Valley Ghosts

B.D. Willoughby’s revived band resurrects Saskatchewan history

Music by Chris Morin

willoughby

Black Drink Crier And B.D. Willoughby Double Album Release
The Exchange
Saturday 14

In her poem “The Legend of the Qu’Appelle Valley”, writer E. Pauline Johnson weaves together a tale of romance, ghosts and tragedy. When a young hunter hears a disembodied voice calling his name, he responds with “Qu’appelle?”, or “Who calls?” — but receives no answer.

He never will. When he returns home he learns that his lover died, calling out his name with her final breath.

Given the name Qu’Appelle from that incident, or so the story goes, the area has long served as a muse for residents and visitors who have been enchanted by its haunting beauty. It’s this mysticism that inspired Saskatchewan-born folk musician B.D. Willoughby on his latest solo album, The Qu’Appelle Valley.

Willoughby, a.k.a. Brett Dolter in civilian life, says his inspiration came from an 1885 photograph of a woman wearing all black standing in the valley. “It seemed so spooky and eerie and there was story there,” he says. “It inspired me to create an album that matched that tone and spookiness.”

The mysterious-yet-striking figure wasn’t his only muse. The date of the image also weighed on Willoughby. 1885 was the year of the Frog Lake Massacre, in which several Cree warriors, led by Wandering Spirit, killed nine settlers. Wandering Spirit and five of the Cree men were later captured and hung.

It was the largest mass execution in Canadian history.

Through The Qu’Appelle Valley’s songs, Willoughby hoped to create an album that would honour and commemorate this prairie history.

“These stories are important and I feel like they could be spread further,” says Willoughby. “If we understood where we came from we could work towards reconciliation.”

The Qu’Appelle Valley, which Willoughby produced in collaboration with the band Black Drink Crier, weaves together stories of times past with emotionally charged songwriting. On the title track, the group unleashes waves of volcanic guitar that burst into salvos of rock riffing that’s framed by blistering psychedelic leads. Along with Willoughby’s haunting country-folk vocals (very much reminiscent of the Good Brothers), the album combines Canadiana roots with guitar-drenched indie rock.

Old Mountain, New Mountain

Willoughby’s latest outfit arose phoenix-like from the ashes of another previous band, Last Mountain. That group played exactly one show a decade ago. Willoughby says there were elements from his most recent album that were fleshed out from his past work.

“Last Mountain played one show at the 2006 Cathedral Arts Festival, and ever since then I’ve always dreamed of getting that band together and it’s finally happened,” he says.

“It was obviously a very important group for me musically and I’ve carried those songs with me as well. The last song on this new album, “Sleeping Dogs”, was written together as Last Mountain over 10 years ago,” says Willoughby.

While he’s since moved across Canada, Willoughby says he’s always “kept one foot in Saskatchewan” — his spiritual connection to the areas around Regina is keeping him grounded in his home province and in the stories he hopes to spread through his songs.

“If you share history through music you can reach people who wouldn’t hear it otherwise,” says Willoughby. “It’s also a gateway to more of these stories — and I’m hoping to rekindle that history.”