Bar Wars Pt. 1

Between acts at the Strathclair Hotel

During the summer we were married - 1966 - Sue-On accompanied me to most of our Country Gentlemen dance jobs and fair gigs. We performed at quite a few Manitoba Exhibitions - the forerunner of what would evolve into our extensive Federal Grain tours with Russ Gurr. Two of the larger events were the Dauphin Fair and the Austin Threshermen's Reunion. These involved appearances where we provided entertainment and music segues for the rodeo in the afternoon and full grandstand shows in the evening. We also performed on a float during the parades. Throughout these appearances Sue-On took well to the road and obviously had natural stage presence and her female presence, moves and occasional playing of percussion instruments certainly livened up  what, up to that time, had been an all guy band.
On stage at an English Bar-B-Q performanceSue-On's first stage appearances: Summer '66

After the summer fair season we had a small wedding -- attended by just band members and close family. By then I realized that my bride had great showbiz potential. She had taken seven years of classical piano lessons and had sung in the United Church choir ... and she looked great.  And I knew that she wouldn't be content to sit at home while I was out performing every weekend -- too often I had seen this lead to marital discord among my musician friends. So, we went to work on developing a stage act. Our audiences had been mainly light rock and country fans so we dug through our record collection to find material that would work for her and came up with current songs from Brenda Lee, Patsy Cline, Patti Page, Lulu, Nancy Sinatra and we also worked at adapting many country, folk and rock standards.

Years of piano lessonsWedding Day: August 29, 1966Early performance in hometown: No one showed up : (On stage with Hohner electric keyboard

Sue-On's great ear for harmony opened another avenue as we started to work on duets. Knowing her piano background I sent for a electric Hohner Pianet, taught myself to chord on piano and then passed on as many by-ear tricks to her as I could. Gradually we worked these new solos, duets and piano sounds into the band. Setting a trend for the rest of our married life, we encouraged each other and dovetailed our individual strengths and weaknesses. Soon I had the confidence to start doing my own vocal solos. The guys in the band were generally very tolerant of this newbee interloper but more and more the two of us started to play local country bars -- gigs in which we were joined by Jake Kroeger on vocals/rhythm from the Gentlemen, and for a short time, bassist/singer Ed Neufeld from a group we had worked with on CKX and the Austin grandstand shows. We started off in hotel beverage rooms in Hamiota, Shoal Lake, Strathclair, Minnedosa, but as our popularity grew the bookings increased in larger venues -- as far away as Brandon and in the many military bases around the province -- we started to look for a new name.

The name Country Gentlemen didn't seem to fit a band with a featured girl singer. Searching through my Zane Grey collection, the title of one of his western novels drew my attention: Western Union. The name stuck for the next ten years.

Throughout this '66/'67 season I used two new guitars on stage. A few months before we were married my Gretsch Chet Atkins Nashville guitar was stolen while I was freelancing with a band at a dance in McCreary. My grandmother and parents both came to the rescue and soon I was using both a Gretsch Country Club and Fender Telecaster on stage.

Sue-On's First Keyboard

Our Pub Play list ~ circa '66/'67 ~ Sue-On ~ Jake Kroeger ~ Bill

Pub Song List - circa '66 and '67
I Don't Care
Honky Tonk Man
Act Naturally
My Heart Skips a Beat
Love's Gonna Live Here
Above and Beyond
Muddy Water
Wild About Lovin'
The Longer You Wait
Truck Drivin' Man
Travel On
Bill Bailey
Blue Moon 
Cabin On The Hill
Rise & Fall of Flingel Bunt
No Trespassing
Driving Guitars
'Round and 'Round
Let's Go
Bull Dog
Green Onions
Country Gentleman
Sour Biscuits
Wreck of the John B
Hula Love
Suzie Q
Sugar Town
Dum Dum
Baby Cried 
Go Tell It On The Mountain
My Love
Need A Little Help
Kind of a Hush
Be So Nice
Love Letters
Easy to Forget Bb
That's What It's Like 
(To Be Lonesome) C
Ode To Billy Joe
Bossa Nova
To Sir With Love
Pub Song List - circa '66 and '67
Wildwood Flower
Under the Double Eagle
Silver Bell
Tippy Toes
Guitar Breakdown
Mexican Polka
Black Mountain Rag
Buck's Polka
Sugarfoot Rag
Blue Skirt Waltz C G


Sweet Thang
Crazy Arms
Faded Love
Alley Cat
Your World
King of the Road
Cheating Heart
Swinging Doors
Distant Drums
You Win Again
Blues Stay Away
Bottle Let Me Down


Last Date
Blue Hawaii
Green Grass of Home
Mansion You Stole
Don't Be Angry
All For the Love
Together Again
There Goes My Everything
Almost Persuaded
So Lonesome I Could Cry


By spring our new Western Union was rejoined by Barry Forman and John Skinner for dance dates and we started to make preparations to join Russ Gurr for another Federal Grain tour of Western Canada. Around this time I received a tip from the Guess Who's Randy Bachman. Randy was familiar with my stolen Gretsch and reported seeing a guitar just like it in a Winnipeg Main Street pawn shop. I passed the information on to the RCMP and within a short time they had returned my lost Gretsch - just in time for the Federal Grain tour.

Our appearances in bars and dance halls were a great training ground and were generally quite exciting and rewarding. The only real clunker that stands out was in our hometown. We were hired for a community dance by a sports club. The band assembled early at our country home, Maple Grove, as the local paper wanted to do a photo feature on us. The photos and newspaper feature turned out great, but no one showed up for the dance, not even the members of the sports club. Embarrassing... but we had a good practise.

Barry ~ Bill ~ Sue-On ~ Jake ~ JohnStrathclair Hall: Barry ~ John ~ Jake ~ Bill ~ Sue-On
Maple Grove: Barry ~ John ~ Sue-On ~ Bill ~ JakeSue-On at Maple Grove Fireplace: Photo sold off stage

On Stage with Russ and the Federal Grain Western Canada Tour
Continued in Part 2

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Copyright 2001/2004/2012 Bill Hillman