UNSUNG HEROES: Colin Johnston, Manager of the Heritage Inn and Don Glasrud, Professional Musician
In the old days, way back before disco, drinking establishments of any consequence had live music policies. Sadly that is no more. Live music in any venue is more the exception than the rule. I don’t think disco killed live music but rather it was a combination of many factors. The over abundance of recorded music, the invention of sports bars, big screen TVs, on site gambling, pool tables, drinking driving crack-downs, WCB anti-smoking by-laws; you name it and it was probably a factor. Audiences dwindled and people forgot how to listen and appreciate live music. When that happened economics came into play and managers could no longer afford to pay for live music. With that in mind it is astounding that a restaurant in Cranbrook, The Skylight Cafe and Studio Lounge, has been able to provide live music on an average of three times a week for the past fifteen years. That has to be some kind of record.
Colin Johnston is the manager of the Heritage Inn Hotel. When he returned to Kootenays as the new manager in 1996 the previous manager had already implemented a live music policy in the restaurant. A professional musician, Don Glasrud had relocated from Calgary around that time and, on the promise that they would try it for a year, he started providing background music two evenings a week and for the Brunch on Sunday. Both Colin and Don are prairie boys who were attracted by the life style of the East Kootenays. Colin had worked and lived in the area from 1977 to 1980, liked the area and was happy to have an opportunity to return. Don was given an opportunity to startup as a music teacher in the area and that was a positive step away from hard scramble of a professional musician’s lot in the city.
Don has had a long career in music and has no intention of retiring from it. He started playing music at around eight years old and by the age of fifteen he was playing in cover bands twice a weekend for the once plentiful local dances in his area. Sadly the local prairie dances are also a thing of the past. After high school he moved to Calgary for the Mount Royal College program in Radio and Television Arts. From then on it was always about the music and he spent as much time as possible on the road playing in Rock/Blues/Funk bands. Between the times, while off the road, he was working in a music store. The object of the exercise was to make enough money to pull together another band and get back into the action. He spent some time in the Grant Macquen College music program in Edmonton and then in Vancouver in 1975/76 playing the big clubs in R&B bands. About this time he got married, had kids and moved back to Calgary to continue to pursue his career as a freelance musician and teacher. By this time he was a well experienced musician with good reading skills, a professional work ethic and lots of contacts though out the city. Prior to relocating to the Kootenays he was in demand in Calgary for Dixieland Bands, rhythm section gigs and theatre orchestra engagements. He spent 10 years with the Youth Talent Orchestra. In 1988 he was in Kimberley on vacation and this was about the time the real estate market had bottomed out after the recession of the early eighties. He purchased a house to use as a vacation residence and finally in 1994 he relocated to Kimberley. From a small teaching studio above the Snow Drift Café Don maintained his musical contacts in Calgary and commuted back and forth for the big engagements. This was while he got himself established in the area. An interview with the then manager of the Heritage Inn, Colin Punger, led to a trial engagement of one year in the Skylight Café and Studio Lounge and here we are fifteen years later and still going strong.
Given the economics of the music and hospitality industries this is a remarkable achievement and the obvious question is why this success? There are no real economic advantages to providing live music. As Colin describes it is a mostly “added value situation. The music is a nice touch that adds to the ambience of the restaurant”. Both Don and Colin are committed to the old fashion notion of satisfying the customer. Over the years they have developed lasting professional relationships with each other and with their regular customers. Don pursues a middle of the road musical approach by responding to the desires of the clients. He is constantly researching, learning and re-arranging tunes. Because of their melodic and harmonic challenges his personal favorites are the songs and tunes of what has become known as “The Great American Song Book”. Unlike most guitarists he is not a gear freak and he does not over amplify. He chooses to use an off the shelf hybrid Taylor Classical Acoustic/Electric guitar. His basic style of playing is what is known as “chord melody” and, as the name implies, he spends considerable time developing “close chord voicings and arrangements” that emphasize the melody and harmony of the tune.
So the success of the 15 year engagement appears to be the desire to provide good food at a reasonable price with the value added ambience of a professional musician providing music tailored to the customers needs. This is a challenge and for hanging there in the face of economic adversity for around 15 years they are truly unsung heroes of the local music scene.
– Rod Wilson
Published in the Townsman, Monday November 30th, 2009 page 1&4