Down at the Crossroads

Ian Stewart

Growing up in Red Deer Alberta you can be certain of 3 things:

1– Anywhere you stand in town you can see three liquor stores. 

2– Anywhere you stand in town you can see three huge trucks. 

3– Anywhere you stand in town you can see three people Ian Stewart taught how to play guitar.

An immensely important and influential musician and teacher in the Red Deer music milieu, Ian Stewart picked up his guitar and headed down to Michigan – the land of Motown, the MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges. I sat down with Stewart in Internetland to discuss what it was like changing locations after being a regional fixture in Alberta for so long, and of course from there the conversation naturally goes from Eric Clapton to the heart of the economic recession.  

Stewart started out a long way from Red Deer – he grew up in Swansea, Wales. Dylan Thomas may have called Swansea the “graveyard of ambition,” however Stewart certainly never lacked drive – shortly after he started playing the guitar in 1977, his friends gave him the nickname “the Hermit” because they never saw him – he’d be locked up in his room practicing. Stewart surely benefited from the musical milieu of his homeland. The famous disc jockey John Peel stated that “the Welsh never had a rock ‘n’ roll revival because it never died there.” Joe Strummer lived in Wales for a time – that’s where he developed his early rockabilly style and his appreciation for reggae. Also, we can’t forget what was happening in Foggy London Town at that time…because Stewart doesn’t – he still has his old Sex Pistols LPs.

Dire Straits and Ian Stewart

Also an avid football player, Stewart decided down at the crossroads to kick the soccer ball away and keep his guitar pick. Playing rhythm and blues and soul, Stewart performed on both sides of the pond for years. He crossed paths with the likes of Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler, and what still stands out about those musicians, Stewart relates, is “how reserved and quiet they both were. Very honest in what they believe. He thinks “that’s what intrigued me with both of them, they have this status in the music world that’s huge but don’t really seem to care about it as long as they are doing what they love.”

 StCentral Albertaewart settled in Central Alberta in the mid-1990s. This put him right in the middle of the bustling music community centered halfway between Edmonton and Calgary which allowed him to play lots of shows. When he wasn’t on the road he developed a strong base of students eager to learn the craft.

(When I was underage, the only time I would ever try and sneak into a pub was when Ian was playing. If I got there early I had a better chance of getting in if the doorman wasn’t guarding the entrance yet, but if he was there I was hooped)

Ian Stewart at the Vat in Red Deer. 1 May 2010

This past summer Stewart moved permanently to Michigan. The man with the Welsh-Canadian accent became an American, and quickly immersed himself in the music community. He says that he has “been received really well in Michigan and there is a lot going on musically down here right throughout the state.” At the same time however, he admits that “with the recession and economy the way it is down here everyone is looking out for themselves and you really can’t blame them.”

The economies of Alberta and Michigan certainly are different – one is resource based and the other is centered in manufacturing – with the hit the automobile industry has taken, that has to have trickle down consequences that are seen everywhere. [note: I have no idea about economics, so if that last sentence didn’t make sense and/or was wrong, please correct me] Going from an oil rich city with a high disposable income to a place where more people are struggling illustrates differences between the two locations. Stewart says that “gig wise, [he] is meeting a lot of nice people and great contacts.” In regards to teaching, however, “it is much harder down here right now because of the way things are. There are a lot of people who have the extra money for activities and lessons…but they are holding on to it. Patience and a tight belt is the key down here right now.”

Ian Stewart and Jonny Lang

With the change in locations, Stewart says that “technology has helped out immensely.” People can stay connected easier, and it’s also a way of introducing newcomers to your music, “and have people all over the world listen.” That said Stewart sill enjoys it when he gets to “meet someone at a show and [he] can shake their hand knowing that when they go home with your disc they bought it for the right reasons. Not only for the content of the disc, but the performance and the moments that were felt throughout the night.”

Stewart in July 2009

Stewart brings up a good point here – that even with all the innovations in technology that can expose people to new material, musicians need to balance that with a connection with their audience, an interaction that is sometimes lacking out in Internetland.

The same can be said about teaching. While you can teach students from anywhere with Skype, Stewart thinks that it is “great for lessons, although I don’t think the students feel the motivation and the want to get things done by the following week when they are looking at a screen. There is something more to teaching for myself other than just the information and techniques you give to others. I think it’s connecting with everyone you teach in the way they need to be connected with, the trick is to find it within the first few lessons [as you] become their friend. That way I feel you can get so much more out of them and they are happy to see you happy with the progress.”

This balance that Stewart is trying to strike with technology is in the same vein as the balance he’s juggled his entire career. First with football and the guitar, then with Wales and Canada, and now Alberta and Michigan. All the while he’s contiuned to record and perform some really excellent music, and have an immeasurable influence on the next generation of players.

If you are anywhere near the Great Lakes or Western Canada (Stewart often returns for visits), keep your eyes peeled for an Ian Stewart show. And if you happen to be anywhere in the world, check out his website at

http://www.ianstewartmusic.com/

On the site you can listen to some of his tunes, and purchase his most recent album. You can also read a more detailed biography that you may notice is written in the same kinda voice as this blog post.

Ian Stewart and Eric Clapton

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2 Comments on “Down at the Crossroads”

  1. Will Gilgan Says:

    I once helped Ian push a broken down car in a grocery parking lot on a cold winter evening. I’ll never forget that moment.


  2. If you can only see three large trucks you must be standing in a deprived location.


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