Early in her career singer-songwriter Laura Vinson, 71, turned heads as a commercial country artist. But as an activist, she spent the past couple of decades showcasing her aboriginal heritage in what she calls “Mountain Métis” culture.
“I have an obligation to create an understanding for native people – who we are, what we are, and what’s happened to us in history that the history books do not present,” said Vinson
She spoke to the Gazette in a telephone conversation from her home in the old coal mining town of Brule, Alberta where she runs the Blue Diamond Bed and Breakfast with Dave Martineau, her musician husband of 25 years.
She explains that Mountain Métis are different from the Red River Métis of the prairies.
“You couldn’t take the Red River carts through the mountains. We learned how to pack and take horses through mountain trails. It was almost a cowboy culture.”
Blending all the elements of a Cherokee, Cree, English and French heritage, Vinson’s songs deliver a poetic, storytelling roots quality that visually, emotionally and audibly channel the ancestral spirit of western Canada’s Mountain Métis.
Generous with her time, Vinson heads to St. Albert’s Arden Theatre on Tuesday, May 16 for Star of the North Retreat’s inaugural benefit concert. Star of the North is a spiritual centre that provides affordable meeting spaces for seminars, workshops, retreats and conferences.
Accompanying her is Martineau (dobro, pedal steel guitar), his brother Paul (drums), Karen Donaldson Sligsherd (violin), Carla Rugg (bass), and traditional dancer Jessica McMann.
While growing up in the Rocky Mountains, music was always inherent in Vinson’s life. At 13, she ventured to the Jasper Park Lodge to compete in Search For Talent.
“I only got to the semifinals, but it gave me an incentive to keep singing.”
She later paid her way through the University of Alberta’s education faculty singing popular contemporary folk.
“My goal was to teach in winter and barrel race at rodeos in the summer.”
Unfortunately, the year Vinson obtained her degree, few teachers were hired. Embracing an already semi-established music career, she picked up tours in a big way, singing popular country six nights a week.
“I played at a few dives and then some. Places that started with Fort, Saint or Prince – you learned to watch out for,” she laughed. ” But I don’t regret any of it. It wasn’t an easy life, but it was what I wanted to do.”
Picked up by Royalty Records, she released five commercially viable country CDs. However, Vinson always admired folk activists Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Buffy St. Marie for writing from their viewpoint.
“Like them I wanted to make music that spoke to something.”
She sang about Tête Jaune, her great-great-great-grandfather, a blonde Métis guide that found a path through the Rockies later dubbed the Yellowhead Pass.
And then there is Petite Marie, a tale about the “country wives” fur traders and explorers exploited.
“The men couldn’t have survived without the country wives. They taught them how to hunt for food, cooked for them and made their clothes. Many women were also guides, and many times these guys left the women behind, some with little kids.”
Since her stint at Royalty Records, Vinson has recorded her albums independently. Nominated for more than 40 awards, she wrote several film soundtracks and received a fifth AMPIA nomination for a documentary titled Mountain Men.
At the concert, Vinson plans to stick to songs such as Mountain Mustang, a tale of wild horses and their magnificent role in aboriginal culture.
“Just come out and enjoy some good music and support a good cause.”
With Laura Vinson and Free Spirit
Tuesday, May 16 at 7:30 p.m.
5 St. Anne Street