A Scrapbook of Press Clippings and Photos
It All Started At The Austin Threshermen Meet
Farmer-Entertainer Gurr and Western Union Group Busy
by Kaye Rowe ~ Sun Feature Writer
Brandon Sun ~ 1967
John Skinner (North Brandon) ~ Russ Gurr (Brandon) ~ Sue-On and Bill Hillman (Strathclair) ~ Barry Forman (Rivers)
Russ Gurr and the Western Union group sign a contract for the NFB use of
the Gurr song, The Threshermen's Ball at Expo's Labyrinth.Minus instruments, Russ and four of his five-man group assembled in a local legal office last week to sign contracts relative to National Film Board's use of their song, The Threshermen's Ball. Recently they roped and tied contracts with Federal Grain for personal appearances at fairs, rodeos and stampedes ranging from Provincial Exhibition at Brandon commencing July 3, and on to some dozen other points in Saskatchewan and the north country Swan River rodeo."
The National Film Board action began back in July of '65 when Russ Gurr, Barry Forman, and the boys were filmed and taped as part of the whoopee at Austin's Threshermen's Reunion. Voice frayed from four days of open-air emcee duties, Russ was certain that NFB would not have caught his pipes at their top form when last July he received a letter from David B. Hughes of the Labyrinth project at Expo. It seems that Labyrinth -- one of the "must-see" exhibits at Expo according to everyone on more than a cursory look around -- planned to use a segment of their Austin, Manitoba footage and the Gurr song, Threshermen's Ball.
Russ Gurr puts in his crop in the spring, takes it off in the fall but in between he attends to a more colorful career. He gathers information for his folk songs as carefully as a factual writer, rejects the moon-June, only-lonely type of heart-break lyric for songs that tell a story with a jovial treatment.
For the Threshermen's Ball song that took the fancy of Labyrinth executives from NFB, the Brandon man created verses on each type of the antique steam-engined threshers, making a litany dear to the ears of old-timers, of names long-gone including the Rumley Oil Pull, the Hart Parr, the Mogal, the Grey one-wheeler and the Famous Pioneer.
The refrain comes through with a jaunty beat: "Just a bang and a splutter, The steam whistles call -- We're headed for Austin to the Threshermen's Ball." The entertainers with Russ Gurr as MC know the Austin annual event intimately, having played it for nine years as crowd-pleasers.
Set down neat and tidy by his friend and music arranger Tom Inglis, teacher and music conductor at Brandon high schools, are 22 original songs by the grain farmer-entertainer. His latest one, Fourteen Prime Ministers, will be a Centennial emphasis for the fairs and rodeo appearances upcoming in July.
The group includes two high school teachers -- Barry Forman of Rivers on fiddle and Bill Hillman of Strathclair on lead guitar, Jake Kroeger of Rivers on rhythm guitar, and John Skinner, drummer of North Brandon. An added feature is a Chinese doll -- Sue-On Hillman -- Bill's wife, who does lively songs and dances.
The company will perform on a modern-style open-air stage created a la Centennial Caravans using caravan truck that doubles as a parade float, and features a movable stage complete with sets and furnishings. They will play several shows a day as a free feature, and aid in calling the crowd into the grandstand.
Russ Gurr started as a farm kid who could sing and yodel in the days of radio's Major Bowes' Amateur Hour. Such "hours" flourished depending on ballot vote from the audience. The Gurr boy won repeatedly -- the $10 or $15 top prize, sums of considerable value in those days. Music festivals became routine exercises for him from Grade 1 to high school both as discipline and pace setters.
His major leg up the entertainment ladder came at Virden the year he was 16. The competition involved nearly 50 performers with F. Ernest Petch, Brandon movie house manager and an "old pro" of the London pantomimes as judge. Young Gurr was stunned when he copped the top prize money.
A holstein dairy farm put an end to his singing days. He missed seeing people, made a change-over to grain, relishing the freedom to study singing under professional tutelage, to join an church choir and to jump back on the entertainment stage. With the arrival of television he enjoyed five successive years on the local station with variety shows and jamborees.
On his own hook, he toured the Yukon and the N.W.T. some five years ago, discovered highly receptive audiences at Whitehorse -- a place the size of Brandon -- and historic Dawson City. They didn't bring in the Danny Kayes up there, he said. Russ Gurr did very well.
He also discovered there were no Eskimos in the Yukon, promptly wrote a song about it called, simply -- No Eskimos! When he and his wife, Phyllis, young daughter, Patricia, return from Expo -- you can beat your punchin' boots 'n' saddle he will be rustlin' out another song.
Press Releases From the Federal Forum 1968
FEDERAL BAND ENCHANTS THE WEST
Exhibition Itinerary for 1968
Weyburn ~ Estevan ~ Humboldt ~ Moose Jaw ~ Lethbridge ~ Lloydminster
~ Red Deer ~ Grand Prairie ~ Dawson Creek ~ Peace River
Around many fairs and exhibitions throughout the Prairie provinces people are listening, looking and stopping at the Federal Grain trailer stage, where Russ Gurr and the Western Union may be playing the Federal Grain song.
The fivesome consists of four on the guitar: Russ, Barry Forman, Bill Hillman and Jake Kroeger. Russ is also soloist and John Skinner the drummer. Sue-On, Bill's wife delights the crowd with her singing (and keyboards).
Russ, the leader of the group, is a singing farmer. Russ has composed many songs, one of which is the Federal Grain song. Many of them were composed on the tractor while working on his five section farm, near Brandon. Tom Inglis, a close friend of Russ, writes the music for the songs that Russ sings to him.
Russ was on television for a number of years and his final hymn each evening was eagerly awaited by hundreds of watchers. While on a singing tour of the Yukon, Russ was heard in hospitals, schools and mining centres. A favourite episode of Russ is one which occurred while singing in a hospital in Dawson City. A nurse told him that a patient whose condition was very low would like him to sing The Lord is My Shepherd. Very softly, in her ward where everyone whispered, Russ sang a verse. "She recovered too." said Russ.
Russ is a member of the Knox United Church choir, and always attends the Brandon Hills picnic. There he composed the song, The Blue Hills of Brandon, which is familiar to many people.
Reports coming in from the different areas are certainly exciting. After their appearance at Humboldt, Sask., District Manager D. Stuckle had this to say, "It certainly must be said that they are terrific. They were the highlight of our parade and really packed them in during their shows held at the fair grounds."
The Federal Grain Train Song
by Russ Gurr
We're the Federal Grain Train
Bringing music in the air
Everybody has a pass
Come climb on anywhere
When you hear the whistle blow
Come and gather all around
For the Federal Grain Train
Has just rolled into your town.
We'll have a hoe-down, show down
Come and let your hair down
You got troubles? On the double!
We can help your blues
Repeat first verseThese are just some extracts of the hundreds of letters we received about Russ Gurr. It is interesting to note, that not one letter was received criticising the "Federal Grain Train."
HUMBOLDT: Russ Gurr and his band were certainly well received in this area. Everyone (I estimate at least 5000) who saw the parade knew that Federal Grain had a float in it.
MOOSE JAW: The Moose Jaw Exhibition Co. wish to extend their sincere appreciation and thanks to your Company for their part in making our Fair a success. Many thanks for the "sing-a-long."
LETHBRIDGE FAIR BOARD: Russ Gurr and his band played to thousands of people from this area and no doubt made many friends for Federal Grain. May we suggest that you keep Lethbridge on your itinerary for next year.
CARMEL: Ladies of 80 were tapping their toes and our own three year old son is still singing the Federal Grain Train song.
LETHBRIDGE: I was very much impressed with the Russ Gurr group. The audience was well informed by Russ Gurr that Federal Grain were the sponsors of this show and were delighted to bring this entertainment to Lethbridge.
DAWSON CREEK: I am writing this letter on behalf of all my friends and to let you know of our enjoyment of the music of Russ Gurr and his men. They played at our Bonanza Days and we enjoyed them tremendously. I have never seen a crowd respond to any music like they did to theirs. They were absolutely great! I know everyone in the Peace River District would enjoy them again, so please send them back again next year.
DAWSON CREEK FAIR BOARD: Would you please convey to Mr. Gurr and each member of his troupe our sincere appreciation for a job well done. It certainly added spark and enthusiasm to all the proceedings and most definitely helped us to, once again, have a successful fair.
VULCAN: Throngs of people crowded around the band stand enjoying the entertainment along with the Federal advertisement. This is good advertising.
LLOYDMINSTER: Russ Gurr and his group did a fine job here. They played for the Pancake Breakfast as well. I would say, "very good advertising."
KISCOTY: I do believe this was great advertising. People thought it the best show on the grounds. I would like to congratulate your company and will look forward to more of this type of publicity in the future.
MANNING: I am writing this letter to tell you that Federal Grain as a company, sponsors a wonderful group of singers. I wonder if you could answer one main request, which is, please send them back here next year.
TORQUAY: Many people in the Torquay area have commented on the entertainment Federal Grain sponsored at the Estevan Fair. They thought it was the best there.
The group took time out of their busy schedule to travel to the Hospital for Retarded at Deerhome. Mr. I Lozynski, recreation director had this to say, "We would like to express our sincere thanks to Federal Grain and Russ Gurr and his troup. Entertainment such as you have provided adds much enjoyment to the everyday lives of our patients.
Manitoba Centennial Celebrations Tour ~ 1970
(Original schedule - Other gigs were added)
Goodlands ~ Darlingford ~ Snowflake ~ Miami (July 1) ~ Teulon (July 4-5)
Oakburn (July 6) ~ Moose Jaw (July 7-11) ~ Dauphin (July 14-16)
La Riviere (July 18) ~ Morris Stampede (July 22-26) ~ Miniota (July 27)
Swan River (July 30-Aug 1) ~ McCreary (Aug 2-3) ~ Winkler (Aug 8)
For the past three years Russ Gurr and the Western Union have been touring Western Canada's fairs and stampedes under contract to Federal Grain Limited.
This year, as part of Manitoba's Centennial Celebrations, the popular group will perform in about 15 different rural Manitoba communities.
Mr. Gurr has a large farming operation outside of Brandon and many of the songs that he has composed were written while he was working the land. This summer he released his first record containing the songs he has written about Canada and Canadians.
The popular Western Union, which has a television show on CKX in Brandon, is composed of Barry Forman and John Skinner of Rivers, Jake Kroeger of Rapid City and Bill and Sue-On Hillman of Brandon.
In 1965 the National Film Board taped and filmed part of a performance at the Austin's Thresherman's Reunion. This led to the National Film Board using a segment of the film in the Labyrinth Project at Expo in Montreal.
Since 1967 when Russ Gurr and the Western Union Band first began to tour with Federal Grain, hundreds of letters of appreciation have flowed into the office. No matter whether it was a small fair, a stampede or a large exposition, the Russ Gurr Group has taken the West by storm.
LARGE CROWDS THRONG TO HEAR
RUSS GURR AND THE WESTERN UNION
By Joyce Walter ~ Women's Editor
Moose Jaw Times-Herald, Thursday, July 9, 1970Take two farmers, a farmer-plumber-gas fitter combination, and three school teachers all with musical talents and you've got yourself an educated, versatile group of individuals.
And it's their talent, versatility and personable nature which draws thongs of followers in the four western provinces during summer tours.
Billed as the Federal Grain Train with Russ Gurr and the Western Union, the group working out of Brandon, Man., is sponsored by Federal Grain of Canada.
The group, which presents a variety of country rock, folk rock, sacred hymns or romping hoe-down musical entertainment is appearing for the third straight year at the Moose Jaw Exhibition where performances are given nightly.
And fairgoers have loved every second of the hour-long concert. From the first chord of their opening number, the crowd has dropped what they've been doing and gathered around the Federal Grain Stage.
The shows have opened with a lively guitar, fiddle and drums arrangement with Bill Hillman and Jake Kroeger on guitars, Barry Forman on fiddle and John Skinner on drums. The Games People play, a vocal by Jake Kroeger and a pulsating guitar arrangement by Bill Hillman serves as an appropriate cue for Bill's oriental wife to make her bounding entrance in black jumpsuit or pantsuit singing Lovin' Man.
And finally following various selections from the band, Russ Gurr, singer and composer comes on stage singing "Oh We're the Federal Grain Train, Bringing music in the air" -- a song written by Mr. Gurr especially for Federal Grain.
The song, Mr. Gurr said in an interview Wednesday, was written last year and has since been the group's theme song. Mr. Gurr first joined Federal Grain close to five years ago after being approached by a company representative. "He called me up and said, 'I understand you entertain.' This original crew has been together four years."
Through representative Dennis Stevens, the group in previous years has made summer tours in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, and this year is concentrating on Manitoba appearances in connection with Centennial. Moose Jaw is the only out-of-province engagement this summer.
Mr. Gurr explained the contracting company was trying an entirely different promotions approach than had been carried out previously. "They used to have floats with a small elevator or something like that. This was a brand new thing with me."
When Mr. Gurr signed his contract the contacted members of the Western Union, a band already making a name for itself in the Brandon area. He mentioned that his ties with the group go back even farther than the contract signing.
"The first year of the Morris Stampede I got a call from Barry Forman asking me what I was doing the next day and would I sing with them."
"He said there was only one catch, that they would be at my door at 7 a.m. I said that was no problem. So I was really first hired by The Country Gentlemen. Then when Federal Grain wrote my contract for singing tours, I liked what I heard of the Western Union (Formerly The Country Gentlemen) and their TV show so I called them and here we are together having a wonderful time."
Mr. Gurr emphasizes the fact there is no boss during the summer tours. "We're here together," he said.
The Western Union as it is today has been together four years although Mr. Forman and Mr. Hillman have been together eight years. Mr. Kroeger joined five years ago and Bill's wife became a member a year later. She sings, plays the piano, and when not on tour with Mr. Gurr she is the regular drummer for the group.
...Married Four Years
Mr. Skinner, who had worked with Mr. Gurr for a number of years, joins the group as drummer for summer engagements.
The Western Union has a regular television show on CKX-TV Brandon and during the regular season accepts engagements for dances, lounges, or stage shows.
While Mr. Gurr and Mr. Skinner are farmers, Barry Forman is a science co-ordinator for a larger school unit in Manitoba; Jake Kroeger is a farmer and licensed gas fitter; Sue-On teaches high school and Bill Hillman teaches geography and English. Mr. and Mrs. Hillman are also attending University.
The Western Union made its first recording six months ago with Galaxy Records. The record includes a variety of fiddle, guitar and vocal arrangements with various classes of music.
Mr. Hillman explained musical terms such as Western or Country are really falling by the wayside now because of the acceptance of all types of music. "There's not much difference anymore."
Mr. Gurr has also finished a recording entitled Federal Grain Train featuring his own original compositions. He recorded with CBC studio musicians with David Shaw as musical director.
Because of the time it took to make the recording and because three of the Western Union are school teachers, he was unable to make the recording with them although he is looking forward to doing one in the future.
Mr. Hillman said the Western Union is planning another record for late this year although the format hasn't yet been set up.
Does Russ Gurr and Western Union have any problems getting along while on tour? "We all get along well and I'm happy with Western Union," Mr. Gurr said.
Mr. Hillman and Mr. Gurr agreed that the group lives almost like a family for two months and during that time no one is moody, nor are there bad personal problems which seem to be apparent with other groups. "It's a great set up."
However, there can be some trying times such as what happened the first year of the Federal Grain tour. "We rolled our 28-foot mobile home and demolished it four miles north of Estevan," Mr. Gurr said. "But we never missed a show. We got ourselves a 35-foot trailer and discovered we couldn't pull it so we had to rent a big truck to complete the tour.
"The Federal Grain Train would have been out of business because we were transporting the stage equipment in the house trailer. By some turn of fate we had moved the equipment to the back of the half ton truck."
Although the exhibition tours have been successful for Western Union, Mr. Hillman said he doesn't think a life of such tours would be acceptable. "There's no security. And we're all fairly well-established in other working capacities. That's why we work out of Brandon."
The group considers Moose Jaw "a great place" and was especially impressed with the downtown area -- wide streets, medians and buildings which to them appeared to have been built for a much larger city. "The park (Crescent Park) is second to none."
They said the exhibition compares favorably with others they have attended. "We've mentioned that the board here is really organized. When you pull in, they say your place is here. It's not always like that. We've noticed changes this year and that's good. You have to have changes."
Mr. Gurr said frequently they run into other groups featured on the same midway. "We love rock and roll music and rather than compete with them we'd rather co-operate. Public relations are better then."
He said often Western Union plays later in the evening after others' performances and the grandstand shows in order to avoid any conflicts.
Mr. Gurr said he has been asked to do a live show July 15 at the Winnipeg Stadium before Queen Elizabeth and the Royal Family.
Television Star Sang For The Queen
And For 'Great People' At Dauphin Fair
SEEN HERE is Russ Gurr, (second from the right) and the Western Union from Brandon, Man.
Moose Jaw is the only out-of-province appearance for the group this summer.
Memo: To All Elevator Managers ~ From Dennis Stephens ~ April 16, 1971More than 150 requests were received in Winnipeg Office for Russ Gurr to perform at local fairs, sports days and exhibitions. Because of Homecoming 71 in Saskatchewan this year, we have scheduled most appearances in this province. With British Columbia celebrating centennial activities this year we also arranged to have Russ Gurr and his Group appear in Dawson Creek. The completed schedule for The Federal Grain Train 1971 Tour is as follows:
(Other gigs were added to open dates along the way)
Burstall (June 25-27) ~ Eston (June 29) ~ Unity (July 1) ~ Kenaston (July 3)
Milden (July 5) ~ Swift Current (July 6-8) ~ Kindersley (July 9-10)
Govan (July 12) ~ Moose Jaw July 13-16) ~ Buchanan (July 18)
Yorkton July 19-21) ~ Melfort (July 22-24) ~ Fulda (July 25) ~ Jansen (July 26)
North Battleford (July 28) ~ Lloydminster (July 29-31) ~ Prince Albert (Aug 3-7)
Grande Prairie (Aug 9-11) ~ Dawson Creek (Aug 12-15)(plus Parade and Breakfast on Aug 12)
Western Union Band Enthusiastic
About New Record, Appearances
Moose Jaw Times-Herald ~ Friday, July 16, 1971
INFORMALITY is the keyword in the Western Union camp between shows and
this shot was taken while band members took a break from practise.
The band, originating in the Brandon area includes, from left,
Barry Forman, Sue-On Hillman, Jake Kroeger, Bill Hillman and a new member, Kerry Morris.A new record and a new drummer are what's new for the Western Union.
The popular five-member group from the Brandon, Man. area is appearing again this year at the Moose Jaw Exhibition with Russ Gurr and the Federal Grain Train. It is the band's fourth visit to Moose Jaw.
Hired each summer to travel with Mr. Gurr on behalf of Federal Grain Limited, the band has been on tour since late June and will conclude the trip Aug. 15 in Grande Prairie and Dawson Creek.
Members of the group include Bill and Sue-On Hillman of Strathclair, Barry Forman of Rivers and Jake Kroeger of Rapid City. The new band member this year is an electronics technician and University of Manitoba student, Kerry Morris of Strathclair.
Since the 1970 appearance in Moose Jaw, the band has made a second recording, The Western Union, No. 2, recorded at Century 21 Studios in Winnipeg.
Bill Hillman, lead guitarist, explained the album includes songs which the band has "revived and added a new touch to."
Songs on the album were chosen according to what drew the most favorable reaction from different audiences.
Featured is a folk rock number; Muddy Mississippi Line; a rock medley including Whole Lotta Shakin', I'm Walkin', and Oh Boy; the contemporary, Put Your Hand in the Hand; Cajun fiddle tunes, Fiddle Duddle and Irish-Scotch; and various country ballads.
Mr. Hillman said the record, for the most part will be distributed by the band although a combination of distributors might possibly be used. He said the band formed its own recording company to produce the record and will be free of all other commitments to any other company. For the first record, available last year, he said the band was "at the mercy" of the contracted company.
Sales for the first record, The Western Union, "were what we expected" with the limited distribution, but the band members feel it was an album which taught them about the recording business and gave them help for further endeavours.
Appearances for the band have been centred through Manitoba because of other responsibilities, but members have been busy with conventions and dances, some appearances in Winnipeg and the Trapper's Festival in The Pas.
Although the band's basic style has remained much the same, Barry Forman, bass and fiddle player, said the band's style "has developed. We reflect our audiences. We do everything -- folk, country, rock or fiddle."
Future plans for the group include a possible fall recording session and the usual dance work and club appearances
The final show of Western Union with Russ Gurr will be this evening following the final grandstand show.
FEDERAL GRAIN TRAIN: RUSS GURR AND THE WESTERN UNION
Partial Tour Schedule: 1972
Altona (July 28) ~ Carman (July 31) ~ North Battleford (Aug 2)
Lloydminster (Aug 3) ~ Grand Prairie (Augs 6) ~ Rosetown (Aug 8)
Melfort (Aug 9) ~ Ontario (Aug 14-22)
RUSS GURR AND THE WESTERN UNION
THE FEDERAL GRAIN TRAINWINNIPEG -- Federal Grain Limited signed a contract Wednesday with recording artist Russ Gurr to appear this summer at 18 different exhibitions and sports days throughout Western Canada.
Partial 1973 Schedule for Elanco - Treflan Portage La Prairie ~ Morden ~ Regina ~ Maidstone ~ Viking ~ Westlock
~ Grande Prairie ~ Melfort ~ Tisdale ~ Margo
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