Born in Montreal in 1940, Ralph Carlson moved with his family to Shediac Cape, New Brunswick, and again to Ottawa when he was still a child. At the age of nine, his father took him to see the Hillbilly Jewels, one of the Ottawa Valley’s most popular country groups and headed by Joe Brown (later the patriarch of The Family Brown). It was this experience that inspired him to get into music, and using his paper route money, eventually saved enough to buy a guitar out of an Eaton’s catalogue.
He made his public debut at his school Christmas concert later that year at the age of 10. He continued to practice while listening to the country and bluegrass hits of the day, and while in High School formed his first band, The Jive Rockets – a country/early rockabilly hybrid. Along the alumni were Bob Anka (Paul Anka‘s cousin) and Dewey Midkiff, who later changed his name to Dewey Martin prior to joining the original version of Buffalo Springfield. They continued to play after High School, and together they landed a two-year gig at Aylmer’s Chamberlain Hotel in 1959.
When the band fell apart, Carlson began playing the local club circuit as both a solo artist and with various incarnations of short-lived groups, while taking odd jobs to make ends meet. He also met Mac Beattie one night, a chance encounter that scored him a recurring guest gig with the Happy Wanderers, a group Beattie fronted that enjoyed a popular radio variety program of the same name on CFRA AM.
As the ’60s came in, he joined Ron McMunn’s (aka ‘The Silver Fox’) Country Cousins. For the next five years they toured the area, venturing to the Maritimes and into the States. But in ’66 he branched out and formed his own group, The Countrymen, which a few years later morphed into Country Mile. Over the next several years they were staples in every Ottawa Valley club, and also played from coast to coast. In 1964 he inked a deal with Rodeo Records, who shipped them off to Nashville to work with fellow Canadian Dick Damron. Several singles followed over the next few years, starting with “Three Plays For A Quarter” and “I Told You So,” their top 10 signature hit, “Thanks For The Dance,” “Bargain With The Devil,” “Here Comes Another Heartache,” and “The Johnson Family.” 1965 also saw the release of his debut album, THE GAME WAS LOVE.
With his star rising, he gave up his ‘real’ job as a purchasing agent for a school board, and continued touring the country. He turned his basement recording studio Carlsound Studios into Snocan Records in ’75 with Family Brown‘s Dave Dennison, and later its label subsidiary, Icicle Records. Along with his own music, Carlson’s new venture also recorded some of the best country acts in the region, including Mac Beattie, Ron McMunn, Reg Hill, and Terry Carisse. His own hits also kept coming, with singles like “Eulogy,” “Bayou Grande,” “Lights of Denver,” and “Transport Blues,” and the albums THANKS FOR THE DANCE, RALPH CARLSON SINGS, and DON’S BARBER SHOP. That album contained the Barry Brown composition of the same name – a toast to small-town life and impromptu musical afternoons at Don O’Neill’s barber shop in Kemptville.
Two years later GRASS ‘N STUFF ‘N FRIENDS was up, a blend of bluegrass and traditional country that boasted covers of the standards “Mr Bojangles” and “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” and a cover of The Good Brothers‘ “Fox On The Run.”
As the decade continued, the band made several successful tours of England and throughout Europe. Along the way, they won two RPM awards for “Outstanding Performance by a Country Group” and also “Best Visiting Band” in England in 1980. The band also became a fixture of the Calgary Stampede, performing there for seven consecutive years, and the hits kept coming as the ’80s got under way, including “A Cage Is Not for Eagles” in 1982 and “The Game Was Love” and “Here Comes Another” a year later.
But by the middle of the decade the cross-country touring had come to an end, giving him time to concentrate on his other projects. This included producing other acts, running Snocan, and a weekly bluegrass show on CKBY Radio called “The Fifth String.” The show was unceremoniously dumped in ’89 to make way for a more contemporary new country format. Carlson never forgot that bit of callousness, nor the way the station (now dubbed Y-105) steadfastly ignored the Valley’s country music heritage once it switched formats. When the station invited prominent Ottawa Valley musicians to its 30th-anniversary celebrations in 2002, he refused to go on air and say nice things about them. By this point he’d also dabbled in other radio programs for other stations, including CJET in Smiths Falls and CHIP-FM in Fort-Coulonge.
Devoting more of his time to bluegrass, he also started playing and recording with Bytown Bluegrass, an Ottawa-based band that recorded the album, RALPH CARLSON AND BYTOWN BLUEGRASS. Along with a plethora of traditional bluegrass numbers, it also included a couple of tracks from bandmate Glen Adams, new interpretations of Adam Mitchell’s (Paupers) “Out Among The Stars,” and Gordon Lightfoot‘s “Redwood Hills.” The record was nominated for a Juno in ’87 for Canadian Bluegrass Album of the Year.
That same year, he recorded a cover of Buck Owen’s “Merry Christmas From Our House To Yours” for the second volume of CKBY Radio’s project, CHRISTMAS IN THE VALLEY. Sold only at the Mac’s convenience stores throughout the Valley, the net proceeds went to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and the Royal Ottawa Health Care Foundation.
By this point he was firmly entrenched in the Canadian music scene as a Director on the Ottawa Country Music Hall of Fame board, in which he was inducted in 1988. He remained there until his passing from Leukemia on October 10, 2002.
The definitive collection came out on compact disc two years later in the form of LIFE IS A SONG. Spanning his 12 album career, it contained all the hits, including his covers of Waylon Jennings’ “Anita You’re Dreaming” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Darby’s Castle.”