus the southern drawls.
Everywhere I looked were cowboy hats, kerchiefs and an overwhelming amount of plaid. I savoured the long-forgotten charm of mustaches and mesh-backed baseball caps as I took my seat beside the lovely Jeannie Arsenault, one of the many performers rotated onto the stage throughout the course of the evening. “I’ve always loved country music,” said Arsenault, in between stints at the microphone. “It’s great to spend my Monday night with so many other people that like it just as much.”
And love it they do. The olde tyme country music flowed freely that night – everything from Hank Williams to George Jones graced the stage, and even a bit of bluegrass later in the evening when a younger contingent of musicians arrived.
Banjo, mandolin and vocal harmony were all incorporated into this part of the set, which had the denim-clad “Johnny Cash of Huntington” (or so it said on his hat) dancing up a storm. Most of these songs were wrought with loneliness and heartbreak, but you couldn’t tell from the delighted looks on the faces of the audience every time they heard a familiar song.
Throughout the evening, performers switched instruments, new players replaced old ones and more were added, all the while maintaining nearly the same set of acoustic instruments. Guitar, fiddle, bass, lapsteel and autoharp were standard on the makeshift barndance-style stage, as they have been for the thirty-plus years that Hillbilly Night has been taking place in Montreal.
The event does not charge an admission fee, but uses beer sales to fund the venue rental. All performers, including Concordia music professor Craig Morrison and volunteers, playing for the love of the music.
Although not uncommon, dancing was not the primary purpose of the evening’s entertainment. Possibly because much of the audience was over sixty, but also possibly due to the emotional and nostalgic value of most of the songs, most people sat at tables and focused on the music, often singing or clapping along.
During the faster songs, line dancing and two-stepping were the dances of choice. The dancers were very eager to teach beginners, as I learned firsthand. By the end of the night, I was a line-dancing machine.
I have never had a jean jacket emblazoned with the logo of the Wildhorse Saloon, nor have I had any background in country music.
At Hillbilly Night these things were irrelevant – the welcoming atmosphere represented a sense of community and an appreciation for music that can be understood by anyone with any kind of rhythm in their soul.
Hillbilly Night happens every Monday at 8:30 p.m. at the Wheel Club, 3373 Cavendish, at the corner of Sherbrooke. Tel: 489-3322.