Midnight Train To Nowhere

“You’re going to break the back off that thing.” I must have heard these words every day for most of the recording of Midnight Train, the debut album from my first band Thunder County. Then one afternoon while recording, me leaning back, perilously perched on the faux brown leather chair, snap! Cam just shook his head, got up, ripped the back off, which was now hanging by a few threads, and we got back to work – him in the producer’s chair, me on what was now a backless faux brown leather stool. 

Thunder County happened because of a chance meeting in 1990. I bumped into Cam, an old school chum, at the bank one afternoon. It had been years since we’d last saw one another. I told him I’d recently acquired a 4-track cassette recorder (a piece of junk that never worked properly). After I finished my spiel about my grand plans to record some of the original songs me and my guitar player friend Mike were writing, Cam told me he had an 8-track recorder and a stack of equipment. 

All I knew how to do at this point was plug a guitar or vocal mic directly into the 4-track and hit record. I had no clue when it came to effects; compressors or any of that stuff. My recording experience and recording knowledge was zero, so when we eventually started recording in Cam’s mom’s basement, it was a whole new world. 

Mama Cam kindly put up with our exploits as we spent the next few months fumbling around recording what would become the Mad Dog Blues EP. The first song the three of us ever worked on together was titled “Dead Man’s Walk.” Cam piped in some live crowd noise on the structurally unstable rocker – which was actually better than some of the other songs that ended up making the cut on the EP – to make it sound like we were playing in a large arena or stadium. 

The track opened with the ‘crowd’ screaming wildly and me yelling, “this is a song about living on the street; this is Dead Man’s Walk.” Enter Mike’s chunky electric guitar riffage and rattling bass line. Cam pounded out a very non-human beat on a small electronic drum unit he owned. It was pure cheese, but to us it sounded like it had been sent down straight from the heavens above. We were on our way. We later recruited Pat, a young tub-thumper who could beat the skins like nobody’s business, to hold down the drummer position. 

That first experience recording was intoxicating. It was like falling in love for the first time; so new and fresh, so unbelievable. There we were, sounding nothing like a real band to anyone who knew anything about music, but to us we sounded like any other rock band on the MTV, Much Music and the radio; it was an unbelievable high. I played the recording for one of my stoner friends, and he was blown away. 

“Where’d you guys play the gig where this was recorded?” my stoner friend asked.

“Uh, yeah…it’s a long story.” 

We sat in his truck and blasted the track a couple more times. I must have played that song – inspired by a homeless man I once saw wandering around in the city – for everyone I knew. Cam played it for one of our former teachers, an educator in the music field, who simply asked: “how can the man be walking around if he’s dead?” Clearly Mr. Music didn’t get the metaphor. “F— him,” was my reply. “What does he know about music?”

Even though we were clueless when it came to music and recording, those months in the basement produced some of the fondest music memories I have. I’ve spent time in legendary and world renowned studio’s since recording and producing projects, but none have matched the carefree joy of that little studio in Mama Cam’s basement. 

We decided on Thunder County as a band name. It was actually derived from a mythical strain of pot at the time called Humble County Thunder F—. As one of my brothers remarked when he heard about this supposed high grade weed and the girl who told me about it, “I think someone has been thunder-f—ing Jackie.” At any rate, I took the Thunder and the County parts and combined them. We were often referred to as Thunder Country, which at the time wasn’t what four rock and rollers wanted to hear. 

I was twenty years-old when we recorded Mad Dog Blues, which would have made Cam twenty as well, and Mike nineteen. I was only a month or two clean when the three of us began the project. Cam was never a partier, and never into the dope scene, so it was great being around him. When we weren’t trying to get our music down on tape, we were hanging out – walking the town, having lots of laughs; just enjoying life in general and creating. 

Cam was a good influence at a time when I most needed one. To say we were opposites and made an odd pairing would be fair, but we’d known each other since Grade 8. He was smart, respectful and clean-cut. I had long hair, a bad attitude and was a bit of a lost soul. We first met in shop class. I was a problem student who refused to do any work in shop. I simply wasn’t interested. Cam was super smart and was always on the new computer system in another part of the shop. 

The shop teacher didn’t seem to care whether I participated in any projects, so I spent most of my time sitting next to Cam as he navigated the computer and wrote programs. I asked goofy questions and wanted to learn computers too, but I didn’t have the focus, discipline or intelligence Cam possessed. He was always patient and kind, so when we ran into each other years later we became fast friends.

At a corner store one afternoon, during the recording of Mad Dog Blues, the clerk, a girl from school, remarked, “Why are you and Cam hanging out all the time?” I guess because I still had long hair and wore rock and Harley t-shirts I was still saddled with my past reputation as a partier; I was a dirt head. And since Cam was still clean-cut with short hair, super intelligent and in University, it was somehow odd to this girl that we were friends. 

I smiled and said, “maybe I’m not as dirty as everyone thinks, and maybe Cam’s not as clean-cut as everyone thinks.” That shut her up. Cam, who wasn’t with me that afternoon, got a kick out the story when it was relayed to him later that evening. Small town reputations have a way of following you around, and I’m sure my comment was more than confusing to the girl. It was good publicity for our band, which we were telling anyone who would listen to us about.

Cam was one of the few people who got the juvenile and twisted sense of humour Mike and I shared. Cam wasn’t used to hanging out with haywires like us, but it wasn’t long before his well-mannered and positive attitude began to rub off on us a bit. Of course, the reverse happened – to a lesser degree – and some of our hard edges sandpapered Cam’s personality (much to Mama Cam’s despair). It was good for both sides, really – we balanced one another out.

Brought up by a smart and well-respected member of the community, a local librarian who had a big heart and loved her children with all she had, Cam and his brother were (and are) the products of fine parenting. Mike and I grew up on the other side of the tracks, so to speak. Not that we came from bad homes, but we both had long hair and were troubled souls. Neither one of us was ever going to be mistaken for choir boys. 

Mad Dog Blues was a roughhewn affair. The four songs that made the cut: “Lonely Highway,” “Guitar Man,” “Mad Dog Blues” and “Last Train (Goodbye Jimi)” were without mastery. The EP may have been a brutal attempt at a first strike, and lacked in quality – Mike’s bass and guitar work were passable; Pat’s drumming and Cam’s keyboard and engineering skills were solid; my vocals were monotone, uninspired and weak – but it was created out of pureness and passion.

The project from the start was a blast. The finished product may not have been all that good (not that we thought it was anything but great), but what you hear is the sound of three young guys (Pat was only around to record his drum tracks and wasn’t really engaged in the process) searching for a musical identity and having one hell of a time doing it. Except for Cam, who was a trained piano player, the overall musicianship was mediocre at best. 

After we ‘released’ Mad Dog Blues, which was either limited to 50 or 100 copies, we looked ahead to a much bigger project, a full blown album. With plans for our world domination set, Mike and I headed off to work out of town (we eventually ended up in Brandon, Manitoba, where I found work at chemical plant and Mike as a short order cook), while Cam headed back to the University of Alberta in Edmonton to continue his engineering degree. 

The plan was for the guitar man and the singer to move to Edmonton the following spring to join back up with Cam. The three of us would then find a permanent drummer and bass player, record a full length album and take our music – which we were convinced was close to being major label ready – to the masses. A brief reconvening during Christmas break in 1990 found the three of us recording a few new songs we thought might eventually make our debut album. 

Once again hunkered down at Mama Cam’s place – she’d moved locations since Mad Dog Blues, but welcomed her son’s misfit musical buddies back into her home to make all kinds of racket. Bless her, she put up with a lot of noise and hijinks, including a defrosted freezer after we came up with the hair-brained idea of mic’ing up Mike’s guitar amp inside it to get a sound. We forgot to plug the freezer back in when we were finished recording. (Sorry Mama!)

These sessions produced two tracks, the awkward and somewhat cloying “Street Of Dreams” and the reflective but flawed “All The Years.” Neither were masterstrokes, or even close, but they were better than anything on Mad Dog Blues. The new songs helped keep the fire lit for Thunder County and our main focus on the goal of recording a full length album. The recording would happen, but our trio would be a man down by the time the project started.

Writing lyrics and poetry from the time I was thirteen, I considered myself a passable songwriter and singer (an over estimation on my part), but I knew I would need to learn to play an instrument if I wanted to become a real songsmith. My rudimentary guitar skills at first were more of a hindrance than a help, but eventually the instrument would allow me to find and develop my own writing voice. Learning guitar gave me the freedom of not having to rely on anyone else to write (which for me, to this day, is a solitary process). 

My older brother Lonny taught me G, C and D on the guitar. He added the minor chord for the key (Em) to my chordal repertoire the following week. He tells the story like this:

“I taught you those first three chords, and you wrote your first song on the guitar later that night. A week later, I showed you the minor chord in the key, and you wrote ten more songs!”

Most of the lyrics and melodies for the songs on Midnight Train were written in my head at work in Brandon. The 12 hour shifts at the chemical plant, especially the night shits (6pm to 6am), were boring and offered a lot of time to work on songs in the office I keep in one corner of my cluttered mind. Once home I would attempt to bang out what I heard in my head on my pawnshop special, a small-bodied Fender acoustic I’d picked up for $125 at a junk store in Brandon.

During the breach I was writing a ton. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t really play guitar, nothing was going to stop me. I was writing lots of lyrics and groping around on that little Fender, convinced I was writing future hits. By the time I moved to Edmonton – sadly, sans Mike, a casualty of war; a soldier critically wounded on the battlefield of love who stayed behind and drowned his broken heart in beer and isolation – I had a stockpile of song ideas.

When the sessions for Midnight Train began in 1991, Cam and I, now a duo, were convinced we were laying down the bones to a future Canadian classic. Maybe that’s how everyone feels when they’re young and naive and know nothing about the music business. Even though Cam had been studying and learning how to engineer sound recordings for a few years, and our passion and drive for songwriting was intense, the skill and talent didn’t quite match up yet. 

Cam’s new space was quickly dubbed Little Casino Studios. Little Casino was one of a couple nicknames Cam had, a knockoff from a nickname of one of the characters in the movie Young Guns II which, given our film obsession and how much the culture at the time imprinted itself on our personalities, was fitting. Joey Buttons was a nickname or future drummer Darrell would give Cam. (Three of the bass tracks on Midnight Train are simply credited to Joey.) 

Even though we were deadly serious about recording our magnum opus, we spent a great deal of time incubating, which is code for watching movies, hanging out at Mother’s Music and playing video games. We watched so many movies, we were walking quotes. Our lives were molded by Fletch, Uncle Buck, My Blue Heaven and a dozen other films we enjoyed. After watching Tom Selleck’s An Innocent Man, we spent the next year randomly barking, “don’t you be talkin’ out the side-your neck while I’m tryin’ to do you a solid.”

Midnight Train was recorded at 11238, 72 Ave NW, Edmonton. It was a new house, split in three sections. In close proximity to the University of Alberta, the place was built to be a rental haven for students. Cam and I shared one section in the basement, where the studio was located. Four other students lived in the house, including Stan, a student from California who was obsessed with Bob Dylan and dated a devout girl named Tammy who looked really good in tight, white jeans. Stan would eventually become a friend and our acoustic guitar player for the recording sessions. 

Once I was settled at the house, I showed Cam the ideas I’d been working on. We got busy trying to find musicians to help us take the ideas and make them into real songs. There was a great deal of experimentation with mic placement during the first few weeks. We also wrote a couple new songs together, including an overly sentimental track called “Destiny.” A piano piece of Cam’s to which I wrote a cliched set of lyrics about a friend I felt was lost to drugs and fading in the distance as we were rising to meet our inevitable rock and roll fate. 

We loved rock and roll, but the songs we were writing sounded more like bad folk. Not that all the songs we wrote and recorded were dreadful, they were just amateurish and far outside the rock wheelhouse. When you first start writing songs, you think everything you pen is coated in pure gold. It’s a harsh day when reality knocks you back a few steps like a Mike Tyson punch to the head and you find out songwriting is a craft that takes years to develop. Some of the ideas might have had potential, but we were a long way from the major leagues. We weren’t even in the minors, yet. 

The spirt (desire) was willing, but the flesh (talent) was weak. Even once we found other musicians to work with we never rehearsed together or spent enough time fleshing out songs. We would write a new song and then piece it together in a painful and lengthy process that took forever and was inspirationally draining and blunting. We didn’t know better. 

Once we actually got down in the trenches and began recording, the new version of Thunder County consisted of Cam on keyboards and background vocals, a U of A student named Dave on bass and electric guitars and cover band veteran Darrell on drums. I was originally going to hold down the acoustic guitar duties and lead vocals. This lineup was brief in its existence. 

Multi-instrumentalist Dave laid down bass and guitar for a number of tracks before exiting stage left. For some reason I’ve completely blocked the existence of Dave out of my mind. The only way I know his name and that he played on the sessions is because it says so in the liner notes of the album(which I recently dug out for the first time in two decades). I don’t think there was any issue with him or us, I just can’t recall a thing about him. The hard-drive in my brain has a few damaged sections. 

With the recording somewhat stalled, we continued recording the drum tracks and searched for a replacement for Dave. My bedroom doubled as the drum room. Darrell pounded out his parts sealed behind floor-to-ceiling pink styrofoam insulation. A an ace behind the kit with a happy-go-lucky personality, Darrel would eventually quit Thunder County after he was informed his background vocals wouldn’t be needed for the project. 

It was more about not having enough tracks than any issue with Darrell’s voice. Truth be told, I don’t ever recall hearing the guy sing, but musicians are a sensitive lot and Mr. Drummer Man hit the eject button soon after his tracks were completed. It was around this time Stan was officially recruited to handle acoustic guitar duties. My playing was weak and my nerves eager to derail me once that red record light came on, so he was a welcome addition.

Stan worked so hard on his parts during the recording, we decided to offer him a slot on the album for one of his original songs. A murderous tale called “Oh Mary,” the song ended the album sequence more out of ego (mine) than quality, it probably should have been on side one. During the recording, Stan’s father called from California one evening. Stan excitedly told him he was in a band and was recording an album. According to Stan his father’s reply was, “that’s nice, how’s soccer?” 

Stan’s girlfriend not only looked good in tight white jeans, she was also a talented violinist. We had her record a solo on a sad song called “So Far Away.” My dad, Wayne, an old-school country picker with the hair to prove it, lent his electric guitar work to a song fittingly called “The Country.” Dad drove to the city one afternoon and laid down his guitar part in less than an hour. With that, the bed tracks were done, save for lead guitar on five songs. 

Our search for a lead guitar player proved fruitless, so we opted to hire a session guitarist to help finish the album. Our first call was to a well-known Edmonton producer/guitarist who wanted $1000 per track. After we finished rolling around on the floor laughing, we hired a session guitarist by the name of Bob, at $100 per track. Bob was a skilled musician who had the personality of pocket lint. Part of the deal was we had to pick him up at his house and deposit him back home when the session was over. I recall there was a car in the driveway when we went to picked him. 

After Bob finished recording his parts, the three of us – me, him and Cam – sat in the studio and talked shop. Well, Cam and Bob talked shop, I was a ghost in the room when it came to Bob. By his attitude I could tell he wasn’t overly impressed with my songwriting or singing abilities. When I talked, he acted like I wasn’t there. It may have put me off then, but I find it funny now (I’m laughing as I type these words). 

“I’d love to be involved from the beginning of a project if you do something else,” Bob said to Cam. When I interjected something about the three of us working together in the future, without acknowledging I’d said anything, Bob repeated his offer to Cam. I had the last laugh years later while hanging out with hit songwriters, producers, musicians; I even got to call some of them friends and write with them. (Take that Bob!)

We wrote some poetic songs that teetered on the edge of okay, landing somewhere between amateur and not bad. The musicianship, while somewhat rote, was well-executed, but it was pieced together over a six month period. The process became tedious and the finished product ended up sounding like some kind of weird folk-country-rock hybrid. That combination might look good on paper, but it didn’t quit translate to tape. 

Many years later, once I was travelling back and forth to Nashville, TN, learning the songwriting craft and recording demos (and eventually full length albums of my own), I was surprised and relieved to find out that most recording was done live off the floor, with the musicians all in the same room. vocals and overdubs were often done afterwards. It was refreshing and far less stressful than the Midnight Train sessions.

How we were able to create in that kind of monotonic situation, I’m not quite sure. The only reason we got anything done, if honestly is the aim here, is because of Cam. He was always an encouraging and positive force and the glue that held the entire project together. My attention span at the time was short; my mind scrambled from years of drug use. Cam could sit all day and mess around at the console, I would need a nap after two hours. 

At one point during the sessions for Midnight Train, Cam left school and was briefly unemployed. For me working for awhile and then being laid off and on unemployment was routine. I was convinced the time was being well spent as I staked my claim in the music industry gold mine. This was decades before internet pirating and big tech reduced the music business to a pile of rubble. Being without work was common for me, but not Cam, who left school for a semester to focus on music. 

Jobless and out of school, Cam turned his full focus to the recording sessions for Midnight Train. We stayed up all night, walked downtown at all hours and basically hung out like we did during the recording sessions for Mad Dog Blues the year before. This was back when two young guys could walk the mean city streets late at night without having to worry about being kidnapped by a gang of ruttish gals (no matter how badly we wanted that to happen).

Our nightly walks – which had to be a good ten miles round trip – usually included a trip to the parliament buildings and then a few miles around the downtown core. These walks kept us adrenalized and thin a slivers. We would chatter on endlessly about our in process album. It was going to be the match that lit the fire that exploding into a raging career that had nowhere to go but up. We were prepping the fuel for the rocket ride. 

Since we lived only a few blocks from a 7-11, the minimart became our main source of sustenance. It was also part of our nightly ritual. We would slake our appetites with chili cheese nachos (I’m convinced we were singlehandedly responsible for the chain’s decision to discontinue the chili portion due to our splitting our containers in half and filling both sides with chili and cheese). We would eat and then play the in-store video game for hours.

At first Cam would be stuck waiting while I played a stand up Formula 1 racing game that had me addicted. He would get bored, but like a good friend and band mate, he waited for me to finish my game. His revenge came late one night when we arrived to find the racing game had been swapped out for SmashTV, a dystopian game of murder and mayhem in the vein of the Running Man movie. Cam was an ace at it. I was not. It was payback time.

During one of our incubating sessions, a survey arrived in the mail from the cable company. Super Channel was all the rage then. When not recording, playing games at 7-11 or walking the streets, we were watching movies. Lots of movies. For this particular two to three week period the cable company was researching, we happened to spend most of our time doing nothing but watching tv. It’s possible the weather kept us indoors, or maybe we were just lazy and uninspired. Whatever it was, we spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the tube. 

Days Of Thunder, Tom Cruise’s tale of a cocky Nascar driver, landed on our list of watched movies at least four or five times. By the time we finished the survey, which asked how many occupants were taking it – which was the two of us from our little corner of the house – it looked like we were two twenty-one year-old guys who didn’t work and did nothing but watch tv all day and night, which wasn’t exactly true, but was hilarious nonetheless.

Cam was very industrious. One day I mentioned how cool it would be to have music in the bathroom (because who doesn’t want to listen to their favourite albums while in the can?). It wasn’t long before Cam had speakers rigged up and music was blasting in the loo. Nothing like washing your hair or scrubbing your arse to “Bad Obsession” or “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses, or shaving to the Eagles’ Greatest Hits.

While Cam was still in University, he enlisted me to play with the electrical engineering band during GEER Week 51. According to the U Of A website, “GEER Week is an annual series of events in the second week of January that celebrates the culture engineering students have developed as a faculty… The goal of GEER Week is to foster a sense of community and pride in students while providing them with the opportunity to participate in activities not directly related to their degree.”

The EE band was a rag tag group of electrical engineering students. There was Skip, the bass player who always had java breath and wore his fingers raw rehearsing. Without complaint, and perhaps fittingly, Skip simply wrapped his fingers with black electrical tape and kept on playing. There was Tonya (“Not Tanya!”), a classically trained singer whose voice was suited for anything but the rock and roll we were playing. She was sweet (unless you accidentally called her Tanya). 

Frank was an electric guitar player who played through a Rockman (a headphone amplifier unit similar to a walkman). It wasn’t ideal for a live setting, but Cam, the technical wizard that he is, made it work. Frank had one of the worst and thinnest tones I’d ever heard, but he played and sang Blue Oyster Cult’s “Don’t Fear The Reaper” at one of the first rehearsals, and I liked him immediately. He had the kind of personality that made you want to be around him. 

Jay, a guitar player who was recruited to play bass for GEER Week, and who would briefly become a member of Thunder County after Midnight Train was recorded and released, was also one of those guys you just enjoy being around. He had a really good ear for music and was able to give and take direction easily. We liked him from the start.

The drummer was another good egg named Dave (I didn’t block him out of my mind like guitar player Dave, so I know that particular mental stumble wasn’t an issue with Daves!). This Dave had never heard of the Doors or Jim Morrison. One of the songs we were covering was “LA Woman,” which was assigned to me since I had the closest thing to a Morrison type voice at the time. One afternoon, after rehearsal, Dave said to me, “I heard that Doors song today. I have to apologize, I thought you had a weird voice, but that’s how the guy actually sings! 

Dave didn’t have a drum kit (he borrowed one for the rehearsals and gig) and the only person in the EE band who didn’t know I wasn’t in University. Everyone else knew, but somehow that information slipped past Dave. More than once he commented on never seeing me around campus. Since you had to be an engineering student to be involved in GEER Week, Cam coached me on what to say if anyone asked what course I was taking.

One of the funniest moments of GEER Week happened just before we went on stage at the Dinwoodie Lounge during the battle of the bands. We were all huddled backstage, a collective buzz of electricity and anticipation. Cam had an elaborate setup with his own gear that had to be snaked out to the main board. We had to get up on stage, get plugged in and set up as fast as we could. Cam gave the band a quick pep talk just before we hit the stage.

Cam: “When we get up there, everyone just remain calm.” 

Everyone: “Okay.” 

The minute we got on stage, everything in Cam’s rig, which allowed him to control our sound from the stage and only gave the guys at the back of the club behind the big sound board the ability to control the volume going into the main speakers, went sideways. Each band member stood in his or her designated spot and remained calm. Cam lost his mind for a few seconds, arms flailing, before he pulled it together. We all laughed about it later.

We made it through the gig, although our sound was quieter than the other bands (perhaps a little payback from the sound guys for wanting to control everything from the stage?). The only two songs I remember us performing are “L.A. Woman” and “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” For “Grapevine,” we had students dressed in giant California Raisin costumes dancing in front of us. It was exhilarating.

The EE Band was a good distraction from the now finished and released Midnight Train. Not only was rehearsing and playing with other musicians fun, it made Cam and I realize we needed to put a real band together, one that could play gigs and wasn’t just a stagnant studio project. After all, we had a freshly minted album to promote. 

Our adventures trying to put a band together could be used in a sequel to the legendary rock mockumentary movie Spinal Tap. Some of the people who answered our ad in the Bargain Finder were out there, way out there. One guitar player was so intense and strange, our first and only meeting with him was burned in my mind. The guy brought a huge stage backdrop to the house that had Free Bird written on it. He completely melted down when, unrolled with the help of Cam, I thought the backdrop said Tree Bird.

When I informed Mr. Intense, a motormouth who acted like he was jonesing for a few rails of cocaine the entire time he was at the house, we already had a band name, he became even more agitated. 

“I know, I just wanted to show you guys how serious I am about music, so I brought the backdrop from my old band.” 

The meeting went down hill, and Mr. Intense told us he wouldn’t be comfortable playing in a band with us. The feeling was mutual. Next. 

Two older dudes – one a guitar player, the other a bassist – answered our ad and made it to the meet and greet phase. One was a string bean, the other a fat, bald guy. He wasn’t completely bald, he had a skullett (a mullet with the entire top and front missing). Both men were walking clouds of blue funk, a musty combination of cigarette smoke and weed. They wanted to play stuff far out of our wheelhouse, which is the excuse we used to get rid of them. But the truth is they creeped us out.

We recruited Jay to play bass for Thunder County and found a drummer by the name of Dan, who was one of the nicest musicians I’ve ever met. The only problem with Dan was he had bad timing. A drummer with bad timing is like a Ferrari without an engine, very nice but completely useless. I was constantly bitching at Dan about his timing during the few rehearsals we had. Vexed, Dan finally blurted out – at what would be our final rehearsal together – “why is it always my fault?”

“Dude, you’re the drummer.” 

With Stan heading home to California at the end of the school year, we decided Thunder County would be a three piece (with me back handling acoustic guitar duties as well as vocals).

Midnight Train came and went. The coolest thing about it was the artwork. Airbrushed on a large canvass by local t-shirt artist Damon Vincent, the cover turned out amazing. Had the music contained within the packaging been half as good as the cover, there’s a good possibility I would be typing this on my yacht in the south pacific between phone calls with Cam over numbers for our thirtieth Anniversary tour celebrating the remix and deluxe edition of Midnight Train

Long after Midnight Train, and after I’d moved away from Edmonton, I was still rattled by the stress of recording. Not that it was anyone’s fault but my own. It just haunted me. I felt like a failure of epic proportions. I lacked the wisdom and emotional tools to realize we live, we try, we fail, we fall down; we get back up, try again, rinse and repeat. The gap between reality and my expectations for the album was wider than the Marianas Trench. 

Midnight Train’s failure could be traced mainly to my vocals. I was simply wasn’t a good singer. Cam landed his parts; Stan nailed the acoustic guitar tracks. Everyone did their part to the best of their ability. The one review the album received from a local rag contained these nuggets: “Midnight Train is not a bad effort for a River City band.” “The guest musicians damn near eclipse the band themselves.” “Sterling’s lyrics are poetic enough to escape ridicule.” Then came the gut-punch. Regarding my vocals, the reviewer wrote, “Sterling’s voice makes for a thoroughly unenjoyable auditory experience.” 

The album was going to be the start of big things for Thunder County, and for me and Cam as a songwriting and production team. Young, inexperienced and not wise enough to understand that no one arrives in any discipline fully formed, that you have to be bad before you can be any good, the experience – and to a lesser extent the review – derailed my songwriting and music for a long time. I was crushed; the wound deep. I became disillusioned. 

It took time and growing up to learn a seed of talent and desire are simply not enough. You have to work hard (which I later did) and smart. Mastering an instrument and the craft of songwriting takes years of concentrated effort and practice (a journey that shouldn’t end until when we take our final breath). Often people with raw talent spend more time dreaming, talking and thinking about being artists than actually being artists. 

The most memorable part of the process for me was hanging out and forming a bond with Cam (a bond that exists to this day) Some of the recording was fun, but there were dark spots for me. To quote literary genius Charles Dickens: 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” (A Tale of Two Cities 1859)

With thirty years in the rearview mirror, it’s much easier to remember the good and disregard the bad. We did try to restart the process fresh with a new band we dubbed Scarecrow. We recorded a song I wrote called “If I Were A Cowboy.” Cam and Jay played great on the recording (Jay peeled off a cool electric guitar solo that was brilliant in its simplicity) and my acoustic guitar track was passable, but my vocal was uninspired. It was over. I was done, lost in a murky sea of self-doubt. 

Midnight Train may have derailed in a burning heap, but like the Mad Dog Blues EP it produced lasting memories. In the end things worked out for everyone. Cam is a world-class producer, engineer and musician, not to mention a computer programmer and all around technical genius. Jay, also an engineer, found his place in both the corporate and music worlds. Along with Cam, Jay formed the alternative rock band Exit303 and released several critically lauded albums and an EP. 

Stan went on to become a teacher, an award-winning youth soccer coach and a bilingual administrator. He also penned a book titled Our Competition Is The World. Our former guitarist and partner in crime Mike went on to have a family and carve out a successful career as a tradesman. The session players vanished from the radar like ships in the Bermuda Triangle and were never heard from again (at least by me). I’m sure each one found their place in the world and made their mark in some way. At least that is my hope. 

I eventually followed the songwriting muse to Nashville, where I had songs on hold for artists like Alan Jackson and Josh Turner. I released two country-rock albums that garnered airplay worldwide and helped me land a lot of gigs. I’ve had the opportunity to produce albums and write songs for other artists. My the third album – 2021’s Dark Horses: The Acoustic Sessions – was mixed and mastered by Cam, our first project together in more than two decades.

(January 2021)