Anniversary show Saturday, November 10: Shifty Morgan marks 25 years
November 2, 2018 9:43 am
If you’ve been to a few cabarets, rodeo dances, music festivals, and wedding dances in Southeast Saskatchewan over the last couple of decades, you have more than likely heard Shifty Morgan play. The band has been a fixture in Southeast Saskatchewan for a quarter century.
The band is holding a special 25th anniversary show on Saturday, November 10 at the Nutrien Rocanville Community Hall.
Kevin Weedmark sat down to speak with some of the members of Shifty Morgan recently about their 25 years together.
How did Shifty Morgan get started?
Anthony: We got started in the spring of 1993 which of course brings us to 25 years now.
We just got started as some friends playing some music looking for some more friends to play music with. Guy Wall and Neil Coghill had started playing music together. Country music was a big deal in the early ‘90s. It was sort of the genre of choice. All sorts of radio stations were converting over, album sales were through the roof. Country music was a big deal at that time and they wanted to start a country band and they needed a bass player. My older brother Brian was around at that time so they contacted him and said they needed a bass player and asked if he knew anyone with a PA system, and that’s where I came in. Brian said yeah my little brother Anthony has a PA system—why don’t you come on over and we’ll get to practicing. That is how it started and we played our first show...
Vern: It was Camp O’Neil in 1993.
Anthony: Yeah, early July there was an outdoor festival at Camp O’Neil at Round Lake and that was our first show.
Has the band been the same group of guys the entire time or have you had some changes over the years?
Anthony: There have been a few changes but we’ve mostly been the same since Blake joined.
Blake: The band was going for about five years before I joined, so for the last couple decades we’ve been a pretty solid group of guys. We did have our oldest brother Brian when we started out and then he went on the road for awhile and that is when Vern came in as the bass player and then Brian came back as an acoustic player and then he left again and that’s when I came in.
We have actually had a couple other brief fill ins. Vern’s daughter played keys with us for a little while on a couple of gigs and in the last couple years Anthony’s daughter Olivia has been playing fiddle with us.
Vern: We lost Blake for a year or two when he went to New Zealand for a few months and we had Anthony Buzdel fill in for that period of time. That was around 2000 or so.
Blake: Yeah 2000 and then Buzz actually stayed on as our sound guy for a few years after that.
Anthony: The core band has been solid for about 20 years.
Have you mostly played southeast Saskatchewan, southwest Manitoba? What’s the farthest afield you’ve gone to perform?
Anthony: That for sure has been the bulk of where we’ve played. Most places have been Southeast Saskatchewan and into Manitoba but there was a time we were travelling up lots to Prince Albert and did a couple or three shows in Edmonton, a few shows in Calgary, played in Brandon.
Vern: Calgary, Edmonton, Medicine Hat.
Anthony: Western Saskatchewan, North Battleford, Kindersley out that way. Lots.
Mostly bar gigs?
Anthony: Lots of bar gigs, lots of rodeos, and wedding dances and cabarets—that’s the meat and potatoes for sure. But we have been pretty fortunate that we have played a few larger festivals and lots of smaller festivals too of course. We’ve played Craven Country Jamboree and Big Valley Jamboree and Dauphin Country Fest—those festivals.
What is the most fun type of show to play?
Vern: The highlight for me would have been the beer gardens at Craven where you’ve got 10,000-12,000 people and they’re in a party mood and yeah those are pretty fun, but then some other highlights were playing as an opening act at the Casino Regina to a sold out house. That was pretty cool too and it was 700 people, which is a lot less people than 12,000 but every bit is good, so it really depends on the crowd.
Anthony: A venue like Casino Regina show lounge is a real top shelf, class venue to perform in. They treated us great and we played a couple openings there, but a highlight Vern’s referring to is the Ian Tyson show that we opened for. Getting to meet a country music legend like that is pretty awesome.
How do you make connections and promote yourself in the country music world?
Anthony: I don’t know if it has changed very much over the years but basically you play a lot and you just keep knocking on doors.
Vern: You get out there and you plug away.
Anthony: We go to events like the Saskatchewan Country Music Association weekend is kind of where we started it and then you go to industry events like that and the Canadian Country Music Association Awards weekend and get to know folks, get to know the musicians. You get invited to play at things and you just keep knocking on doors.
How busy is life as a band? Most weekends do you guys have a gig or most weekends throughout the summer?
Anthony: Over the last few years we have definitely tapered down—let’s put it that way—but there was a time when we were quite busy and we were going all the time.
Vern: In the years after the album was released we were doing a lot of shows. These gigs are fewer and farther between now but the three-night bar and casino gigs—we did a lot of that in that 2003-2005 time frame when the songs were on the radio and we were promoting an album.
Anthony: It also depends a lot on the time of the year as well. January, February it’s usually kind of slow but in the summer months there was definitely times where we were booked every weekend and when this isn’t your full time gig that can make things a little hectic juggling family schedules and things like that.
How did that work when you had young kids and were out on the road so much? It must have been a big challenge.
Anthony: Really good wives!
Blake: For some of the gigs like the festivals, we were at Craven and things like that, the wives came along and that made it a getaway for all of us—not just the band members. My daughter Megan, when she was less than a year old, was tenting at Craven behind the beer gardens, and my son was in a camper and we were changing his diaper another year at Craven, so it helps if you got the support of the family. Then it makes it that much easier.
Is it a lot of work to keep up your skills as a band? Do you have to practice a lot or have you gelled over the years?
Anthony: There certainly was a time when we rehearsed very regularly especially in the early years when we were still learning to be musicians and building our skills. Weekly rehearsals were the norm for the first few years for sure.
But after you get playing enough the playing kind of becomes the rehearsal and you end up learning songs on the fly and rehearsing at soundcheck.
That’s the great thing about playing at three-night shows like Vern was talking about. In a casino or a bar you get three nights in a row to play that tune and maybe a matinee in the afternoon and the sound check and so you can learn songs pretty quick once you get playing lots.
These days we still like to add in a few tunes now and then, but we are doing pretty good if we get together once a year for a practice these days.
What do you hope that people take away from your shows?
Anthony: It all just depends on the show. If you’re hired for a private event like a wedding for instance you just want to make sure that they’re getting the music that they want for their event so you are focused on that, but if it’s a Shifty Morgan performance, really what we want the audience to come away with is just the enjoyment of listening to skilled musicians playing music that they enjoy playing and hopefully they feel some of that joy and go away humming a melody that stuck with them.
Vern: Yes, especially the original material.
What has kept the band going for 25 years? What makes you guys want to keep the band together?
Blake: As a musician you always want to be performing. It is part of your creative outlet for one thing to perform and there still is that high from playing to a receptive audience when the audience is into it.
We just did a show in Lemburg as our first anniversary show and it was a very small venue with only about 50 people there but we could tell that they enjoyed it and at the end of the night we were looking around at the rest of the guys in the band and we were all thinking, yeah great show, that was lots of fun. I was really glad that we did it.
Really we play for free —the set up and tear down is what we get paid for. I mean the playing we do is what we do for our personal enjoyment. We’re there to perform, we’re there to entertain, but we’re enjoying it.
Vern: Playing with good friends too. That’s what keeps it together. We all get along, we are all in similar situations, we get along well and that makes it that much easier.
Anthony: Yeah I don’t think we would be doing it 25 years later if we weren’t all getting along. We enjoy performing—we enjoy performing together.
What are your hopes for the 25th Anniversary Show? Are you hoping to pack the hall in Rocanville?
Anthony: Absolutely! Fill it up! Actually, we’re just hoping that people come out and celebrate with us a little bit. It’s going to be a fun night. We plan to do a set of original music. We will do a little bit of an acoustic set to break it up a little bit. I will do a few of the tunes that I have written over the years and then we will finish it up with a kind of dance cabaret set. We just hope to get a good crowd out that is out for some fun.
Vern: And it will be something a little different than what people are used to. It won’t be your normal cabaret set, it will be a set of our original stuff, too.
Have you guys done a lot of original music over the years?
Anthony: We put out an album in 2003, so at the time, you bet we were doing lots of that original music. And prior to that our first sort of recording of original music came out and about in ‘97. It was a four-song recording at that time, and so that is when we kind of started doing our original music. The album came out in ‘03, and then I had an album that came out in about ‘05, ‘06 somewhere in there, and so the band did some of that original music too. We have always tried to keep some of the original music in the sets.
What is more fun to play—the original songs or the covers?
Vern: That depends on the crowd. If the crowd is there to hear original music like that Lemberg show or some of the festival gigs we did like that main stage at Craven or being an opening act for another recording act, then that is what we’ll play.
It really depends on what the crowd is there to see.
If you are playing a rodeo they are not quite as receptive to the original stuff, they are just more of a party crowd.
Anthony: Like Blake mentioned, when the crowd is into it that stuff is fun to play too.
Basically anything that is on our set list now we have fun playing, that is why it is still there.
If we are not having fun playing it, it pretty quickly slides off the set list.
What does the future hold for Shifty Morgan?
Anthony: I think we’ve got no reason to stop taking bookings at this point.
We’re not out there really promoting it but we are quite happy to play any shows as long as people are happy to keep coming and listening. We will be taking on any bookings that come our way.
Years from now when you tell your grandchildren you used to play with a band, what is the story you will tell them? What is the memory that is going to stay with you?
Anthony: For me it will probably be our journey in a contest we were in in 2001 called Project Discovery. That was definitely a highlight. It was a real fun, exciting time.
Lots of neat things happened for us at that time so that whole summer and fall of 2001 was a pretty exciting time for the band.
Blake: For me when I tell my kids what was the best thing about Shifty Morgan, well that’s how I met my wife for one.
We were playing a gig and it was through that Project Discovery performance.
I had invited a friend of mine and Tannis came along with a friend so that’s how I met my wife! Other than that, for me personally it was learning from the rest of the guys in the band about music.
I came in as a rookie and really wasn’t very confident in my abilities but through the band it’s made me be a better performer and I’ve grown my confidence on stage.
It has helped not only in the band but in a lot of other aspects of life.
Vern: I’ve met so many people through this band and made a lot of good friends.
We’ve had a lot of really, really cool experiences too, and we had a lot of fellow musicians, some at the same level as us and some that were considered pretty high profile. That was a pretty cool experience and again I’ll get back to just having good times with my friends playing music. That’s what it has been all about.
Where can people pick up tickets for your show?
Anthony: You can get tickets here in Moosomin at Pharmasave. In Rocanville at the Super Thrifty Drug Mart or you can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will get you some tickets lined up. You can also get tickets at the door.
Great! Hope your anniversary show goes great!