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Writing about Music in an Oil Town

January 2, 2022

By Philip Moscovitch (2019)

Gillian Turnbull (MFA 2017) describes herself as a failed musician who loves reading about music, researching it and talking about it. So after realizing she wasn’t going to make it as a classical pianist, Turnbull turned to ethnomusicology, earning a PhD from York in 2010.

Her dissertation was on the underground roots and country music scene in Calgary, where Turnbull, who now teaches at Ryerson, grew up.  It eventually became her book, Sonic Booms: Making Music in an Oil Town (Eternal Cavalier Press, 2019).

“The response I encountered through my whole degree at York was, ‘Oh, I didn’t realize there’s stuff happening there [in Calgary],’ she says. “It did seem like the fact that there was a self-contained and sustained scene was pretty surprising to people.”

Sonic Booms explores how the oil economy helped Calgary become a city in which “musicians can make a full-time living in ways that’s just not possible in other places,” Turnbull says.

By the time she started the King’s MFA program (in which she is now a mentor), Turnbull had already spent years revising her dissertation, trying to turn it into a book: “I kept coming back to it, but I just couldn’t make it work,” she says.

At King’s, Turnbull instead turned her attention to writing a book on a different topic: how a generation of baby boomer parents and their listening habits infused their kids with a love of music. But after a string of rejections, she realized it was the wrong book at the wrong time. “As I was trying to pitch it, we were seeing a shift in how we talk about mass culture and the privileging of white suburban narratives—and that we needed to start to hear different stories.”

And then she had a revelation. What if she took all she’d learned about crafting a story in the MFA program and applied it to the book based on her dissertation that she’d been struggling with?

“I was sitting in Nova Scotia at my partner’s parents’ cottage, and I thought, ‘oh, I could actually make the dissertation a story!’ It had never occurred to me before,” she says. “I very quickly mapped it out while sitting there: I could have four main characters, two who are performers and two who are industry people, two men, two women, and have them be the anchors.”

By focusing on veteran musician Tom Phillips and up-and-comer Emily Triggs, Turnbull draws out the elements that have made Calgary a unique place for musicians.

It wasn’t just oil industry workers fuelling the music scene. At the peak of the boom, a decade ago, Turnbull says it wasn’t uncommon to see grocery stores advertising jobs at $20 an hour. “The trickle-down effect for musicians was that these people had really great jobs, and lots of disposable income, and they wanted to have a good time,” she says. And then there was the Stampede, which kept some musicians so busy they could earn half their annual income over the course of 10 days.

The last few years have been a time of reckoning in ethnomusicology, a discipline Turnbull describes as “very colonial,” with “white authorities investigating communities of colour often.” That’s one of the reasons she wanted to focus on the scene she grew up with: “I felt like what we call auto-ethnography or ethnography of one’s own culture was the way to go. And that’s why I kept coming back to country music. Also, I was really interested in it. This made sense to me. Study what you know.”