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Celebrating a half-century of Hillbilly Night



Celebrating a half-century of Hillbilly Night

BILL BROWNSTEIN, MONTREAL GAZETTE


"These evenings are more than just old-time country music," says Jeannie Arsenault, playing with Bill Bland, left, and Steve Comtois at the Wheel Club's Hillbilly Night in 2011. "It's about participating and socializing with people who share the same passion."

Precious few cultural events have lasted 50 years in this town. One event in particular that most would never have expected to mark this milestone is Hillbilly Night.

Montreal is renowned for supporting a host of eclectic musical genres. But old-time country music? Regardless, Hillbilly Night celebrates its 50th anniversary Monday night at the Wheel Club.

Many of the longtime regulars will be on hand: Bill Bland, Ron Petronko, Eric Sandmark, Craig Morrison, Pat Loiselle, Guy Carpenter, Leona (Little Miss Dynamite) Dionne and Jeannie Arsenault.

They will be paying tribute to other regulars like steel guitarist Bobby Hill, who died in October. And they will also be paying tribute to the man whose mission it was, and is, to make Montreal somewhat of a hotbed for country music. That gent would be Bob Fuller, who got Hillbilly Night going in 1966 at the long-defunct Blue Angel bar.

It was in 1966 that Fuller began his one-man campaign to promote his favourite music by forming the Old Time Country Music Club of Canada. Through the club, his goal was to find a forum whereby musicians would be invited to perform traditional country music, but with a few stipulations: No instruments — save for the steel guitar — that require an electric boost from an amplifier. No drums. And no crooning of any country or bluegrass tune that was written or popularized after the mid-1960s, when it was thought by some purists that Nashville took a turn for the worse as it took a turn for the electric.

These rules still apply, and the young bucks and old-timers who show up for Hillbilly Night every Monday at the Wheel Club have no trouble abiding by them.

Born in Nova Scotia, Fuller grew up with a love for country music. Prior to starting the Old Time Country Music Club of Canada, he had been singing, picking guitar, playing standup bass and leading bands.

Fuller is expected to be on stage for the anniversary bash. Despite having lost a leg to diabetes and being confined to a wheelchair, he plans to sing a few tunes alongside his daughter Gloria Star, who is flying in from Winnipeg for the party.

“I can’t play guitar anymore, because my fingers have become too swollen, and while my voice is not the same as it once was, I’ll still be trying to give it my all on stage,” says Fuller, 82.

“The most gratifying thing for me is to see how country music has really turned around in Montreal since our first Hillbilly Night and how so many young musicians have taken to it. But honestly, I can’t say that I ever thought Hillbilly Night would make it to 50 with me still around. I’ve had some tough shots to my health, but I’m still going and will be thrilled to celebrate on Monday.”

Craig Morrison calls Fuller a pioneer. “It was with a missionary’s zeal that he undertook the cause to preserve traditional country music,” notes the musicologist, professor, author, and established performer in many genres.

Morrison points out that Fuller put all his energy into spreading the word on country music. Fuller published a newsletter, put on annual Hank Williams memorial picnics, hand-printed lyrics and distributed them, and made scores of country-themed cassette anthologies that he either sold at flea markets or gave to performers to help them build a repertoire.

Morrison concedes it is somewhat surprising that Hillbilly Night has made it to 50. “There are two major reasons to explain that. One is community. When I first came to Montreal 31 years ago, the friendliest reception I got was at Hillbilly Night. And that’s been the experience of a lot of others, too. And that’s because of Bob and Jeannie Arsenault, whom I always called the goodwill ambassador.


Morrison will be doing some inspired steel-guitar picking on Monday. “The only reason steel-guitar players are allowed to use amplifiers on Hillbilly Night is because Hank Williams had one,” Morrison cracks.


AT A GLANCE

Hillbilly Night marks its 50th anniversary Monday, Jan. 18 at 8 p.m. at the Wheel Club, 3373 Cavendish Blvd. Admission is free, with no bar minimum. Homemade chili and other food will be served. For more information, call 514-489-3322, 450-691-6999 or 514-362-9325.

Excerpted From: http://montrealgazette.com