Life, as we all should know, is a fragile state and there is no greater reminder of this delicate existence than death itself. As a music historian with a focus in the latter half of the 20th century, I have always been aware of the time sensitive nature of my work, a feeling that has been reinforced throughout the years by the passing of some of my musical heroes. Such loss, especially for the families and close friends involved, never gets easier. I think of the late keyboard king Jackie Mittoo, who passed away in 1990 before I had the opportunity to meet him, I think of composer/arranger Doug Randle, a dear friend and inspiration, and I think of singer songwriter, poet, and filmmaker Willie Dunn, who I feel truly blessed to have spent time with before his departure from this earth into the spirit world on August 5th, 2013.
Tomorrow is the one-year anniversary of the release of Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985. Over 10 years in the making, it was such an honour to help share this still relevant music with fans old and new. The positive response from the artists themselves and music lovers and media around the world has been overwhelming to say the least and made extra poignant by the absence of Dunn, to whom the project was dedicated to. Last week, I received word from Light in the Attic Records founder and co-owner Matt Sullivan that yet another key player of the 23 artists and groups featured on the compilation had passed away. Edwin Quinney, the guitar wielding leader of the Saddle Lake Drifting Cowboys—whose song “Modern Rock” is the sole instrumental on the set—lost his life to cancer this past September. I hadn’t spoken to Edwin since the summer, but I remember his warm voice coming through my cell phone as I looked up at the tall buildings near Bay and Bloor while working in Toronto, a sharp contrast from Quinney’s rural Alberta location.
Over the course of numerous phone calls to Saddle Lake over the last few years, it was always such a pleasure to speak with Edwin, to hear about his music and his life. On one occasion, I asked him about the tattoos on his arms and he told me that as a young man his cousin had convinced him that they would only last 5-10 years, after which he let out a hearty chuckle. He also told me about his prized guitar which I’ll let you read about below in my biography of the Saddle Lake Drifting Cowboys, taken from the Native North America (Vol. 1) liner notes book:
A country boy at heart, Plains Cree guitarist and bandleader Edwin Quinney (1947–) has always preferred the Prairie’s fresh air and wide-open space to the big city bustle. Quinney’s parents were farmers, and he was born into a large family of 13 children on the Saddle Lake Indian Reserve 125 in the province of Alberta. In the 1950s, the region was focused exclusively on agriculture. Although his family lived with no electricity, Quinney was exposed to battery-powered radio at an early age. Country music legend Hank Williams quickly became his idol. Inquisitive and musically minded, Quinney wanted to try playing himself. At this point, he had already started singing alongside his mother at Full Gospel church gatherings held at local homes. At 15 years of age, the teen did farmwork to raise the money needed for his first guitar, which was ordered via the Eaton’s catalogue and delivered through the mail. Quinney’s uncle, who lived across the street, also played and taught his nephew a few tricks when the instrument arrived. A chord book that came with the package revealed even more, but tuning his new six-string was another matter altogether and required numerous trips to his uncle for help. In between classes at the nearby R. B. Steinhauer Protestant Day School, where he learnt to speak English, Quinney strummed as much as he could. Years later, he attended the Alberta Vocational Centre (AVC) in the provincial capital of Edmonton (171 kilometers from Saddle Lake) for high school upgrade, but he found the larger city’s pulse much too hectic. During such times, playing guitar was a peaceful respite.
In addition to singing, Quinney also learnt a bit of fiddle and bass guitar along the way, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that he started his first group. He saw a need for live entertainment in the region, and in 1977 he gathered together a handful of music-minded relatives and friends. The band would give its members a positive outlet on weekends and help them to abstain from alcohol (the group would later play many sobriety functions). Quinney’s youngest brother, Ronnie (1958–), played bass; Vern Cardinal (1955–) was the drummer; Archie Steinhauer (1960–), Quinney’s cousin, was on rhythm guitar; and blind Métis fiddle player Clarence Desjarlais (1936–), from Lac La Biche, Alberta, filled out the lineup. Soon the nameless group was taking bookings. It was winter, and snowdrifts were becoming a common sight in the area. Harkening back to his country music roots, Quinney recalled the handle of Hank Williams’ backing band, the Drifting Cowboys—a perfect fit to match the new band’s country style and reflect the windblown seasonal conditions. They added Saddle Lake to their name to represent their community and were ready to hit the road. Dance music of any style was the order of the day: country, waltz, blues, boogie, and good old-fashioned rock and roll. As word spread, the band’s weekend calendar was quickly filled with bookings a year in advance. The Saddle Lake Drifting Cowboys performed throughout the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan at events both big and small. They played to mixed crowds as well as to mostly Native audiences at weddings, banquets, and community fundraisers. They even made a series of guest appearances on CKSA-TV in Lloydminster, Saskatchewan.
Through a business contact of Quinney’s, the group travelled as far as New York in 1982 to perform. They also recorded an LP (Country and Rock & Roll Sound [SL 001/82]) and a cassette (Live at New York) on their journey. Outside of the band’s rural Alberta comfort zone, everyone made sure to have a fun time. Desjarlais got his fiddle fitted with an electric pickup on the trip, and Quinney purchased some snazzy stickers for his Peavey guitar. Country and Rock & Roll Sound’s “Modern Rock” also broke the mold for Quinney, who aimed to write a song with a nod to the new wave sound he heard on the radio in the early 1980s. With two full-length recordings in the can, the group now had merchandise to move. One thousand copies of the album and cassette were produced altogether and were sold off the stage as well as at a store in Lac La Biche. As the Saddle Lake Drifting Cowboys was a hobby band, the members stayed busy during the week with day jobs. Quinney, for one, worked in the accounts departments for Indian Affairs as well as the Saddle Lake band. He also served three terms over nine years in the local Tribal Council. The group performed until 1994. Today Quinney is retired and occasionally plays guitar, though his beautifully stickered Peavey was stolen in 2000 and has yet to resurface. Desjarlais passed away in 2007. The other band members still live and work in the region. While the Saddle Lake Drifting Cowboys’ albums and cassettes long ago sold out, a framed, autographed LP hangs on the wall of a liquor outlet/general store in Foisy, just outside of Saddle Lake. It’s a special memento of all the good times.
In a strange way, death has always been a motivator in my work. I found that digging through the crates was a peaceful respite after reeling from the passing of my mother, also to cancer, in 1999, and I have definitely found myself racing against time to learn as much as I can about the pre-digital era of Canadian music history in the face of more loss. Day by day, we are all getting older; so remember to take the time to speak with our seniors and elders. We have so much to share and learn from each other and I know that the more that this happens, the world will be a better place.
Kevin “Sipreano” Howes
Post-script: Word from Saddle Lake is that Edwin’s funeral was very well attended, a testament to his personality and contributions to his community and region. Family members are looking for a copy of the band’s Live in New York cassette if anyone has come across or has access to a copy. Don’t hesitate to reach out.