METIS FOLK SINGER CONTINUES TO EXPLORE HER MUSICAL ROOTS
Laura Vinson has worked all over Alberta’s music scene, but for the past few decades, she has gravitated more and more to searching out her own identity in music and history. Today, she’s singing about her own roots in what she calls “Mountain Métis” culture.
“We are different from the Métis of the Red River Valley and from the plains Cree natives. We’re more of a pack horse culture, with horses involved since Day 1. That’s how I grew up. I was a guide and outfitter on horseback, like my father, packing through the skinny trails in the Rocky Mountains.”
Listen to Vinson’s songs and you will pick up on her implicit mission, to explore the history of native and Métis people, and to bring greater recognition to the key role that those ancestors played in the early history of the Canadian Rockies. Mountain Métis culture was centred in the Athabasca Valley near Jasper and through the area of present-day Jasper National Park from the early 1800s where many worked as guides for the Northwest and Hudson’s Bay companies in the fur trade.
“I really want to tell their story, the way they were instead of what’s in most of the textbooks.”
Vinson’s great-great-great-great grandfather was a blond Métis guide nicknamed Tête Jaune (French for yellow head), one of the first persons to find a path through what came to be known as the Yellowhead Pass in the Rockies (historical debate continues as to whether he was the same person known as Pierre Bostonnais or possibly Louis Loyer).
Involved in music for most of her life, Vinson will soon celebrate two key events. This week is her 25th wedding anniversary to Dave Martineau, long a key part of her band and her co-songwriter and producer.
It’s also her 70th birthday later this month. Still very energetic with no obvious sign of slowing down, the singer jokes that “I’m supposed to be retired, but instead I’m just tired.”
Born in Edmonton, Vinson was raised in the town of Brule, near Hinton, by a father of Cherokee, Irish and English background and a mother of mixed Cree, Iroquois and French ethnicity. She rode horses as soon as she could walk and followed trails, fishing and camping before she ever started school back in Edmonton.
Later, she became an art and drama major to earn her bachelor of education from the University of Alberta. She moved back to Brule a decade ago, where she
runs a bed and breakfast and her husband runs a music store and studio. Never too old to learn or teach, she’s taking piano lessons and guiding beginners on guitar.
Following an early contract with
I really want to tell their story, the way they were instead of what’s in most of the textbooks.
Royalty Records, Vinson has recorded most of her recent albums independently. She and Martineau have also created numerous film soundtracks and they just received their fifth AMPIA nomination for a recent documentary called Mountain Men. Several of those films have been collaborative documentaries on aspects of native or Métis history.
Vinson’s songs have also overlapped with those soundtracks. Her latest CD and digital release, Warrior, includes numbers like Mountain Girl, Tête Jaune, written about her great-great-great-greatgrandfather, and the title tune for the late Edmonton musician Fred Larose.
Vinson first performed in public at 13 and was doing so regularly by high school. Early on, she joined up with folk and rock bands and then actively pursued a career in country, but she admits, “I always felt like a round peg in a square hole.”
That confusion with her own identity first came out in Vinson’s early song Half A Half Breed. She formed her band Free Spirit about 30 years ago.
Along the way, Buffy Sainte Marie was a big influence. So were Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash and Joan Baez. About 20 years ago, she chose to focus on the roots of her own culture, writing and playing songs in an open-ended roots style that has since come to entail aboriginal influences like the primal 2/4 beat of native rhythms along with folk, Celtic dance rhythms and European elements.
“The Métis fiddle style comes from the Celtic and French Canadian traditions,” Vinson explains, “and I also want to reflect how the Europeans had an influence on the native culture.”
She has even had a Scottish bagpiper on stage and musicians like Maria Dunn, Dale Ladouceur and Farley Scott have contributed to Vinson’s band.
“It’s not as lucrative and you don’t get as much radio play, but what I’m doing now is much more satisfying artistically because I’m singing about who and what I am. I also think there’s a bit of a sway in the music industry back towards roots music, especially with the upsurge in folk festivals.”
Over the years, Vinson’s band has played the Edmonton Folk Music Festival twice, along with other Alberta fests like North Country Fair. Her music has taken her to tour Europe and Asia. She still puts in at least a dozen shows a year.
For its upcoming date at the Arden, Free Spirit will include Martineau on pedal steel, dobro and guitar, his brother Paul Martineau on drums, bassist Carla Rugg, Karen Donaldson Shepherd on violin, and Vinson herself on vocals, guitar and hand drum, plus dancers Jesse McMahon and Elijah Wells.
Starry Night is a benefit for the Aboriginal Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert.
Laura Vinson draws on her background as a ‘Mountain Métis’ as she crafts her music for the band Free Spirit. She performs at the Arden Theatre on May 16.