The struggles of an independent record label illuminate an obscure, seedy corner of Canadian country music in the 1970s in this sprawling show-business biography.
Ryerson follows “Big Jim” Allison through his colorful but not exactly inspiring career as a guitarist and band leader in Brant County, Ontario’s country-music scene, and the owner of Thunderbird Recordings during its brief existence from 1975 to 1979. His is largely a saga of failure: Although a few records that he produced charted in Canada, his biggest moneymaker was a municipal song celebrating the city of Brantford, Ontario’s centennial, and the label steadily lost money and acts until it folded due to debt. It wasn’t a noble failure, either, with Thunderbird displaying typical recording-industry frauds, writ small. Allison exploited artists by overcharging them for productions and lying about royalties, and he faked recording dates to thwart a copyright lawsuit. Ryerson’s portrayal of Allison is less as a villain than as a sad sack, though: He was willing to prey on smaller fish, but he was unable to profit from it because he lacked the instincts of a music-biz shark. In the end, with his label defunct and his wife dying of diabetes, he’s a figure of pathos. Ryerson (Return to Castle Lake, 2013, etc.) embellishes facts with imagined scenes to keep things “interesting,” but with only intermittent success. His writing often bogs down in the minutiae of gigs and recording sessions, and after Big Jim himself drops out, the narrative drags on with biographical sketches and chronicles of numerous others connected with Thunderbird, formatted in snippets that read like an entertainment calendar (such as “On May 31st 1980 Ramblin’ Fever played at Roger Quick’s 3rd Jamboree in the Stix at Thedford Arena”). But amid the thickets of factoids there are entertaining scenes of working-class country musicians in sleazy bars, drinking, vomiting, and urinating on stage; of the 630-pound Allison accidentally crushing a Chihuahua by sitting on it; and of him crashing through stage floorboards. Country fans will find these atmospheric vignettes to be a hoot.
A bloated, rambling, but often piquant portrait of a misfiring micromogul.