In some ways, it all started with Maple Sugar, an amorphous folk group led by Dorothy Hogan and composed of whomever she could get when a gig came along. Graham and Eleanor Townsend, two of Canada’s finest fiddlers, both played in the group, Donnie or Gina Gilchrist occasionally joined as step-dancer, Gilles Losier, Judy Greenhill, Dawson Girdwood – and James Gordon, Jeff Bird, and Randy Sutherland (actually, I occasionally filled in with Maple Sugar too). In 1978, James, Jeff and Randy spun off as a trio under the name of Sutherland, Gordon and Bird to perform and promote traditional Canadian folk music. Later, they changed their name to Tamarack. The name was suggested by Jeff’s father, who had long been in the lumber business. Tamarack, as tree also known as a larch, was a rot-resistant wood and was used by early pioneers for foundations and floors, and also for railroad ties and stables (it was one of the few woods that could stand up to horse urine).
Maple Sugar still toured. In fact, the live side of Tamarack’s first lp was recorded at a couple of Maple Sugar concerts. I occasionally came along to help drive the van and do sound (I got an engineering credit on that first album). Singing songs from the logging camps, mines, mills, factories and fishing grounds, they toured across Canada and as far afield as the USA and Mexico. National radio shows like Morningside gave them regular feature spots to explain and explore the folk process as it applied to Canadian songs. A career was in the making.
In 1985, Randy left to work in the computer field, and I, who had learned most of the repertoire as I sat behind the sound board at concerts, stepped in. I’m still there, keeping the band rolling. Jeff jumped ship in 1989 to join the fast-breaking Cowboy Junkies; he still tours with them, but occasionally sits in at Tamarack gigs and recording sessions. New members such as Andrea Barstad (1989), Melanie Doane (1990 - 92), Gwen Swick (1990- 94), Carole LeClaire (1994 - 95), and Molly Kurvink (1995 – present) shared with James not only his love of traditional folk music, but also some of his finely-honed skills as a songwriter.
Starting with 1989's project on the Rideau Canal, which began as a song-cycle and ended as a national CBC television special, Tamarack branched out into writing contemporary songs about Canada's past. We found stories all across the country as we continued our endless tours. Soon there were albums with songs from the east coast, the West and the far north; a whole album about the Prairies came in 1993, another about Ontario’s Grand River arrived in 1994. The Grand River album was commissioned by people who wanted to celebrate the river’s new status as a Canadian Heritage River, and this project, too, wound up as a national CBC television special.
This commission opened another floodgate, and soon the band had an album of songs about the Muskoka area of Ontario, and a growing collection of songs about the Saugeen River, the Trent-Severn canal system, the North West Company and the glory days of the fur trade .... Canadians from coast to coast were beginning to recognize Tamarack as one of the prime chroniclers of their nation's heritage. Regular airplay on the CBC and community radio stations spread southward in 1992 when Tamarack signed with Chicago record company Folk Era. By 1996 we were one of the most-played Canadian acts on American folk radio. We were also touring extensively in the U.S. - from Boston to Seattle and south as far as the Carolinas. 1998 saw us visit England and Scotland for the first time; we subsequently toured there again in 1999, 2001, and 2003.
James left the band in 1999 to pursue a growing solo career and was replaced by Shelley Coopersmith, with whom Tamarack has recorded two CDs - Spirit & Stone, and Tree (a project commissioned by the Tree Canada Foundation, a national environmental organization). Shelley left in 2002 and was replaced by Duncan Cameron. Duncan comes from fine folk stock – his father was Stewart Cameron of the Friends of Fiddlers Green and his mother Diane is an accomplished storyteller, musician, and host of house concerts in Sudbury. Duncan not only sings and composes but also plays guitar, violin, pennywhistle, concertina, pipes, mandola, and bodhran. Duncan left in 2010 and we now perform with old colleague and original Tamaracker, Jeff Bird.
In addition to our normal repertoire, Tamarack also writes music for theatre, dance and film, and James and I scored several of our songs for orchestra when we appeared with the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra in 1995. Both James and I spent a lot of years writing songs for the CBC; James wrote for Arthur Black’s radio show, and I did political satire for a number of Ottawa CBC radio shows, as well as The House, a national show about federal politics.
In 2004, SGB Productions, Tamarack’s corporate home, branched out into book publishing with Just Like Blood, a collection of poetry by Ottawa’s Jamie MacKinnon. The road goes on forever.
Until it doesn't. In December 2018 Molly Kurvink, singer, bass player, arranger for Tamarack since 1995, died in an accident while ice-boating on Guelph Lake. We had just wrapped up a small tour in celebration of our 40th anniversary. It's hard to fathom the impact her passing had on the band; suffice it to say that, other than a song at her memorial day, the band hasn't performed since.
Speaking of the road, we should take some time to thank all the fine people who have helped us out along the way. The folk music business is a friendly one, and there are people far too many to name who have run clubs, booked concerts, organized festivals, hosted radio shows, and generally kept the scene alive. Most of these people volunteer their time and skills, and without them, Tamarack (and thousands of other artists) would never have had a career.
There are also all those people who invited us into their homes, fed us, gave us shelter, and shared their lives and families and communities with us. From them we drew the inspiration for our songs and stories. Thanks.