A getaway not-so-far-away: Adam & Steph do Niagara-on-the-Lake

Often people think the only way to “get away from it all” is to venture into far-off lands for lengthy periods of time, escape the addiction that is our electronic devices and live like nomads. Turns out – at least for the twentysomething “adventurers” we are – all you need for some downtime is often in your own backyard – of your province.

We all know Niagara Falls. No matter where you’re from, you have some semblance of what this one of the Seven Wonders of the World looks like and how fascinating and impressive it is. And it is!

But drive a mere half hour east, and you’ll get away from (most) fannypack-wearing, camera-slinging, casino-loving tourists and enter a true summer paradise where sun and sand meet and the people are as smiley as they are generous.

And who wouldn’t be happy in Niagara-on-the-Lake (NOTL)? Residents and visitors alike find themselves surrounded by sun, (tons of) great wine, a vast and beautiful lake, clean atmosphere and, albeit a lack of stoplights at Queen St. intersections, no traffic.

Looking across beautiful Lake Ontario to the States

Looking across beautiful Lake Ontario to the States

Niagara Falls is a destination, but NOTL is an experience. It’s world-renowned for its natural beauty – the town maps proclaim NOTL as “North America’s Prettiest Town” – its historic sites, and, of course, its wine.

Planning a trip to the region should begin in the many small towns in surrounding areas just outside NOTL. With so much to offer visitors, it’s a good opportunity for one to literally whet their palette with the region’s fine offerings.

We made a point to stop at a handful of vineyards along the Beamsville Bench, in Jordan, Grimsby, Lincoln and Beamsville, Ontario – about 40 minutes from NOTL.

Our first stop was beautiful family-owned Fielding Estates Winery. Fielding has a sprawling property with a new and modern wine tasting and retail building that’s been home to many events on its expansive front lawn overlooking the vineyard. Fielding’s friendly staff, impeccable facilities and great selection of gifts and accessories all complement its fantastic wine selection. While sampling ice wine, estate-bottled Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay, we sat on the balcony overlooking its entire property and enjoyed panorama vistas of Lake Ontario. We could not have started off our trip better!

From Fielding, we drove 150 metres down the road to the home of Mike Weir Wine. Weir, the famous Canadian golfer, has been in the wine business since the mid-2000s, with 100 per cent of the company’s profits going toward his childrens’ charity. The facility will be open in spring 2014 –but we got a sneak peek.

Touring Mike Weir Wine facilities - opening this fall

Touring Mike Weir Wine facilities – opening this fall

Mike Weir Wine’s new retail area, projected to open to the public in October 2013, will have a balcony that overlooks its vineyard and the lake in the distance. It will also hold a gallery filled with artifacts and memorabilia from Weir’s PGA Tour wins, including his 2003 Masters victory, and appearance at the 2007 President’s Cup in Montreal. The company’s knowledgeable and outgoing winemaker said it is mostly known for its Riesling, having won the 2011 White Wine of the Year in Canada.

Prior to arriving at Stoney Ridge Estate Winery, we made a point to pop into Upper Canada Cheese, famous for it’s Gold Label cheese and Guernsey cow products. Every one of its delicious cheese varieties is sourced from local dairy is made in its on-site facility. It should be ideally paired with some local wine!

Stoney Ridge, itself, is a gorgeous, small vineyard with the most finely manicured gardens in the region. It offers many areas for patrons to enjoy a glass of wine and a cheese plate amongst the rosebushes, lilies, arbors and vines. The knowledgeable and generous staff at Stoney Ridge made our quick visit one to remember.

From the Beamsville Bench, we travelled east along the QEW and the Escarpment to the lovely Niagara-on-the-Lake, where we would tour around in the perfect 25-degree sun before settling in at a local B&B.

With a population of about 15,400 – a quarter of which is retirees – it was immediately evident that NOTL was a popular destination in the summer months, particularly for those who live right across the border in nearby Buffalo or Rochester. And with so much to do, outside of just grape guzzling, it’s clear why that is.

Horseback riding, eating, golfing, picnicking, sightseeing, shopping, touring Fort George, cycling, and live music are just some of the many activities offered outside the vineyards – many of which we gladly partook in.

Trail riding near the vineyards

Trail riding near the vineyards

For example, the Niagara-on-the-Lake golf course is right in the downtown core, and was a mere five minute drive from our B&B. It’s located along the shores of Lake Ontario, and provides some stunning views. The course is the oldest in North America still in its original location, and was ranked No. 9 in Golf Digest’s ranking of the best nine-hole courses in the world.

Picturesque NOTL golf club

Picturesque NOTL golf club

Not being from the region, it was the diversity, variety and complexity of the region’s wineries was what really grabbed our attention and turned us into the tasting connoisseurs we now proudly claim to be (note: the term ‘connoisseurs’ is used loosely).

From the twilight tour at Trius by Hillebrand where we learned what goes into making a world-famous sparkling wine (‘Brut’), to understanding why rosebushes are planted to save the crops at Pillitteri Estates, to discovering building architecture is influenced by a barn at Jackson-Triggs, and to realizing the gunshot noises were actually just animal deterrents, our biggest takeaway was that winemaking is both an art and a science.

Overlooking the vast vineyard at Jackson-Triggs

Overlooking the vast vineyard at Jackson-Triggs

Getting away from it all doesn’t have to mean boarding a plane for the furthest exotic destination. As we experienced, taking a moment to breathe and relax outside the city and refueling with good food, great wine, friendly hospitality and fun activities is sometimes all you need.

And Niagara-on-the-Lake was the perfect place to do it.

For more photos from our trip, please click here.

Recipe for the perfect summer night: Chad Brownlee and Fielding Estate Winery

“Let us celebrate the occasion with wine and sweet words.”
-        Plautus   

School is done, the sun is out and the grapes are flowering – it’s clear summer is in the air. And while that may be reason enough to celebrate, how about pairing live outdoor music with stunning scenery, luscious wine, fresh food and great friends?

Award-winning Canadian singer-songwriter Chad Brownlee is helping do just that by bringing his heartfelt vocals and high energy to Fielding Estate Winery in Niagara’s Beamsville Bench on July 6 for Live in the Vinesan outdoor country music concert like you’ve never experienced before.

Set in the vineyard of one of the region’s most coveted wineries overlooking Lake Ontario, Live in the Vines will give fans the opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with the star while enjoying fresh bites from local food trucks and sipping on Fielding favourites.

You may have heard his new hit single Crash on country music radio or stumbled upon the song’s YouTube video (counting about 65,000 views so far). Perhaps you saw the 28-year-old Kelowna-native on CMT or watched him perform during his Boys of Fall tour with Dallas Smith last year. Or, maybe you recognize his name from the hockey roster where his career as a defenceman made him a draft pick for the Vancouver Canucks in 2003.

Any which way, Chad Brownlee has risen to the top of Canadian country music charts since his debut hit single in 2009, The Best That I Can Do, and continues to shine on the concert stage and awards stage. He won five BCCMA Awards in 2011, including Album of the Year and Entertainer of the Year, and was the recipient of the Rising Star Award at the CCMA’s that same year. In 2012, Brownlee was nominated for the CCMA’s Male Artist of the Year award and most recently, received a Juno Award nomination for his album, Love Me or Leave Me.


Hockey player-turned-country music star Chad Brownlee (Source: Twitter)

And while evidently highly praised, the artist maintains a modest outlook and stays true to his roots – and fans. Brownlee brings this down-to-earth vibe to Fielding where his Live in the Vines performance will kick-off the vineyard’s live concert series for 2013 – a great way to start the summer in a venue far from city lights and traffic signs.

But not that far.

The grape vines that line the Fielding estate lie a mere 20 minutes from St. Catharines and Niagara Falls, 10 minutes away from Grimsby and an hour’s drive from Toronto, making the setting a convenient site for show-goers across the GTA and around the province.

Fielding Estate Winery's lodge through grape vines

Fielding Estate Winery’s lodge through grape vines (Source: Fielding Winery)

Whether you favour the berry and oak notes of Pinot Noir or savour the nutty and tropical flavours of Chardonnay, the winery produces your favourites in its 20-acre vineyard. Fielding has made a name for itself as a local, family-run business with a national presence and reputation for high quality. President Curtis Fielding was named Grape Grower of the Year for 2012/2013, reflecting the team’s passion and commitment to stellar winemaking in its state-of-the-art facility.

So don’t miss out as fans, wine lovers, families and friends come together to enjoy live music, fresh air and great wine to kickstart the season: the recipe for the perfect summer night.

Get your tickets now for the premiere vineyard concert in the region: Live in the Vines. Tickets are going fast, so click here to purchase today before they sell out.

Country in the city: A review of the CMAO’s recent Ottawa seminar

Seventy-five budding artists, one music room, 10 country music industry professionals, seven hours, innumerable takeaways.

The University of Ottawa’s music department saw more than 75 budding country songwriters, singers and musicians gather on November 25 to hear from Canadian professionals in the country music industry – everyone from music directors to recording artists to booking agents to producers – on everything from radio to publicity and marketing to lyrics, style and business.

I live-tweeted the day-long event hosted by the Country Music Association of Ontario (CMAO) that consisted of two panels and a demo-rama session. See my Twitter feed, @stephbrooks_, for more of the panelists’ quotable moments and advice.

Below is a recap of the day, including the most prevalent discussions, topics and information. Let me tell you, I could’ve written a book from all the insider advice and knowledge the insightful panelists provided. But out of interest to keep my readership and abide by one of the facts I learned in this seminar (you have a short timeframe to make your point and an impression), I’ve summarized the most dynamic elements of the production below.

Panel one: How to get your songs to radio


Brian Allen, producer, Amplus Productions
KT Timmermans, music director, The Island
Joel Lamoureux, music director, Y101
Anya Wilson, Anya Wilson Publicity
Steve Parker, Canadian Country Spotlight

The CMAO put on the day-long seminar to 75 budding artists

The CMAO put on the day-long seminar to 75 budding artists

Key takeaways from panel one:

  • Focus on: song, image, story
  • It’s the music BUSINESS
  • Talent is a very small part of the whole business. Like anything, it’s who you know, what you know, and what you do with it.
  • Radio is looking for the song that’s going to catch directors’ attention in seven seconds.

As moderator for this panel, Allen did a stellar job bringing the topic of conversation back to the importance of the business aspect of putting music on the radio. He stressed, with necessary emphasis, that it is a money-making industry in the first place, and to get airplay it requires much more than just talent.

Some other important ideas to keep in mind:

  • Bring an audience with you
  • Be ready by the time you get there
  • Build a relationship with the stations
  • Pitch small-town radio

Panelists outlined that country musicians are in a unique position as artists, as a result of the size of audience the genre captures, the connection listeners have with on-air personalities, the loyal characteristics of the audience, and the large demographic. As Timmermans so fittingly put it, it’s the “music of the people.” Lamoureux added, “the country music audience is the most passionate, and you need the songs to connect with them.”

Lamoureux said country music listeners are 60 per cent female, 40 per cent male, and it’s a genre based on a relationship format. By bringing a built-in audience to the game, he notes, you’ll be more likely to be considered for airplay. Therefore, a new artist has to know the audience, know the advertisers, and please both.

What goes into a radio station music meeting? Radio station music directors Timmermans and Lamoureux said:

  • Music directors get a stack of CDs almost daily, hear a few seconds of the demo and either say “yay” or “nay”
  • A song will normally get 18 plays a week
A new artist has to know the audience, know the advertisers, and please both

A new artist has to know the audience, know the advertisers, and please both

Parker, whose show, Canadian Country Spotlight, showcases emerging artists, discussed the value of time on radio, and all panelists conceded the importance of having a business plan. “You need to have a footprint, or the beginnings of a national profile,” noted Parker. “We look at the business model and if there isn’t one, we have to say ‘no.’”

Wilson, a seasoned industry publicist, takes certain artists on as projects and lobbies radio to get them airplay. She consults on songs before they’re radio-ready, including ensuring it matches the sound of other acts on the radio at the time. Once radio adds something to its airplay, the song is played for at least 14 weeks, meaning it commits to those artists. Wilson makes it her job to ensure they’re capable of reaching that point. “I don’t want a one-hit wonder,” she said.

Anya Wilson

Anya Wilson


But, years in the industry have taught Wilson it’s not all about the song. “Radio is a blind medium,” she said. This means a song can’t be five minutes long. It also means there has to be more to an artist than just a hit.

An artist’s newsworthiness is critical to their ability to grow in popularity. Have a good story, Wilson adds, and the development and execution of that story is crucial in an artist’s success.


Timmermans, who views artist biographies daily on the digital music courier service DMDS, echoed the importance of having a good story. “Don’t make light of what your story might be,” she said. “That’s what helps market you.”

Panel two: Making it in the ‘biz

Wendell Ferguson, musician
Charlie Major, country star
Robert Wilson, manager/booking agent
Heather Ostertag, Ostertag & Associates

Key takeaways from panel two:

  • Again, it takes a lot more than just talent
  • Funding is a daunting process and you have to be in “it to win it”
  • Be your own team, but have a team to back you up
Panelists get ready for critiquing

Panelists get ready for critiquing

The second and final panel was much broader in scope, touching on subjects from funding to fans to failing to fulfillment. Broken down by panelist below, read the industry insights on how the specialists got to where they are, where they would go differently, and when they knew they made it.

Charlie Major

When asked by moderator Wendell Ferguson what his biggest piece of advice would be for aspiring country artists, Major responds with a deep and quiet, “follow your bliss.” Seemingly simple words of wisdom from a chart-topping star from Aylmer, Quebec, who’s recorded six studio albums and released more than 20 singles.

After traveling around the world with his guitar, Major decided making music was what he wanted to do. “Know what you’re good at, and do it,” he suggested.

Throughout his career, he’s committed not only himself to follow through with “doing what he’s good at,” but also his team. “I go out there every night and give it my 150 per cent because I’m not just representing myself, but my booker, manager, record company, and so on. It’s a collaboration, and you have to be ready to take on that responsibility.”

Country star Charlie Major

Country star Charlie Major

And amidst the doom-and-gloom perspective of entering the industry prevalent throughout the panel, Major made sure to provide the audience of hopefuls with some optimism.

“Every week I listen to the Top 40,” he said. “And every week there are 40 songs. Somebody is writing those songs. Somebody is playing those songs. Every week, every year, there are new people coming out. It can be done if you want it badly. It’s not insurmountable.”

And while not insurmountable, it’s also not easy. Major said when he sat down to write music and play songs, he’d be at it for 15 to 16 hours a day. “That’s sacrifice,” he added. 

Brian Allen

King of the session’s most quotable lines, Allen, as founder of a production company, focused predominantly on the business aspect of the industry.

Budding artists have to be willing to put in the legwork behind their music and BE the team before they HAVE a team, he said. “First, you have to have a brain,” he noted. “Nobody’s going to be interested in you if you don’t bring something to the table or have an interest in learning how to do some of the work that goes alongside just singing, like promoting yourself and booking yourself.” No one is going to come along and say ‘I believe in you and I want to lose a million dollars,’ he said. “You have to be strong enough to attract a team.”

And attracting a team is different than seeking out a team. “Some managers and agents will show up when they smell talent,” said Allen. “The best managers and agents will show up when they smell money.”

Play live to determine whether or not you should record a song

Play live to determine whether or not you should record a song

Allen made mention of the innumerable times he comes across someone wanting to make a recording to start their career. But, he advises, artists should be making a recording to further their career. “People want to be rescued by a recording and think it’ll pull them out of their dreary day job,” he noted. “I think that’s just wrong, unrealistic thinking. To figure out if you have a song worth recording, play live! If they don’t clap, don’t record that song.”

He added there are logical, tested, strategic steps to go through when coming up with your music business plan in the beginning, which he dubbed the “career equivalent of diapers.”

But how does one know when and if this is the right thing to pursue?

Allen said an artist will know once they evaluate the opportunity cost of making music for the rest of their life. “You know when it’s time to commit to music when you know that the value of what you are leaving behind is worth less than if you had not committed to it,” he said.

Top three Brian Allen quotes of the day:

  1. “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”
  2. “A fan is a stranger who will give you money twice.”
  3. “Loose lips sink ships in this business.”

Heather Ostertag 

As former president and CEO of FACTOR, Ostertag knows the ins-and-outs of funding for musicians. While an option for some, funding programs are serious business and not for the faint of heart. “Funding is not an entitlement,” Ostertag said. “You may be lucky to get it, but you have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting the funding.”

All funding agencies (like the CMT video artists program, Canada Council for the Arts, FACTOR, and the Toronto Arts Council, for example) provide forums for competition for the money, complete with a jury to determine the successful applicant. “To have a successful application, you really need to think beyond just production,” she adds. “You can’t just have the talent. You have to have the knowledge, the expertise, the ability to take it into the marketplace and exploit it in moving your career forward.”


Put bluntly, none of the agencies are interested in giving you money just because you have talent.

The realist of the group, Ostertag added the industry is based on a lot of “no’s” and if you do so happen to get the funding, it comes with accountability.

Finally, she emphasized the importance of knowing what is being done on your behalf. “Know what’s been put on funding forms, especially if it’s done by a third party,” she said. “You are accountable for what’s down there.” While you require a team, it behooves you to know what’s happening. “I’ve seen artists who’ve been taken to the cleaners by their team and lose everything. It’s incumbent upon you to know the business in music. I’ve seen so many people have their dreams sold back to them because they didn’t do their homework.”

And my favourite Ostertag line of the day: “It’s evident by some of the people who came to FACTOR that they had been getting advice from friends or family or deaf people. Your friends and family don’t know. It’s a business.”

Wendell Ferguson

This panel’s moderator and accomplished guitar player, Ferguson brought intelligent and careful thought to the session, making sure to add a few jokes throughout.

Aside from his remarks like, “think like your audience,” and “your talent may be big, but you’re not,” what stood out for me was his recommendation on staying committed. “In Nashville, they say your first thousand songs don’t count,” he said. “Come to me when you’ve written 1,010, and they’ll probably be really good by then.”

Vince Gill said if you're getting into the biz, learn to love every aspect of it

Vince Gill said if you’re getting into the biz, learn to love every aspect of it

Clearly an esteemed musician, Ferguson recounted an exchange he had with Vince Gill. “He told me, if you’re getting into this business, you have to learn to love every aspect of it. If there’s something that drives you crazy, it’s going to keep driving you crazy until you can’t handle it.”

Seems like some of these lessons are not only those helpful in the music industry, but life lessons, as well.

The down low on CanCon

Being a Canadian seminar with Canadian industry professionals, it wouldn’t be truly patriotic without the mention of “CanCon” – Canadian Content. Love it or hate it, the CRTC-regulated policy is a reality that today’s Canadian radio stations must abide by. The CMAO panelists shed some light on what makes up music that fits these strict guidelines.

The MAPL system defines that to be Canadian Content, or CanCon, at least two of these letters have to be true:

  • Music written by a Canadian
  • Artist a Canadian citizen
  • Place of production is in Canada
  • Lyrics written by a Canadian

Further resources

Carrie Underwood blows Ottawa away with talent and production

It was a true spectacle in every sense of the word. Elaborate sets, a well thought-out storyline, lavish costumes and special effects made Carrie Underwood’s three-hour Ottawa show last night an incredible production that left the sold-out crowd truly, blown away.

Aside from the country queen’s killer vocals that left fans’ jaws dropped in awe, kudos goes to the Oklahoma-native’s production team. From set to design to clothing to lighting and technical aspects, the production elements complemented the pitch-perfect vocals and brought the story behind the album to life.

Carrie's Blown Away set

Carrie’s Blown Away set

After hearing from the sweet and charming Ottawa native and rising country star Kira Isabella, Louisana-boy Hunter Hayes had the young girls in the crowd ooing-and-awing over his musical talent (Hayes played a different instrument for each song).

Opening with Good Girl, Carrie had the largely female crowd immediately on their feet and wishing their own were adorned with the diamond-laden heels Ms. Underwood danced around in.  Telling the audience, “we have a long show in store for you, I hope that’s okay…” garnered screams and even more when she swapped the word “American” to “Canadian” in All American Girl.

In a black and white vintage-looking dress exposing her to-die-for legs, Carrie sang Randy Travis’ challenging song, I Told You So, and explained it was one she grew up singing.

Frilly ensembles and diamond-clad footwear adorned the songstress

Frilly ensembles and diamond-clad footwear adorned the songstress

Although growing up a singer, Carrie’s move to Nashville has her foraying into songwriting, as well, and she described the heartfelt ballad Temporary Home as one she is particularly proud of crafting.

While predominantly performing her big hits from her latest album, Blown Away, a Carrie show would not be complete without some of the American Idol winner’s older girl anthems like Before He Cheats, Last Name, Wasted and Cowboy Casanova.

About halfway through the show, a fenced-in portion of the stage lifted from its place and rose up and over the multitude of fans on the stadium’s floor, complete with massive Ikea-like circular paper lanterns to give the set a dreamy feel.

A Carrie concert wouldn't be complete without a flying stage.

A Carrie concert wouldn’t be complete without a flying stage.

While hoisted in the air, reminiscent of her previous tour in which the singer sang in a pick-up truck suspended from the ceiling, Carrie sang her hit Thank God for Hometowns. Having spent a great deal of time in Ottawa and even living here for a while with hockey hubby Mike Fisher, Carrie gave a shout-out to the city for being a second great hometown to her.

On her way back to the main stage, she “got the party started” with her summery song One Way Ticket, for which massive beach balls were launched into the crowd and really got the audience engaged.

Beach balls were launched into the crowd during "One-Way Ticket"

Beach balls were launched into the crowd during “One-Way Ticket”

Carrie appealed to the men in the crowd with her rendition of Aerosmith’s Sweet Emotion – and man, can she rock.

But a personal favourite was her performance of her duet with Brad Paisley, Remind Me, for which her CMA Awards co-host appeared on-screen to sing.

Finally, after rising up to the stage from below to cheers and screams, Carrie belted out her album’s single, Blown Away for the encore.

Her Blown Away finale

Her Blown Away finale

What goes through my mind during every concert I see is the dedication artists must have to sing the same songs, in the same order, in a similar way, day-in, day-out from city to city while on tour. The real measure of a great performer, then, is to make fans feel like it’s the first time the artist is singing it – to make the audience feel something and engage with the song.

I was shaking my head in amazement last night many times because of Carrie’s ability to convey meaning through each and every song. It was evident she was truly giving it her all, and that is what made me – and I think everyone else – feel their money was incredibly well spent.

And that, my friends, is what really blows people away.

To view a slideshow of photos from the concert, click here.

My Kinda Party in Suntan City

It’s not always I write about concerts, but when I do, it’s because it’s one that was worth writing about. That, and I haven’t blogged in months.

It was a balmy 40 degree-night in downtown Toronto, which made it feel like 50, and thousands of plaid-clad fans were piling into the Molson Amphitheatre. I almost passed out when I saw the endless crowd of sweaty, intoxicated people all trying to get into one entrance of the 16,000-seat venue. Luckily, the VIP on our tickets got us smoothly through the chaos and into our box, where we would find cold beer and hot sun waiting for us.

As we settled in, newcomer Rachel Farley was warming up the stage with laid-back songs like Ain’t Easy. Farley looks too young to be at an event selling alcohol, but she opens her mouth and a matured, deep twang tells me she’s been at this a while.

Rachel Farley

Then out came Luke, to arguably a louder cheer than his following act, proving that many fans were here just to see the first talented Georgia gentleman. Funnily enough, Bryan started out his set with Rain Is A Good Thing from his second album, during Toronto and eastern Canada’s drought. Bryan’s energy was contagious, and the heat, evident through his grey-turned-black v-neck tee, didn’t seem to slow him down on stage. 

A row of high-school girls in front of us had t-shirts that said, “NO, Luke Bryan, YOU shake it for ME.” Shake it for me was one of the last songs he played, and it was clear it was the one everyone was waiting for.

But the one I was waiting for also seemed to be a crowd favourite. As soon as the guitars started strumming for I don’t want this night to end, the entire theatre erupted. Bryan mixed it up with some of his slower songs, like Do I, where he played the piano and had every country girl oohing.

Luke Bryan

That’s not the only thing that had the ladies, me included, covering their mouths with excitement. Bryan is a natural-born entertainer, dance-moves included. Swiveling his hips, dipping down low, and taking off his backwards baseball cap to smooth down his hair before throwing it on again, were just some of his signature moves.

For an outdoor country concert in the middle of summer, nothing really beats Luke Bryan. Jason Aldean couldn’t have gotten a better amp-up for his performance.

It was Aldean that pulled the show together and made it the best country concert I’ve ever seen. From the minute he donned his class cowboy hat and his drawl met the mic, Aldean meant business: he was there to infuse this party town with a little southern hospitality. And damn, did he deliver.

Jason Aldean

Sounding even better than he does on his albums, Aldean is the epitome of what real country is. Big Green Tractor had everyone on their feet, but it was after he played Fly Over States that I turned to my boyfriend and said “I can die happy now.”

Aldean performing “Fly Over States”

Aldean even delighted the crowd with two new songs off his new album coming out this fall. The songs, which are not out yet but will be on the radio in the next few weeks, were nothing short of incredible.

Aldean performed his singles and the crowd-pleasers like Tattoos on this town, Crazy Town, She’s Country, and even brought in Kelly Clarkson via video to perform Stay – when you could tell the pop fans in the crowd piped up and sang along. He came back after eardrum-splitting applause to do an encore of one of his new songs and finish with Hick Town.

While I always find it a little ironic to be listening to a concert in downtown Toronto with lyrics about cornfields and pastures, we certainly did see a lot of tailgates and tanlines at this show – not to mention talent.


Luke Bryan’s sister, Emily West, is also a country singer, signed to Capitol Records Nashville. Listen to Blue Sky, her duet with Keith Urban, here.

Book review: Oliver’s Twist

CTV's Craig Oliver's autobiography

If a year in politics is a century, as the saying goes, then Craig Oliver is immortal.

His 55–year journalism career, ongoing to this day, has seen everything from Margaret Trudeau blowing marijuana smoke into a reporter’s face to covering the Meech Lake Accord to 911 to dealing with Harper’s control of the media.

He chronicles all in his memoir, Oliver’s Twist: The Life and Times of an Unapologetic Newshound, which he began writing 15 years ago.

 “It’s a story about how anyone can rise above a difficult start and recover if you’re determined to do it,” he says.

A natural storyteller with many stories to tell, Oliver covers everything from elections to war to romance to journalism to foreign relations, only leaving out some highly anticipated photos to decorate the middle of the book.

Growing up the only son of alcoholic parents in Prince Rupert, Oliver learned early on lessons that would later help him in his work as CTV’s chief parliamentary correspondent. Through being transferred to one broken foster home after another, he learned to look out for himself and to judge people with cold logic, by their actions rather than their words.

Having seen his share of abuse and depression and after his bootlegging father went to jail, Oliver headed to Saskatchewan where he found employment doing the only thing that felt natural: knowing other peoples’ business and asking often rude questions.

At 18, Oliver became the youngest CBC radio staff announcer in the country. With no post-secondary schooling, he got by with his natural curiosity and understanding of newsworthiness.

Now a star of Canadian television news, Oliver was in the business long before the medium’s introduction. The technology transfixed him and he set out to cover politics for CBC TV in Regina in the 1960s. This landed him reporting on the CCF in its rise to power, helping shape his political philosophy for years to come.

From there, he followed the natural course for an up-and-coming broadcaster and headed for Toronto, where he joined CTV and helped introduce Canada AM.

While Oliver toured with some of world’s most elite journalists and politicians, it’s clear in his recounting of grueling details of war that he paid his dues to get there. As a foreign correspondent, he was sent to such tumultuous countries as El Salvador, Nicaragua and Argentina. Here, where risk and resilience defined his time chasing stories while dodging bullets and bombs, tough lessons were learned.

“When people cannot settle their differences: they kill each other. The last man standing wins. One simply did what was necessary to survive.”

It’s clear this hardened perspective helped in his later successes as CTV’s Ottawa bureau chief and in the United States where he was the network’s Washington correspondent for nine years.

Oliver’s time at the White House served as a chance to distance himself from the dangerously tight relationship he had with Pierre Trudeau during his years in office. Oliver admits to having covered some events with less than professional detachment, including the late prime minister’s resignation and funeral. Oliver’s obvious and overt praise in the book for his canoe partner and friend makes it understandable that he often got criticized for unfair coverage.

While Oliver admits there is a line that can be crossed, he makes no apologies for knowing many politicians backstage.

“The benefits are there for a reporter in terms of context, in terms of understanding things,” he says. “Competitively, if I want to get an interview with a minister and it’s someone I know well, I can call them up because I have a personal relationship with them. It’s a very powerful edge on my work.”

Oliver’s time in the States proved to not be such a terrible price to pay for escaping the Canadian political scene.

In one charming anecdote, Oliver recounts being wined and dined by former president Ronald Reagan and his wife only later to realize he was the wrong Craig Oliver to be invited.

Readers are offered somewhat of a break from political tales in Oliver’s many recounts of his canoeing expeditions. The founder of the Rideau Canal and Arctic Canoe Club, Oliver participated in 30 rigorous northern adventures over 30 years, all while being legally blind.

He writes about his horseback riding summers in Alberta that got both Oliver and colleague Lloyd Robertson away from the halls of Centre Block, and still does.

Coming from dysfunctional families and experiencing hard times growing up, both men “learned to look to the future rather than regret the past. After such a start, we agreed, life could only get better, and it did.”

Oliver says while on the surface the book is about politics, it is really about life and survival.

“In the voyage down the rivers and meandering tributaries of our lives, we cannot hope to change the end, yet we can control the journey.”

And what a journey it’s been.


Twitter: Journalists’ best friend and journalism’s worst enemy

This column was published by J-Source on December 12, 2011. It created considerable buzz and controversy in the Twitterverse as well as on OpenFile.


As a fourth-year journalism student at Carleton University and wannabe social media guru, I am not naïve to the ways in which today’s reporters are finding and writing their stories.

With over 880 Twitter followers, I’m an advocate for the effective use of social media in the newsroom. Today’s social world with unlimited connectedness and ability to reach people in real-time provides unprecedented opportunities for networking, business, and journalism.

But what I am learning in the classroom, in newsrooms and the online world about journalistic ethics and accountability lies in stark contrast to the way Twitter is currently being used by reporters with some major media organizations.

The trend toward using people who tweet  as legitimate sources in stories, and using stand-alone tweets as quotes, counteracts a primary function of the profession and promotes reactive reporting. There is a right way and a wrong way to use Twitter in journalism — making the digital platform journalist’s best friend and journalism’s worst enemy.

My concern about this was piqued when I read a Toronto Star “article” about a jibberish tweet sent from PC leader Tim Hudak’s account. The piece is based solely on comments posted on the social media site, including the use of two quotations the reporter took from Twitter. The story then lists six tweets from various users speculating the cause of the tweet. Aside from the problematic sourcing, my bigger problem with this article is: how is this news?

What really threw me over the edge on this topic was discovering one of my own tweets had been used by the Star in a piece on an Ottawa school’s decision to ban yoga pants. While I understand what is posted on Twitter is in the public domain and can be seen and used by anyone, it still surprised me to find out I had been quoted in the paper when someone from the Star tweeted me saying, basically, “by the way, we used your tweet.”

That the use of tweets for sources passes for journalism astounds me. If the reporter had contacted me (easily done through Twitter, getting my phone number and calling me) she would have found out more about what I posted and why. My tweet, which read “Every school should have uniforms,” was grounded in a strong conviction I hold about clothing in secondary education and one I would be happy to explain and defend. The reporter, should she have contacted me, would have found out that as a student who has experience in almost every school system – public, homeschool, private – my time wearing a uniform was the best and the reasons why. Would this information not have provided for a better, more enlightening story?

As a journalist and journalism student, I find this incredibly problematic. If this is what passes as a published story in the real world, where are my well-honed interview skills, and ability to chase down a source going? If we as students in j-school cited something a person said on Twitter as a source in our stories, we would fail the assignment. So, why is this becoming the accepted norm within news media organizations?

It seems we’re moving towards lazy journalism when a reporter can simply do a Twitter search of a subject or hashtag and use a tweet in lieu of a quote or paraphrase of a source. This gets rid of one of the core functions of a journalist – going out into the world and talking to people face-to-face or calling up individuals to speak with, ask questions and understand the entire story: context, feelings, surroundings and all.

Using Twitter strategically means garnering true and meaningful story ideas, finding sources, crowdsourcing, and then reaching out to people on your own.

In the recent shooting at Virginia Tech, journalists took to Twitter to find students and witnesses to get information and a firsthand account of the atrocity. For example, a CBS News journalist tweeted “Hey #vatech – looking to speak & get updates from students on campus.” This use of Twitter for finding sources is good, presuming the news organization follows up with them to do some more traditional reporting.

But copy-and-pasting tweets into copy is something else entirely.

Storify – the social platform that creates stories for users by consolidating tweets, pictures and posts – is great for individuals and businesses, but not so much for journalists. In its facilitation of quick-and-easy reporting, it makes sense that cash-strapped newsrooms are using the site more and more. While it may be the go-to tool for citizen journalists, those in the profession should know it can be an assistance, but not a dependency.

Storify helps prove that today’s journalist – professional or amateur — doesn’t have to leave the office, let alone their laptop or smartphone, to write a story. But as these platforms proliferate, will there still be a place for quality reporting and investigative journalism in the future? I certainly hope so, as do my classmates who will soon  graduate with nearly $30,000 journalism degrees.

While I would be the first one to support an increased role of digital communication and social media for journalists, there is a way for it to be properly and ethically used — one which more reporters should follow.