Home on the range

Unlike the dozens of cattle that dot Canadian music icon Barney Bentall's ranch in Cariboo, B.C., he is not "heading out to pasture" anytime soon.

The Toronto-born singer-songwriter has had a career dating back to the '80s that most Canadian musicians can only dream of, with no signs of slowing down just yet.

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"It's what I do," he said.

After signing a major record deal with Epic/CBS in 1988, Barney Bentall and the Legendary Hearts toured extensively, charted three hit singles in Canada, earned the Most Promising Group of the Year Juno in 1989, and enjoyed a taste of success in the U.S.

"In the '80s, we were pretty desperate," Bentall said from the central B.C. ranch he bought 12 years ago, "and we were kind of still pursuing, what I might refer to as the 'Bryan Adams myth,' where you could be big, you could be international. There were only so many record deals to go around and you fought for it, you put out singles, you were kind of going hell bent for leather."

Bentall admits that the band was starry-eyed at the prospect of international fame, but that their success "became a bit of a machine" throughout the '90s, a time when heartland rock's worldwide appeal was at its height with superstars like Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi regularly packing stadiums.

Four records in and almost a decade after their self-titled debut reached platinum status in Canada, Barney Bentall and the Legendary Hearts disbanded in 1997 with little fanfare, although the group continues to play several shows a year together.

With his band mates going on to successful careers in law, finance and cosmetic surgery, Bentall bought a cattle ranch in 2000, staying relatively quiet on the music scene, playing the odd show, for several years.

"It undoubtedly was not the best career move, but life move, yeah it was good," he laughed.

He credits the 160-acre ranch located just northwest of Clinton with helping to change his approach to music, which has transformed into a more pared down, folk-inspired style that is light-years away from the leather-clad pop rock his band became known for following the 1988 hit single, Something to Live For.

"What I learned was how hard the work was at the ranch when you're not paying people to do it, and the scope of what you have to look after made music seem a little bit easy," he admitted. "It challenged me to go further in a simpler direction."

Surrounded by 250 head of cattle at the ranch's height and a host of "colourful characters" that would make the late Johnny Cash swoon, it would be no surprise to anyone if Bentall's solo efforts gravitated more towards country's dusty twangs than mountain folk, but he was quick to dismiss the theory. "The cliché could be that I started playing country music, but that is not what I've done. (The ranch) helped me embrace my love for old-time music, which to me are two different things," he said. It wasn't until 2006 that Bentall released his first solo effort, Gift Horse, a laid-back, reflective record produced with the help of Blue Rodeo frontman and Canadian rock royalty, Jim Cuddy.

Since then Bentall has cast his wide social net, enlisting the help of Canuck rock stalwarts Shari Ulrich and Tom Taylor for a live album, and forming the Grand Cariboo Opry seven years ago with his son Dustin, an accomplished artist in his own right, before releasing 2009's The Inside Passage, his second solo record. The Opry has become an annual fundraising event featuring some of Bentall's musically-inclined friends for a night of steel pedals, fiddles and raucous sing-alongs that's reminiscent of an earlier era when Western-themed variety shows like Prairie Home Companion were pop culture mainstays.

The show, which will take place this year at Vancouver's Vogue Theatre Dec. 8, sprung from "hootenannies up at the ranch" where his son and country-singer Ridley Bent "would hang around, learning their craft," said Bentall. "These guys were very inspiring to me," he said. "They will be at a party and they will just start playing, they'll start singing songs, they'll start entertaining people and (the Legendary Hearts) were always a little too precious to do that."

In 2006, The Grand Cariboo Opry was born, and Bentall has been bent on making the multigenerational night a showcase for "some of these new, young songwriters" ever since.

With his newest album Flesh and Bone, which is slated for a November release, its clear that Bentall is finally free to make the music he truly enjoys, away from major label pressure."I spent a lot of my earlier career writing pop songs, and I don't mean to dismiss them at all, but now I'm at a place where I can embrace who I am," he said.

It's also obvious that the ranch, where Bentall spends some of the year, splitting the rest of his time between road gigs and his Bowen Island home, has had a profound effect on the album. "Flesh and Bone is ultimately about how we all end up, in bone. And you see that all the time on the range and the ranch; some animal died and it fed some other animals, but ultimately these bones are just bleached-out monuments to some life lived and I thought that sort of summed up, in a loose way, what was happening in the record." When life's curtains drop on the 56-year-old Bentall, the monument left behind will detail the fruitful career of one of the country's most talented, most genuine songwriters that spanned four different decades and helped transform the Canadian rock landscape into what it is today.

But he's not quite finished just yet. "I have a family and it gets bigger and bigger so in a way I'm settled and that's really important to me," he said. "But as far as exploring the world or exploring my music, I'm not content to settle down at all." The Barney Bentall Quartet will play Millennium Place Saturday (Oct. 6) at 8 p.m. as part of the Whistler Arts Council's (WAC) 2012 Performance Series. General admission is $25, while tickets for students and seniors are $23. Tickets for WAC members are $21. Visit www.artswhistler.tix.com or call 604-935-8410 for tickets.

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