Behind the Board – Wendell Ferguson goes head to head with Wendell Ferguson
Wendell Ferguson here. For the last 3 years, I’ve been editing the CMAO newsletter and every month we do a column called Behind The Board that features the background bio and some Q & A with one of our Board members. Look for columns on new Board members Brian Hetherman and Samantha Pickard in the coming months.
But since I’ve been selected to enter the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame this year (along with builder Ron Sakamoto) I thought it might be interesting if I interviewed myself. Self-indulgent, perhaps… but how often do you get to speak to yourself?
WF– So how do you feel about all this Hall of Fame stuff?
WF- Very humbled, very honoured and to be truthful, a little undeserving.
WF- Well I just don’t wear it well. I feel like I haven’t even done my best work yet. And I’m certainly not a household name. I mean people in the industry know me, but I’m sure the general public is going, “Wendell who? What did he ever do?”
WF– Good question, what did you ever do?
WF- Ha! Just you wait. Well I’ve put out seven products during my career and every one of them has done something.
WF– What do you mean, ‘done something’?
WF- The Coda The West CD released in ’92 garnered us 6 top forty singles, (Over and Done, You Gave Up On Me, Coming Soon To A Heart Near You and others) and got the band a Juno nomination. My first solo album, I Pick Therefore I Jam was nominated for a CCMA Vocal Collaboration Award in ’99 for my duet with Russell deCarle. The next CD, Happy Songs Sell Records, Sad Songs Sell Beer (2004) had two songs placed in the film Chicks With Sticks. Then my live album, The $#!+ Hits The Fans was nominated as album of the year at the CCMAs in 2006, and my Christmas album and DVD (2010) won two film awards: one at the New York International Film Awards and one at the Independent International Film Awards in Houston. My most recent CD also won the Canadian Folk Music Award for Instrumental Album of the Year. They have all performed well in the marketplace, and none of them are out of print.
WF– Now you’re just bragging, you big blowhard!
WF- Yeah, maybe a little… But I am proud of everything I’ve put out there.
WF-Now what’s the story on the Guitar Player of the Year awards?
WF- I started winning them back in ’95 and won them right up to 2000, so 6 consecutive years. When people announce that at a show they always add, “… until they said he couldn’t win it anymore.” Well they (the CCMA) didn’t actually say that. In fact, I was the one who petitioned them to change the rules so that, once someone won it five times, they were retired from being eligible for that award.
WF– Why would you do that?
WF- Because I’d talked it over with other multiple winners, Piticco, deCarle, Besen, John P., and they agreed they didn’t want to win it anymore. We all felt it was basically a popularity contest and that younger, up-and-coming players should get some attention and not us old farts. We’d won it enough. Time for fresh blood. Plus it’s healthy for the industry.
WF– What about that story of you sawing an award in half?
WF- Yeah I did that. Back when the awards were made of Lucite, Keith Glass was riding me about always winning that guitar award (not seriously riding me, just playing around) so I ran it though a bandsaw and sent it to him with a note that said, ‘Here, now quit your whining’ or something to that effect. Then I sent the other half to Steve Piticco because he’s always amazing. It was a win-win as I love both of those guys and I could have some fun with them. Keith tells me it’s the only award he still displays.
WF– So you’ve got a rep as a band leader. How did that come about?
WF- I love musicians; I get along with them and know their needs because I am one. But I’m also very aware of the artists’ needs. I can force myself to be very organized and detailed when necessary, lifting tunes and communicating well with everyone involved. And when good musicians get to play with other good musicians and back an artist who has some good songs and knows how to perform, well the magic is just gonna happen. The musicians know I’ve got their back and the artist does too. For an artist to deliver a good show, they have to feel confident that the band has their material down cold. The whole trick is making sure everyone is getting what they require to be at their best. Luckily I get to do that quite a bit.
WF–So any advice for young people who want to get somewhere in this business?
WF- Oh yeah tons. Make sure you’re driven by a passion for making music and not just a desire to be rich or famous. Those are not goals – they’re a byproduct of being good at what you do. Be honest, be punctual, be accommodating, be generous and easy to work with. Be positive, no one likes to work with negative people who drain your energy. Always try and be the worst guy in the band. You’re not going to learn anything if you’re the best player on stage. Learn to listen! Music should always be collaborative, not combative. Don’t be afraid to dive in the deep end. It’s music, not brain surgery. No one’s gonna be hurt if you play a wrong note on a live gig. However never let a bad note stay on a recording. It will drive you crazy… forever. Always serve the song. Play in tune. Don’t leave your wallet in the change room. It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. I could go on for hours.
WF– Sadly we won’t get that chance – I’m gonna wrap this up right now. But one last question: What’s the state of country music here in Canada and in Ontario in particular?
WF- Right now I’d say very healthy. Having sat on the CCMA board for many years, I know it has faced financial problems in the past. But, now due to good decisions, a great working board and solid leadership, that organization has rebounded and continues to make new and exciting opportunities for its members. Likewise, the Country Music Association of Ontario has gone from being a fledgling association to a mature and active force in music in this province. Plus all the radio stats say that ‘Country’ has surpassed ‘Rock’ in the marketplace. It’s a cyclic thing but it’s hot again. Many young artists are embracing country music, and that’s good news for our industry.