Sweetheart of the Valley
Not many artists come up with the best work of their career three decades in, but, happily, Lori Yates has done just that. Her new album, Sweetheart of the Valley ( released on Oct. 24, 2015), vividly demonstrates that the Hamilton-based honkytonk heroine is at the very top of her game.
This stellar collection of new songs showcases her twin talents as a compelling songwriter and the possessor of a voice with few equals. Since she first burst onto the Toronto roots music scene in the mid ’80s with Rang Tango, Yates has dazzled audiences with that voice. It is an instrument that will regularly give you goosebumps as it shoots in a straight trajectory from the ears to the heart and soul. Pure and strong, it possesses an emotional eloquence that all those singers relying on vocal gymnastics to impress can only dream of. Add in her now sharply-honed skills as a writer and you have an unstoppable combination.
Lori had frequently performed with different sets of musicians since moving to Hamilton from Toronto in 2002. She has been creatively inspired by working with two ace Hamilton-based guitarists, the late Brian Griffith (Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Daniel Lanois) and Mike Eastman (Ronnie Hawkins). She was also a founding member of Hamilton punk/pop supergroup “The Evelyn Dicks” with Chris Houston, Buckshot Bebee, Jimmy Vapid, and Cleave Anderson, but when it came time to record Sweetheart of the Valley, a return to the studio with her comrades in Hey Stella! was the perfect choice.
Hey Stella! was an all-star grouping of roots music talents that was a popular fixture on the T.O. club scene from 1997-2002 (they released a self-titled album in 2001). The group comprised Yates, guitarist David Baxter, bassist Bazil Donovan (Blue Rodeo) and drummer Michelle Josef (Prairie Oyster), and together they still share a real musical and personal chemistry. “It’s like dating a bunch of new people then realising your ex is the best lover you’ve ever had,” Lori explains with a chuckle. “They understand the kind of songs I write and are masters at that kind of music.”
Slipping back into recording mode at David Baxter’s noted Toronto studio, knob and tube, proved effortless. “It was just a matter of giving them the songs beforehand, and they all brought their A game,” recalls Yates. “Because of our shared history, in the room together we don’t even need to talk. It was a cloudy and cold November, but we just hung out for three days of recording and it was magical.”
Guest turns on the album are taken by guitarist Stephen Miller and pedal steel player Steve Wood, while Lisa Winn and Kara Lea Manovich add background vocals. Ensuring full aural clarity on Sweetheart of the Valley is the mastering work of Nick Blagona, a studio veteran who has worked with Deep Purple, the Bee Gees and The Police.
The 12 cuts on Sweetheart feature plenty of the retro-sounding country ballads that are a Yates signature. “Call My Name” is “something of a nod to Roy Orbison,” says Lori. “I wanted to have something with those long beautiful notes he is famous for.” Another winning ballad is the poetic “The Stray,” one embellished with some tasteful pedal steel playing of Steve Wood.
Lori mixes things up effectively with the up-tempo rockabilly-tinged shuffle “Whatcha Gonna Do” and the upbeat bar-room romps, “Corktown” and “Trouble In The Country.” Those last two songs feature an A-list cast of many of Hamilton’s best singers, including Rita Chiarelli, Terra Lightfoot, Treasa Levasseur, Mimi Shaw, Ginger St. James, Dottie Cormier, Lena Montecalvo, Buckshot Bebee, and Mary Simon. “We recorded vocals live at This Ain’t Hollywood, after I bought them all a couple of rounds of tequila shots, they loosened up” laughs Lori.
The songs on the album were all written over the past couple of years, and Yates observes that “I’ve now found there are themes running through these songs that I didn’t see at first. I didn’t set out to write story songs, but there are a lot of people in these songs. ‘Shiloh’ is written about my father, who I met for the first time when I was 40. There’s a lot of geography in the songs for me too, like on ‘Laugh Till We Cry,’ about my best friend who passed away suddenly. It’s set in the big old rooming house we all shared on Indian Road in Toronto. These songs were felt, rather than being thought out.”
“Trouble In The Country” is another autobiographical tune, one dating back to the time in the late ’80’s when Lori was introduced to the star-making machinery of Nashville after being signed to a record deal by Sony Nashville. “That’s about meeting the legendary producer Billy Sherill, who turned out to be a mean old guy. I remember him saying ‘there’s only one redhead in Nashville, and that’s Reba. It was quite intimidating.”
Another song ripped from the pages of real life, “Corktown” is set in the Hamilton tavern at which Lori played regularly upon moving to town. “It was when I started to play a matinee there that the city started to embrace me. At the time it was voted Hamilton’s Best Live Dive, and playing there showed people I was no diva! Its where I earned my Hamilton stripes. The people embracing me were the cowboys, the punks, like Chris Houston, Lou Molinaro. “ The Forgotten Rebels’ member actually makes an appearance in the song’s lyrics. Lori’s own alternative roots shine through on another album highlight, “Angels With Bloody Knees,” complete with a Johnny Thunders reference.
Yates incorporated some folk elements on her 2007’s much-acclaimed The Book of Minerva. It featured multi-instrumentalist and co-producer David Baxter and guest vocal contributions from Yates fans Justin Rutledge and Tom Wilson. The substantial merits of this country-folk gem were recognized by the Hamilton Music Awards, with Lori winning trophies for Songwriter of the Year and Alternative Country Recording of the Year.
She’s an artist who prefers to look forward, not back, but Lori has a fascinating musical history. She first started writing and singing at age 19, as a member of Toronto punk/new wave band The Last Resorts. They played such legendary haunts as Larry’s Hideaway and the Turning Point, and once opened for scene heroes Teenage Head. Born in Oshawa, and raised in the Toronto suburb of Downsview, she is a “first generation mall babe” having run wild in the aisles of Yorkdale Mall and she was weaned on Dolly Parton, Suzi Quattro, Pink Floyd and Michel Pagliaro.
The burgeoning cowpunk sound (the terms alt-country and Americana had yet to be coined) then caught Yates’ attention, leading to the formation of Rang Tango in 1986. Fronted by Lori, their fresh sound and high-energy performances quickly made them favourites on the vibrant Queen Street West club scene. Yates actually deserves far more recognition than she has received for the evolution of roots music in Toronto. Amidst the city’s post-punk/new-wave scene in the mid ’80s, roots music was given a much-needed new lease of life by the likes of the emerging Blue Rodeo, honky-tonk troubadour Handsome Ned, Cowboy Junkies, and Rang Tango.
Spotting the star potential of the charismatic young firebrand, Sony Nashville signed Lori as a solo artist. The result was her 1989 debut album, Can’t Stop The Girl, recorded in Music City with producer Steve Buckingham, with top players, including Marty Stuart. She recorded a spontaneous midnight session at Cowboy Jack Clement’s studio with Bob Johnston producing. This led to gigs supporting such American stars as Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Lori also got to record a duet with Gregg Allman for the movie Next Of Kin. She met and was mentored by: Tammy Wynette, Harlan Howard and Roy Acuff at the tail end of Nashville’s golden era, when those legends were still alive.
When her Nashville deal lapsed, Yates was signed by Virgin Music Canada. Released in 1993, her second album, Breaking Point, was a musically diverse treat, one that earned Lori both a Juno and CCMA Award nomination. The record was expertly produced by Colin Linden and John Whynot at the famed Bearsville studio in Woodstock, NY. Notable guests included Rick Danko (The Band) and Jim Cuddy (Blue Rodeo) on harmony vocals and Richard Bell (Janis Joplin’s Full Tilt Boogie Band), on piano.
An intriguing musical departure followed with the 1998 Virgin Music Canada album Untogether, an ethereal-sounding collaboration with trip-hop duo Opium Concepts, whose lineup included Juno Award-winning producer Eric Ratz. From there, it was a return to her roots with Hey Stella!.
Meticulous in her approach, Lori has always kept performing and writing songs, choosing to record only when she feels she’s ready. Over the course of her career, she has written with such legendary songsmiths as Guy Clark and Don Schlitz (“The Gambler”), as well as Colin Linden and David Baxter. Quebecois pop singer Martine St. Clair scored a No. 1 hit with the Yates-Baxter song “Usure Des Jour,” and Toronto singer Jadea Kelly covered Lori’s tune “Walking Wounded.”
Like her musical peers Lucinda Williams and Roseanne Cash, Lori has regularly received rave review for her work, in Canada and beyond. Early praise for Sweetheart of the Valley calls her latest work “a dark, alt-country masterpiece, film noir on the range” – Graham Rockingham, Hamilton Spectator. “A career album for Ms. Yates” – Don Graham, Cashbox. In turn, younger artists like Neko Case and Whitney Rose have drawn comparisons to Lori.
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