Ontario’s Country Music Pioneers: Gordon Lightfoot

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Ontario’s Country Music Pioneers: Gordon Lightfoot

// by Larry Delaney //

(THE “COUNTRY” SIDE OF GORDON LIGHTFOOT)

Born: November 17, 1938 – Orillia, Ontario

(#48 in the Ontario Pioneers Series)

 

Gordon Lightfoot, one of Canada’s most renowned singer/songwriters, has seen his compositions recorded by artists from around the globe… and from all musical genres. Lightfoot’s own recordings of many of his songs have become permanently etched in our musical memories.

While Gordon Lightfoot is most often regarded as a “Folk” artist, his “Country” roots run just as deep. His songs have been recorded by the Who’s Who of country music, many of them becoming major chart hits for those artists.

During the 1970s and mid 80s, Lightfoot placed eight of his recordings of original songs on the Billboard Country Charts, including such gems as Sundown, Carefree Highway, Rainy Day People and his epic song, The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.

 

NASHVILLE STARS HIT THE CHARTS WITH LIGHTFOOT SONGS

Marty Robbins enjoyed a #1 Billboard Chart hit in 1965 with the Lightfoot song, Ribbon Of Darkness – a classic which has also been recorded by Conway Twitty, Jack Greene, Don McLean, Jan Howard, Poco and Connie Smith (who had a #13 Chart hit with her 1969 version).

The Lightfoot composition, In The Early Morning Rain, was a Top 10 hit for George Hamilton IV in 1966. The song has also been covered by Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Jerry Reed, Bobby Bare, Jerry Lee Lewis, Judy Collins and many others.

Also in 1966, Waylon Jennings enjoyed a Top 10 hit with the Lightfoot song, (That’s What You Get) For Lovin’ Me – this one also recorded by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, George Hamilton IV, Hoyt Axton, etc.

In 1972, Lightfoot’s Canadian counterpart, Anne Murray, scored a #11 chart hit with his song Cotton Jenny – a song that has since been recorded by Lynn Anderson, Olivia Newton-John and Frank Ifield.

Glen Campbell had two Top 20 country hits in the early 70s with the Gordon Lightfoot songs, Wherefore And Why and The Last Time I Saw Her. Meanwhile, George Hamilton IV continued with his interest in Lightfoot songs, charting the songs Ten Degrees and Getting Colder, and Second Cup Of Coffee.

More recently, Nashville artist Deryl Dodd hit the Billboard charts, peaking at #59 with a solid re-make of Lightfoot’s song, Sundown.

Another of Gordon Lightfoot’s songs that was heavily recorded (but not earning chart action) was the ballad, If You Could Read My Mind. A myriad of artists covered the song, including Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Skeeter Davis, Johnny Rodriguez, Don Williams, Poco, Don McLean, Tommy Cash and Jeannie C. Riley.

 

LIGHTFOOT SONGS GET BLUEGRASS TREATMENT

American and Canadian bluegrass artists and groups have also long tapped into the Gordon Lightfoot songbook. Noted bluegrassers like Mac Wiseman, Tony Rice, The Country Gentlemen, Alison Krauss, Bobby Osborne, Dale Anne Bradley, Flatt & Scruggs, J.D. Crowe, Herb Pederson and many more, have recorded Lightfoot material. Songs like Redwood Hill, Cotton Jenny, Home From The Forest, Did She Mention My Name, Steel Rail Blues, etc., have all been popular with bluegrass artists.

 

THE STARS PAY TRIBUTE TO GORDON LIGHTFOOT SONGS

A reflection of the influence of Gordon Lightfoot’s songs can be confirmed by the number of “tribute” albums that have been recorded in his honour through the years. George Hamilton IV was particularly supportive of Gordon Lightfoot’s material, recording a total of 17 of his songs and naming several of his RCA albums with Lightfoot song titles. In 1976, Nashville steel guitar wizard Curly Chalker recorded the instrumental album, Nashville Sundown, giving a different touch to Lightfoot’s classic songs.

Perhaps the most popular of the Lightfoot tribute albums came in 1977, when country/bluegrass legend Mac Wiseman recorded the album, Sings Gordon Lightfoot (CMH-6217). Just as potent was the Tony Rice album, Sings Gordon Lightfoot (Rounder Records).

Canadian contemporaries have also paid tribute – musician J.P. Cormier recorded the album, The Long River (A Personal Tribute To Gordon Lightfoot). There was also a Various Artists album (Beautiful – A Tribute To Gordon Lightfoot), which featured tracks by Canadian artists Blue Rodeo, Bruce Cockburn, American-turned-Canadian Jesse Winchester, Murray McLauchlan, The Tragically Hip, Cowboy Junkies, etc., released in 2003 on the Borealis label in Canada.

Through the years, many other Canadian country artists have included a Gordon Lightfoot song on their albums or as a single release, including The Mercey Brothers, Carroll Baker, Gary Buck, Ray Griff, Hank Snow, Tommy Hunter, Valdy, Ronnie Prophet, The Rhythm Pals, Nancy Ryan, Honey West, Fred McKenna, Ian & Sylvia, Artie MacLaren, Brent Williams, Duane Steele, Julie Lynn, Pat Hervey, Ralph Carlson & Bytown Bluegrass, R. Harlan Smith, Jason McCoy, Stompin’ Tom Connors, Dick Nolan… and the list goes on and on… and on !!

 

GORDON LIGHTFOOT – THE MAN OF MANY HONOURS

Gordon Lightfoot was born November 17, 1938, in Orillia, Ontario. He performed extensively throughout high school and taught himself to play folk guitar. Lightfoot moved to California in 1958 to study jazz composition. To support himself, he sang on demo records and wrote and produced commercial jingles. After his return to Canada, Gordon performed with The Singin’ Swingin’ Eight, a group featured on CBC TV’s Country Hoedown. He soon became known at Toronto folk and coffee houses. In 1962, Lightfoot released two singles (both recorded at RCA in Nashville and produced by Chet Atkins) that were local hits in Toronto. (Remember Me) I’m The One reached # 3 on Toronto radio in July 1962. The follow-up single was Negotiations/It’s Too Late, He Wins. He later sang with Terry Whelan in a duo called the Two-Tones, releasing the 1962 album, Two-Tones At The Village Corner (Chateau CLP-1012).

Gordon Lightfoot’s musical legacy has brought him most every honour bestowed on a Canadian performer. Lightfoot was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986 and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. He was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame in 1998. In May 2003, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honour. Lightfoot is a member of the Order of Ontario, the highest honour in the province of Ontario. In 1977, he received the Vanier Award from the Canadian Jaycees. In 2007, Canada Post honoured Lightfoot with a postage stamp. On June 24, 2012, Lightfoot was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York. In 2014, Lightfoot was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the SOCAN Awards in Toronto and named CMAOntario’s Impact Award winner for his lifetime contribution to the Ontario country music landscape. In 2015, Lightfoot was again honoured with a 4-metre tall bronze sculpture in his hometown of Orillia, Ontario.

Gordon Lightfoot has received sixteen  for top folk singer, top male vocalist and as composer of the year. He has received four ASCAP awards for his songwriting and has been nominated for five Grammy Awards. In 1974, Lightfoot’s song Sundown was named Pop Record of the Year by the Music Operators of America. In 1980, he was named Canadian Male Recording Artist of the Decade, for his work in the 1970s.

Gordon Lightfoot has released over 20 albums (many re-issues of his recordings have also been marketed) and 50 singles, many of which have earned national charting in Canada. Even as he enters his eighties, Gordon Lightfoot continues to tour extensively in Canada and abroad.

Two biographies of note have been written about Gordon Lightfoot. The first biography (Gordon Lightfoot), a paperback, was authored by Alfrieda Gabiou in 1979. In 1988, Canadian author Maynard Collins authored the hard-cover Lightfoot – If You Could Read His Mind and 2019 saw the release of the documentary, If You Could Read My Mind.