Barn Dance 23: Grant Heywood celebrates his family's legacy
BY SCOTT STEPHENSON
The Citizen was more than glad to meet Barn Dance boy turned Jamboree man Grant Heywood to hear a little first-hand history about being a member of the musical Heywood family, led by Earl Heywood, Canada’s Number One Singing Cowboy.
So, what was it like being a Heywood in the heyday of Canadian country? “It was musical - all kinds of music. Country, bluegrass, big band,” remembered Grant. “My dad kind of grew up in the era of the cowboy singer, I guess you could say. Then he got hired on CKNX in Wingham.”
Earl Heywood soon became a premier performer with the CKNX Barn Dance Gang - one of three ‘house’ bands for Wingham’s hit program Barn Dance. He was an integral part of what became known as Canada’s Largest Traveling Barn Dance - a weekly celebration of rural culture that led Earl down the path of success in many fields - radio shows, television programs, live performances and hit songs. He even had a fan club in Australia. Children Patricia and Grant were exposed to all of this culture at a young age. “Sometimes people would come through our house from the Grand Ole Opry, and when you’re a kid, you don’t know who these people are, but you do know that they’re important,” laughed Grant.
In addition to his work with the Barn Dance Gang, Earl was the leader of the Golden Prairie Cowboys, and hosted his own show, The Serenade Ranch Gang, which became very popular. He was a frequent guest on Western Roundup and Circle 8 Ranch. He eventually had his own television show on CKNX called Range Rider. He became a staple of Canada’s Largest Travelling Barn Dance. “The barn dance started in 1937 believe it or not, but they didn’t start travelling until the 1940s,” said Grant. “ My dad was a big part of that.”
What was it like being surrounded by all that music as a child? “I wouldn’t say I got thrown into it, but I guess being around it, it came naturally. My sister sang, and I sang. In the late 1950s, I was known as ‘Canada’s Youngest Recording Artist’, so I guess that’s my claim to fame.”
Over the course of his storied career, Earl crossed paths with industry legends like Bill Haley, Gene Autry and Hank Snow, but none of those big names had enough pull to draw the talented country star away from Wingham, the town that made him a star.
Earl became friends with Hank Snow, who considered himself, Earl, and Wilf Carter to be “The Big Three” of Canadian country stars. Autry asked Earl if he would consider coming to Hollywood to act in cowboy pictures, but Earl was content to stay in Ontario. He travelled for shows frequently, but was always happy to return home to his family.
Earl’s songs chronicled many aspects of life in Ontario - he sang about Manitoulin Island, and wrote and recorded a concept album telling the tale of the Black Donnellys.
After Earl Heywood became a larger-than-life figure in the country music scene, the rest of the family soon joined in on the good old country singing, with children Grant and Pat joining together as a band along with their mother Martha. “We were a family unit, touring Ontario and the Maritimes,” said Grant over coffee and homemade cookies. Martha also used her sewing skills to make sure the family was the sharpest dressed act wherever they went. Earl’s bright, smartly tailored suits became one of the hallmarks of his stage show.
“In the late 1980s, my father had the idea to revive The Barn Dance again - there were a lot of local people who remembered it, and my dad always thought that because The Barn Dance supported so many local musicians, as well as well-known musicians, like Gordon Lightfoot and Bill Monroe, that the memory should be preserved. So my mom and dad went out and started campaigning to start a Barn Dance Museum in Wingham.” This developed into The Barn Dance Historical Society. By this point, the revived Barn Dance had been going on for longer than the original program.
The Heywood Family Band is an important part of Canada’s history, and Grant Heywood is both a part of that history and an active member of our musical landscape. He performs with The Barn Dance Band, which travels Southern Ontario playing classic country tunes. They frequently perform at the annual Barn Dance Jamboree/Campout in Blyth or wherever people are feeling that country spirit.
But Grant doesn’t feel limited to only country music. “I like it all. I like playing with country musicians as much as I enjoy playing with rock musicians.“ In addition to playing with the Barn Dance Band, Grant currently performs with several different rock bands.
This year’s Barn Dance Jamboree/Campout will be the last one, and it’s unclear if the Barn Dance Museum will ever end up reopening, but as long as there’s a barn, a band, and a fan, the spirit of Barn Dance will live on.