Patton MacLean and the Lost Highway Navigators: Canadian Roots Country Band Profiled
Patton MacLean started setting his poetry to music as a teenager. During university he appeared in the Saskatchewan music scene as a solo performer and harmonica player. Studying English literature and ethnomusicology eventually lead to a scholarship to study the folk music of Asia. He was encouraged to travel there by the renowned Canadian guitarist and folk musician David Essig.
Patton elaborates, “When I met him, he was talking about Joseph Campbell’s idea of the hero’s journey where the hero leaves home, goes through tests and comes back with the knowledge gained from the tests. It really inspired me. I went to Korea with a half-formed idea of learning what I could and applying it to my own writing. I left with my guitar and planned to immerse myself in Asian folk music. I started off that way but it ended up in Asian popular music.”
In a roundabout way, this lead to an awakening of Patton’s interest in classic country music. He says, “I’d hated country music growing up. I hated old time fiddle music growing up. I didn’t like the sound of it at all. It was not what I was ever interested in, but while I was living in Korea I started, to become interested in the old traditions of North American music. It was only being away from home that made it interesting for me.”
He refers to The Lost Highway Navigators as a project rather than a band. Patton explains, “All of the players in it are in high demand and are all personal friends. They all have other music projects that they work on. This is something they do part-time when they’re available.”
He adds, “I’ve always been kind of surprised by the calibre of musicians that I’ve been able to attract to the project. It’s a no-commitment relationship for them, so it allows them to fulfill their other commitments as well.”
Over the years, MacLean’s approach to music has changed and evolved. He started out exclusively writing and performing his own music. As he learned more about classic country music, he started learning to sing like the artists from the past. He says, “I didn’t realize what a great benefit there was to learning the vocal techniques of individual artists. It has really helped my own vocal technique. I’m able to do things with my voice that I could never do before.”
He goes on to say, “Those classic songs are now part of our set. We talk a little bit about the history of honky tonk music in the show, but I’m an original songwriter and my creative focus is how this music is going to influence my songwriting in the future.”
Early on, Patton would set the poetry that he wrote to music, but over the years the songwriting process has evolved. He says, “It’s exactly the opposite now. I’ve got a chord progression, I’ve got a melody, I’ve got a harmony and I have my hooks kind of figured out. If I’m lucky, I’ll get on my bicycle and as I ride I just make the sounds over and over again in my head until words or phrases drop into place. I’ll write down those key ideas or phrases when I get home and I’ll build a song around them.”
The core band members bring a wide variety of musical backgrounds to the project. Patton says, “I’m so fortunate to work with these people who have a lot more professional performance experience than I do. All of the members are better musicians than I am, but none of them understand the genre as well as I do, so my task was to educate them about it. Ryan Spracklin (our fiddler) has a Celtic background but he switched to bluegrass with me a number of years ago and now I’m asking him to play country fiddle which he’s never really played.”
He continues, “Gillian Snider is one of Saskatoon’s most highly sought-after female jazz singers as well as playing the accordion, She listened to country music as a kid and her mother’s a famous country musician on the Tommy Hunter show. She hated country music growing up, though, worse than I did. For her, it’s trying to find out where the accordion sits in the mix of what is traditionally string-based music.”
The Saskatchewan music scene is thriving in Patton’s view. He explains, “I think that the Saskatchewan music scene right now is just batting a thousand. Artists are very well- supported in their community. There’s been a massive growth in Saskatchewan festivals over the last fifteen years. But there are more rooms around as well so it’s a more competitive environment for venues and festivals.”
In the near future, the band plans to release their debut album and expand their touring schedule. Patton says, “The new album is going to be all original material. I’ve made friends down in the U.S. in the country and bluegrass community who are willing to contribute, so I’m really excited about that. I’d also like to expand our touring to Alberta, Manitoba and some of the western United States.”
He adds, “We’ve got marketing coming forward to support the album. All of the singles will have performance-based videos so that an AD can look at them and use them for booking or promotional purposes.”
Another thing that Patton would like to do is add female vocals to the cover tunes that they perform. He says, “I’d like to take advantage of Gillian’s singing ability to bring in more Wanda Jackson and Patsy Cline songs to present the woman’s perspective on honkey tonk.
One future goal that he’d like to fulfill is writing about more deeply emotional topics. Patton says, “ I recently completed a song called Highway 9. It was a difficult song for me to write and a hard emotional song for me to sing.But audiences respond. I want to try to do more songs like that. They don’t necessarily have to be sad songs or songs about loss, but I want to explore the emotional depth of songwriting."
Music and teaching are his two passions. Teaching is his main career and it helps keep him inspired. Patton says, “My job is incredibly rewarding I love it and I’m excited to be there every day. I’ve never felt that I was stuck in my job while wishing that I could be a musician. I’ve approached my music with the attitude that I’m totally free to do it and have fun doing it.”
In terms of creative inspiration, exercise is something that helps Patton. He says, “In the summer, I get on my bicycle and in the winter I cross-country ski. I do a lot of working out melodies and ideas in my head. It’s a very undistracted environment to write in.”