The pride of Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, Doc Walker was formed by Chris Thorsteinson in 1991 with Kevin Berard on drums and Bill Pullmark on bass. They worked the prairie circuit while developing their own style of pop-flavoured country and writing some material. Over the next few years Pullmark was replaced by Darren Stefanishion, and Mark Morriseau was added on fiddle and Kristyn Hambly on keys.
After briefly disbanding, Thorsteinson regrouped with childhood friend Dave Wasyliw (who he was in a group with at 12 years old) on bass, Morriseau, and drummer Trevor Handford. Wasyliw soon moved to guitars when Ben Loutit picked up the bass, around the same time as Randy Weidmer replaced Handford behind the drumkit.
While Portage La Prairie has never been accused of being the country music capital of the world, Wasyliw said it was that isolation from the outside world, and the fact they were all born into musical families that helped shape the band’s sound. “Once upon a time there wasn’t a lot else to do. All we had to do was watch two channels on TV – poverty vision and the CBC – and listen to the record player,” he laughed. “You can still have influences, but it’s hard to sound like anyone else in that situation.”
Thorsteinson added, “I can remember when it was a huge deal if someone was playing at the local dance hall. Growing up on the prairies gives you a different appreciation for the fans, and it just kind of goes with our work ethic. I think in a lot of ways it’s just as lucrative to play the small towns than the big cities. There are more people in the big cities, but there’s a lot more to do, too. They just sort of seem to appreciate us more when we’re off the beaten path. The radio stations are in the big cities, but 90 per cent of our audience isn’t,” he said.
They released GOOD DAY TO RIDE in 1997 after landing a deal with indie label Agasea Records. Produced by Thorsteinson and Danny Schur, the debut album was full of what would become the band’s trademark soulful harmonies in songs like “That Bridge,” “$100 Reward,” and the title track. All three of those tracks became singles, but only “That Bridge” made it to Canada’s top 40 chart. The album got noticed by the critics but largely went ignored by radio, so the band continued on the road and cultivated their own crop of fans the old fashioned way.
“Touring is very important for us, especially in the beginning, the same as any band, I guess,” Wasyliw said. “It’s sometimes the best way to reach out to your fans, and to gain new ones.”
The next couple of years saw Weidmer leave and be replaced behind the drumkit by Marc Branconnier, and Paul Kelly briefly replaced Loutit on bass, before coming back, and then get replaced again – this time by Blake Manley.
After moving over to Westlake Records, they returned with CURVE in 2001. With new producer Joel Feeney (LeeAnn Rimes, Aaron Lines), the album carried on where its predecessor left off, with slick arrangements and tight harmonies. Four singles were released over the next year, and although “She Hasn’t Always Been This Way,” “Whoever Made Those Rules,” “Rocket Girl” (penned by Jason McCoy and Denny Carr) all cracked the top 10, while “Call Me a Fool” made it to #11. Videos were also shot for all four, and all got good airplay, earning themselves their first Juno nomination the next year for Best New Country Artist/Group and their first CCMA (Canadian Country Music Association Award) for Independent Group of the Year. “Rocket Girl” also picked another pair of CCMAs that year. The album also featured the cover of Waylon Jennings’ “Lonesome On’ry and Mean.”
They kicked off ’03 with another Juno nomination for Best Country Album of the Year, and after signing with Open Road Recordings, they released EVERYONE ABOARD later that year. It contained five singles over the next year and a half – “The Show Is Free,” “Get Up,” “North Dakota Boy,” “Forgive Me For Giving a Damn,” and “I Am Ready.” The first four also had videos that kept the band on the airwaves while they made several cross-Canada jaunts and toured into the US, and garnered their third Juno nomination in ’04. The album also featured Spider Sinnaeve (Streetheart, Loverboy) guesting on bass, and marked the debut of guitarist Murray Pulver, who came on board just as recording had finished.
But by the time their self-titled album in 2006 was released, Branconnier was gone, replaced by Chris Sutherland, and Paul Yee was the new bass player. Produced by Justin Niebank, another five singles found their way into the top 10 – “Maria,” “Trying to Get Back to You,” “Driving with the Brakes On” (written by Scottish-born Justin Currie), “What Do You See,” and “That Train.” As had become customary at that point, there were several guest writers lending a hand on the record, including Randy Bachman co-writing “Your Mama Don’t Know.” It also featured a cover of Neil Young‘s “Comes A Time.”
“The first few records were a learning process, the same as for any artist or group. But I think at that point, early in your recording career, you don’t really think about your own sound. You just kind of want to get out there and sound like everybody else,” Wasyliw said. “But over the first three records, I think we’d come into our own.”
When BEAUTIFUL LIFE was ready to go in ’08, the band was now Wasyliw, Thorsteinson, and Pulver, having made the decision to use session players for the recordings and assemble touring entourages along the way. Recorded primarily at their retreat in Nashville and with Niebank returning as producer, three singles followed, and the title track, “One Last Sundown,” and the cover of Genesis’ “That’s All” (on the suggestion of Niebank’s wife) helped give the band their first Juno Award for Country Recording of the Year, and six more CCMAs. Again, they called on their friends to help with the writing – with Deric Ruttan co-writing “A Little Love Along the Way” and Carolyn Dawn Johnson helping with “Without Your Love.”
Wasyliw said the process of songwriting is never exactly the same way twice, and staying away from a formulated approach is what sets Doc Walker apart from many other groups on today’s scene. The one constant factor is feeding off each other’s energy. “With “Beautiful Life,” I just sang a melody and a chord progression, then recorded it. As soon as Murray heard it, he just started spewing out lyrics, then Chris sang something, or I would say something. It was just like this big chain reaction that turned into what we think is a really great song,” he said.
“You start putting too much into a song or a record, and before long it starts sounding like everything else out there. A lot of what’s out there sounds really good. But the heart of Doc Walker is the simplicity of what we do, the guitars and the harmonies. That element of simplicity has to be there. You start adding too much to it, and what you’re trying to do gets lost,” Thorsteinson added.
That philosophy has also spilled over into their choice of covers, either for recordings or live performances, which have included The Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” and KISS’ “I Was Made For Loving You,” among other less than traditional country standards. “We all have to agree that it’s a great song, and we all have similar tastes in music that go outside country,” he said, noting it not only keeps them on their toes musically, but keeps the shows fresh, as well.
“I also think we all have to be passionate about the song,” Thorsteinson added. “We could probably do a whole album of cover songs, and other bands have. We could pick a dozen songs we’re all passionate about, but it would still be a Doc Walker record. I think the main thing is we all have to believe in the songs, and we;re at a point in our lives now where we’ve known each other long enough to know what we like. We could never pull off a song like “Born In The USA” because that would sound ridiculous. The approach we take to any song we cover is to enhance it, make it ours and put our stamp on it.”
The single “Coming Home” was released to radio in June, 2009, prior to their sixth studio album, GO, that September. “If I Fall,” “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me” (praised by the critics as one of the best two-stepping tunes in years), a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Girls In Their Summer Clothes,” and “From Here” followed over the next year, with all of them spending time in the top 10. And again they were nominated for a Juno for Country Album of the Year, as well as picking up another CCMA.
Thorsteinson noted that as the band gets older, maturity in writing is a natural spin-off. “I think we’ve become a lot more confident in the writing process, and when you gain that confidence, it becomes easier to say what’s on your mind, and you feel more comfortable saying it, particularly when you’re writing about personal things that are going on in your life, and I think it shows on that record. I think it’s more stripped down than others. It’s a little bit more mature, and a little bit more honest about what we were going through as a band, as well as personally. That makes it more honest to ourselves, too,” he commented.
After the LIVE IN KELOWNA DVD and Yuletide EP entitled REMEMBER DECEMBER were released in 2010, they returned a year later with 16 & 1. With new producer John Ellis and recorded in an old schoolhouse in Westbourne, Manitoba (a property that Thorsteinson and his father bought), the lead single, “Do It Right” spent time in the top 10, while “Country Girl” and “Where I Belong” found their way into the top 20 over the next year. And the band enjoyed another gold album as a result, and their seventh Juno nomination – their second straight for Country Album of the Year. Along with Bob Seger’s “Get Out Of Denver,” it also featured a cover of Crash Test Dummies‘ “I Think I’ll Disappear Now,” which Brad Roberts guested on.
Over the course of their career, along with one Juno Award and six nominations, Doc Walker has also been named winner of nearly a two dozen CCMAs, and several other honours. And they’ve played the stages during those events, most recently doing a duet with Emerson Drive at the 2012 CCMAs in Saskatoon. They were even notified by their hometown’s council that it had decided to put up a sign that said, “Portage La Prairie – Home of Doc Walker,” an honour they declined because they weren’t deserving of such grandeur – at least not yet. Wasyliw noted that with that kind of adulation, it’s sometimes hard to keep things in perspective.
“That’s a little early for that. We’re always striving for a little more. We just hope we don’t nose dive. We’ll never hit the Shania Twain status. We know that. For the most part, you just have to stay busy and focus on what you’re doing and where you are, and what you want to accomplish in this business. You have to step back every once in awhile and look at things and put it all in perspective. The day I stepped on the same stage that Willie Nelson had just stepped off of, now THAT was cool,” he exclaimed. “If anything, that one defining moment told me I was doing something right.”
Thorsteinson added they take accolades in stride, but don’t really mean much, personally. “Awards are always good for publicity and press releases and for the business side of things. They’re good conversation pieces at parties, and they make pretty good door stops and paper weights,” he joked. “It’s a nice pat on the back, but it means more to us when we see people singing along with us live. We don’t play music with a mindset that this song or that record is going to win something. Ultimately, we write and play for ourselves, and for the fans.”