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Wilf Carter: The golden balladeer

Wilf Carter’s journey from a tiny fishing village in Nova Scotia to the dusty trails of the Alberta Rockies and global fame as one of the world’s best loved singers was as unlikely and unassuming as the man himself.

Born Dec. 18, 1904 in Port Hilford, N.S., Carter was the son of a Baptist minister. At the impressionable age of 10 he was spellbound by a traveling musical performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which featured a performer known only as “The Yodeling Fool.” Young Wilf took to mimicking the singer’s style, and soon developed what would later become his trademark: the “three-in-one” or “echo” yodel. After a short stint as a logger in West Leichester, N.S., Carter drifted to Alberta to find work as a field hand. For a time he lived in an abandoned shack outside the town of Carbon, where he skinned coyotes for “livin’ money” and spent the rest of his time composing songs and practising his yodels. Before long he was singing for pocket money at local barn dances, but in the teeth of the Great Depression he pulled up stakes and moved to Calgary, determined to become a professional singer.

In 1930, after several failed auditions for other radio stations, Carter was finally hired by CFCN to sing backup vocals on a Friday night program called The Old Timers. The salary was small, so to make ends meet he worked as a cowboy at the Calgary Stampede, where one of his jobs was “eardowning” or biting the ears of wild horses to calm them for saddling. Another of his duties was keeping spectators entertained between performances by singing his cowboy songs. That exposure earned him a stint as a trail rider for the Canadian Pacific Railway’s tourist treks in the Rockies, and his CPR bosses were so impressed by his work that he was invited to perform during the maiden voyage of the SS Empress of Britain in 1933.

It was en route to join the ship in Halifax that Carter stopped at a small studio in Montreal and recorded two of his earliest compositions: My Swiss Moonlight Lullaby and The Capture of Albert Johnson. By the time he returned from the trans-Atlantic trip the two songs had been pressed and released by RCA Victor, and the record quickly became a chart-topper. In 1934 RCA sent Carter to New York, where a young secretary hired to type out lyrics for a song called A Cowboy’s High-toned Dance suggested Wilf needed a more “western” name. “Put in whatever you want,” he said, so under “composer” she typed “Montana Slim” – and the handle stuck.

Between 1935-40 Carter was one of the biggest stars on CBS Radio, with his own daily program syndicated to more than 250 stations across North America. Despite receiving 10,000 fan letters a week and constantly being wined and dined by the elite of the entertainment world, he never lost the common touch nor drifted from his quiet, humble personality. In New York he met and married a nurse named Bobbie Bryan, and they settled down on a 320-acre cattle ranch near Calgary. In 1940 a serious automobile accident took Carter out of the singing business for nine years, but by that time he’d stockpiled so many unreleased recordings that RCA just kept cranking out “new” albums as if he were still active.

Carter returned to performing in 1950, and soon after went on the road with his daughters Sheila and Carol in The Family Show with the Folks You Know. He performed at the Calgary Stampede for the first time in 1964, and became a fixture at “the greatest outdoor show on earth” for years afterwards, earning a special trophy from the Calgary Exhibition and Stampede inscribed: “To the Balladeer of the Golden West, a sincere appreciation of 33 wonderful years.” Other honors bestowed upon Carter included being made an Honorary Chief of the Stony Indian tribe, induction into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame (1972), a plaque from RCA Records for accumulating career sales of over five million albums (1975) and the Martin Guitar Entertainer of the Year Award in 1981 for being the Canadian artist who contributed the most to country music in Canada.

Besides the fact that he never learned to read or write music, what made Carter such a special talent was that he could never be categorized as “country and western” – his was pure “cowboy music.” When Wilf died at age 91 on Dec. 5, 1996 at Scottsdale, Arizona, another Canadian music legend, Ian Tyson, penned the following tribute in Country Magazine:

“The year after I left high school I got my first real wrangling job on Mt. Assinaboine, 40 horseback miles out of Banff. They had a wind-up Victrola and four or five 78 rpm records at camp. One was The Sons of the Pioneers singing Everlasting Hills of Oklahoma, the others were all Wilf Carter. As the thunder boomed and rolled on Assinaboine that season, we wound up that Victrola and wore those records out. I remember playing on a bill with Wilf in the early ’80s. His upper range was gone, and the yodel ... I’m not sure that he even tried to yodel that night, but everyone in that Alberta one-horse town came out to see Wilf, and they loved him. None of us wanted to follow him, and we all knew this was something we’d tell our grandchildren about.

“Later I came to realize that maybe the best way I could remember Wilf Carter and those wonderful songs was the way they were played on a wind-up Victrola, high in the blue Canadian Rockies as the thunder boomed and rolled on Mt. Assinaboine. Ride on, Wilf…”

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