Sounding more, at times, like a kid in a candy store than Canada’s ambassador of the blues, Holger Petersen (Radio and Television '70, Top 50 Alumni) hosts each episode of Natch’l Blues, broadcast every Saturday afternoon on Edmonton radio station CKUA, with an endearing enthusiasm heard in every cut he introduces and every artist he profiles.
Petersen’s normally animated delivery, however, has a sobering cadence to it during a mid-January episode of the two-hour program, when he pays tribute to an old friend with whom he had produced three records.
“Bobby Charles from Louisiana died on Thursday, Jan. 14 at the age of 71,” announces the articulate Petersen, who then proceeds to play an interview he conducted 12 years earlier with the singer and creator of such hits as Walking To New Orleans and See You Later, Alligator.
Sitting in the same glass-enclosed, sixth-floor studio where Senator Tommy Banks and singer Robert Goulet first dipped their toes into radio, Petersen’s deferential words seem to mould sonic monuments to the artists he has spent his career celebrating.
Last November, Natch’l Blues surpassed a 40-year broadcasting landmark, making it Canada’s longest running blues program, an impressive milestone. The program has so far survived seven Canadian prime ministers, at least six economic recessions and pretty well every musical trend from psychedelia and punk to electronica and grunge.
Petersen was rewarded via a sold-out party at Cook County Saloon where wellwishers like blues legend Joe Louis Walker and guitarist Donnie Walsh (of Toronto’s vanguard The Downchild Blues Band) paid tribute to the blues booster. Petersen even received a lifelike statuette of himself from CKUA staffers.
“That was pretty amazing to be part of all that,” says Petersen wistfully, who has since put the figure on top of one of his CD cabinets to oversee part of his collection of some 30,000 records. “It was very gratifying, and great to see the attention towards CKUA, which did a wonderful job of setting up the celebration.”
When it comes to receiving praise, Petersen’s an artful dodger. He can’t even recall the first time someone called him “Canada’s ambassador of the blues,” a moniker that has him laughing in embarrassment when the topic is brought up.
He had no problem keeping his ego outside the doors of Rideau Hall in Ottawa seven years ago, when he received the Member of the Order of Canada, the highest honour a civilian Canuck can receive.
He was totally flattered when he was voted Media Person of the Year in 1997 by the national Maple Blues Awards, and when he received a Keeping the Blues Alive Award for public radio from The Blues Foundation in Memphis in 2008 and an Alumni Award of Distinction from NAIT in 2004.
Petersen’s achievements extend well beyond manning the mike at CKUA and on CBC Radio One, where he has hosted Saturday Night Blues since its inception in 1986. He was also artistic director of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival for three years and a founding member of the Alberta Recording Industry Association (now Alberta Music), a resource centre and music lobbying body.
But his biggest accomplishment outside radio is the Stony Plain Recording Company, which he started at his kitchen table in 1975 with partner Alvin Jahns. Now run by five employees, Stony Plain boasts a catalogue of more than 350 titles, fields orders for product across Canada and around the world, and occupies an entire bungalow in east-end Edmonton, as well as the garage of Petersen’s house next door.
At last count, Stony Plain has won scores of Canadian blues and country music awards, 10 Junos and has landed five Grammy nominations. It helped extend the careers of legends like Ian Tyson (whose Cowboyography release in 1985 gave Stony Plain its first platinum record), Long John Baldry and Emmylou Harris, and turned upstarts like Corb Lund into bona fide international stars.
At a chance meeting during a social function, pop performer Elvis Costello thanked Petersen for reissuing one of his favourite releases by Jesse Winchester. Radical folkie Steve Earle praised him for putting out a version of the songs on his Train A Comin’ release in a much more impressive order than on his stateside equivalent.
And label mogul Jerry Wexler, one of Petersen’s industry heroes, provided the ultimate accolade when he remarked, “Stony Plain, as an independent company, is an endangered species in a dangerous world and a source of wonderful music.”
Experience has taught Petersen well, especially during Stony Plain’s embryonic years when he experimented with releasing product by the likes of Philadelphia alternative rockers The Reds and the Models. Those attempts failed. And like the unpredictable economy, Stony Plain occasionally wavered on shaky turf, but Petersen has managed to keep his enterprise stable.
“I did learn a few things about working effectively and doing things according to what my level of interest would be,” he says.
“I’m a great believer that quality will still win out in the end. And the market is a lot smaller and dwindling all the time for physical sales, but when you work with the calibre of artists who are the best at what they do, there’s still a market for them.”
Keeping the blues alive
Colleagues like Peter North, host at CKUA, marvel at how Petersen can stay down-to-earth in an industry that tempts players to elevate their heads into the stratosphere.
“That smile is genuine,” says North. “He’s one of the nicest and most generous human beings you could ever know. Once you become his friend, it’s not a fair-weather situation. He’s always reaching out and keeping in touch. He’s a man of tradition in a lot of ways.”
“He’s very cautious, conservative and careful about signing anybody,” adds Richard Flohil, one of Petersen’s closest friends and Stony Plain’s publicist since 1980.
“He is modest and quiet. The foundation of the company is the contacts he’s made with like-minded people and companies all over the world. His reputation for total transparency and honesty holds him in good stead.”
Playing his cards close to his chest has also helped. Petersen balked at the CD bandwagon during the industry’s transition from vinyl in the 1980s, preferring to wait for the technology to improve and the consumer market to catch up before making his move.
On the other hand, he quickly saw potential in the digital revolution, hooking up with The Orchard, a United States-based digital music distributor, which handles some of the company’s growing revenue stream of Internet downloads.
Petersen remains concerned about the well-being of the industry. In Stony Plain’s infancy, home taping was a major culprit. Today, it’s the unauthorized use of digital works. In 1999, his label settled out of court with Fatboy Slim when Petersen discovered the British DJ illegally sampled a Stony Plain-released work by Calgary guitarist Ellen McIlwaine.
“He owned up to it and she got compensated for it,” says Petersen. “But it’s an unfortunate situation and a worldwide problem that could spell the end of the music industry in a few years.”
It was a much more idyllic time in 1968 when Petersen, a student in NAIT’s target="_blank">Radio and Television Arts program, first stumbled onto the eclectic format of CKUA.
On a whim, he called evening DJ Tony Dillon Davis, who invited the student to hang out at the station. Meanwhile, Petersen was contributing music interviews to the Nugget, NAIT’s student newspaper. Davis asked Petersen to bring interview segments to the show, which he did for $10 a shot.
A year later, Petersen was offered a hosting job, which launched Natch’l Blues. In 1972, he branched out by making records for visiting blues acts like Big Walter (Shakey) Horton, Johnny Shines and Spiney Norman’s Whoopee Band – even drumming for local act Hot Cottage before starting Stony Plain.
For all the success and glory in his pursuits, Petersen has no qualms about keeping one foot at square one – the radio show that marked his start in the business in a station loaded with musical culture.
“To me, it’s the joy of doing it. I enjoy the process and listening to the music where one thing leads to another. There’s always a sense of discovery, wonder and an ongoing learning experience. It’s never-ending. That’s something I still want to do.”