By Jeremy Ray Burchard
FOR MANY Texas country and Americana artists, MusicFest in Steamboat Springs is a rite of passage. First- timers eagerly share pictures of their old Econoline vans hauling trailers through the Colorado snow on the way to one of the country’s most unique music experiences, while seasoned veterans usually just catch a flight to a neighboring city.
However you get there, it’s worth the trek for artists and fans alike. You’re likely to rub elbows with some of your favorite artists and witness spontaneous collaborations.
There’s also the chance you’ll witness the birth of some- thing truly special — like MusicFest fans saw in 2002 when Cross Canadian Ragweed took the stage in Steamboat for the first time.
A seminal Red Dirt band credited with taking the fledgling genre to new commercial heights, Cross Canadian Ragweed’s marriage of classic rock, garage punk and country songwriting electrified crowds across the country. But before they toured the world, they cut their teeth in front of some of their idols at MusicFest.
Longtime mentor Pat Green was instrumental in getting Cross Canadian Ragweed out to Steamboat Springs in the first place. “Pat really took us under his wing and took care of us,” says band founder and chief songwriter Cody Canada. “And then he told [MusicFest founder] John Dickson about us, and John started coming to our gigs.”
“The first time I saw Cross Canadian Ragweed was at Lucy’s Retired Surfer Bar off 6th street in Austin,” Dickson says. “I saw the energy and how they connected with this audience who’d never heard of this band. You knew right there something special was going on.”
Canada and Dickson hit it off right away, thanks in no small part to their mutual love of classic rock (something that’s obvious to fans of CrossCanadian Ragweed’s music, which is littered with homages to rock riffs of a bygone era).
Dickson got Cross Canadian Ragweed to perform at Wolf Pen Creek in College Station, and eventually invited the band to come see what the fuss was all about in Colorado. “I had no idea about it,” Canada says. “I’d never heard of the festival until I met John.”
At that point, Steamboat Springs had hosted Dickson and company for more than 15 years — though the early iterations of MusicFest were actually known as “All Campus Ski Trip” due to Dickson’s early days at Southwest Texas promoting different events. And while the festival had certainly grown substantially by 2002 when Cross Canadian Ragweed first entered the picture, it was still a modest affair.
“Obviously it wasn’t as big as it is now,” Canada says. “We were still playing downtown and stuff, and I’d play with anybody I could. The first couple of years I probably played with everybody at the festival just because I loved to play.”
One collaboration sticks out to this day. “Getting to jam with Ray Wylie Hubbard,” Canada says. “I was nervous to be around Ray, and he wanted to write songs — that terrified me. But he wanted me to get up there and play guitar with him, and I felt accepted. I think it helped our ‘cool factor,’ you know? If Ray Wylie thought we were awesome, everybody else started listening.”
When Cross Canadian Ragweed first appeared in early 2002, they’d been grinding it out hard as road warriors for more than four years and playing as a band for eight. “We started in ’94, but we really started going out in ’98, and I remember people saying, “Oh it was easy for you…it was like overnight,” Canada says. “I said, ‘Bullshit — we worked really hard for six seven years just to get people to listen to us in Oklahoma City, and we were from Yukon, Oklahoma.”
The boys employed that same hustle in Steamboat, quickly growing the lore around the band’s rocking live show. Later that year they released their major label eponymous debut — a cult classic now but a humble initial showing that peaked at No. 70 on the charts.
Each year the band returned to Steamboat, and each year their crowds got bigger. Their second album on the majors, 2004’s Soul Gravy, was released only two months after their third year in Steamboat. It became their highest-charting album and the first of four straight Top 10 records until the group disbanded in 2010.
MusicFest’s influence on Soul Gravy was obvious. For starters, there were writing collaborations with several MusicFest main- stays, including Randy Rogers and Stoney LaRue. Cross Canadian Ragweed also covered “Wanna Rock & Roll,” proudly announcing at the beginning of the track, “This is a song by Ray Wylie Hubbard.” Not that they wouldn’t cover a Ray Wylie Hubbard song without going to MusicFest, but when one of your heroes takes a liking to you during the festival, putting his song on your record sure feels like a nice way to return the favor.
The album also featured “Sick and Tired,” a fan-favorite track featuring Lee Ann Womack. “The one late-night jam that will always stick out to me is when Lee Ann Womack came,” Canada says. “We recorded a couple of songs for one of our records, and after that she really started embracing the Americana thing, which wasn’t as well known then.”
Canada chuckles at the Americana label. “Basically, they started calling whatever doesn’t get played on the radio Americana,” he They started playing Merle Haggard on Americana radio.”
But he digresses.
“Lee Ann, I love her,” Canada says. “She was a guest vocalist on a song and really just made us cool to a lot of the Nashville folks. I’ve never been a ‘Nashville chaser,’ but I know there are a lot of really badass people out there who pay attention. It’s not just all ‘flash in the pan’ country music. She really put us in front of those people.”
So one night, the band spent the evening in Womack’s room jamming, singing, bouncing new songs off each other and generally doing what Steamboat has become beloved for among artists. “Then security comes banging on the door and says, ‘I thought I told you guys to stop singing,’” Canada says. “And Lee Ann goes, ‘Are you really going to tell all of us to stop singing?’ He says, ‘I’ll send you back to your bus right now’ and starts chewing us out, and I’m just laughing, like, ‘Dude, you have no idea who you’re talking to right now. They kept singing, he came back, so they finally called the front desk and told them whose room it was. “Then they left us alone,” Canada laughs.
Of course, it’s not just those rare “big-timer” moments Canada remembers fondly. There are also the special moments sitting in a song swap circle with people like Dean Dillon and Robert Earl Keen. “Nobody else stepped in,” Canada laughs. “We all had our guitars to play lead, but it was really just this magical moment of watching two badass songwriters bouncing songs off each other.”’”
Now with a 13- and 11-year-old in tow, MusicFest is truly a family affair for Cody and Shannon Canada. Not long ago, their boys started asking to go hang at the after parties with the other artists. “It was so cool how nice everybody was to my kids,” Canada says. “They were sitting at Jamie Lin and Jack Ingram’s feet, and I remember Jack sitting there with his mouth open, going, ‘Your kids know all the words to my songs.’ I said, ‘Dude, they’ve been listening to you since they were born.’”
Those are experiences you just can’t manufacture, and a big reason why Canada keeps coming back to Steamboat— every year since that first visit in 2002.
About 15 years ago, Dickson wanted to find a way to honor the artists who’ve been traveling to the fest for little (or often no) money. “I couldn’t figure out how to thank these guys, so I said, ‘I’m going to put them on stage in front of the people who influenced their music,’” Dickson says. “The first year we had Billy Joe Shaver, and we called it Tribute to a Legend. These young musicians get up there and say, ‘Here’s a song of yours that influenced me,’ and they have all these emotional responses. I used to joke to Cody that one day we’d be paying tribute to him.”
Ever the humble guy, Canada rejected the premise entirely, but his songwriting influence on an entire generation of artists is undeniable. “I always ask young artists what made them get into music, and as the years went on I started hearing Cross Canadian Ragweed more and more,” Dickson says. “And now we’re getting to a point where a lot of these kids never actually got to see Ragweed live.”
And that’s partially why the first few years after Ragweed split up felt especially tough. “After the split, I did the wrong thing, and I’m not afraid to talk about it,” Canada says. “I rebound-married another band. I didn’t listen to my wife; I didn’t listen to my best pals. I was bitter and mad because my band broke up, and I didn’t want to play those old songs.”
That made those first few MusicFests as Cody Canada and the Departed notably less social than before. “I had one guy who was ready to kick my ass,” Canada laughs. “He was standing in the front at a performance, saying I broke up his favorite band. Then the next day he came up and apologized profusely, and I found out [former Chicago Cubs pitcher] Randy Wells and another friend of mine had threatened the dude. They told him, ‘We’ll cut your ears off and send them to your mom — leave the guy alone, he’s just trying to do his thing.’”
For three years, Canada wanted only to play shows. He didn’t do any interviews. He didn’t do much mingling with the crowd afterwards. “Cody had a bad taste in his mouth, and I think he just wanted to void the whole thing,” Dickson says.
It was a really sad deal to watch how it all went about from the outside.”
But soon Canada finally got the message he needed to hear, and from another fan, no less. “There was a lady in California who came up and said, ‘It’s not the band we miss — it’s your songs,’” Canada says. “That hit home, and I got it.” That’s when Canada decided they were his songs, and he wanted to sing them. “That was such a great moment,” Dickson says, “to hear him say that.”
Since then, Canada has reignited his love for meeting fans and found the sweet spot between new material and the old Cross Canadian Ragweed songs that inspired an army of Red Dirt musicians. Between hopping onstage to play at MusicFest and late-night catch ups with all his friends, Canada continues to inspire the next generation.
“He’s got a tremendous amount of value for young artists and writers,” Dickson says. “It’s not something you learn in school. He’s been through the hard knocks, and Cody will help anybody at the drop of a hat, because he’s been there.”
Which makes Canada the perfect honoree for the 35th MusicFest in 2020.
“It makes me feel like an old dude, but it really is an honor,” Canada laughs. “Hopefully the rumors are right, and I’m the youngest recipient of the honor.”