In June 2007, their hit song “Moments” scorched the U.S. country music charts—giving the band their first No. 1 single. Their 2006 album, Countrified, has seen success in both the U.S. and Canada. Meanwhile, the band was nominated for two CMA awards in 2007, and swept the scene in their native land, winning Canadian Country Music Association Awards for Group of the Year and Single of the Year (“Moments”).
For 29-year-old lead singer Brad Mates, however, the journey has been like the scenic northern Alberta trail after which the band is named—a long and winding road. It all started in 1995 when Mates entered a high school talent contest, singing Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places.” There he and a few buddies formed the band “12 Gauge.” After practicing for a few months they decided to head out—playing gigs wherever they could.
In 2000, the group was signed by Dreamworks, and later, with the new country division of Midas Records where they became the first Canadian country band ever have a U.S. No. 1 single.
Mates is the only original member of 12 Gauge, which eventually renamed itself to Emerson Drive in honour of Mates’ northern Alberta roots.
We caught up with Mates on the ninth hole of a sunny golf course in Tennessee, where he talked about growing up in Alberta, life on the road and the long road to country success.
AM: What were the early days like, as a group of young guys playing out of Grand Prairie?
BM: We did a lot of extensive touring, playing bars and clubs, six or seven nights a week, five sets a night. Looking back, those were some of the best times I ever had—travelling the road with a bunch of guys in a van, learning about myself and life.
AM: How would you describe your sound?
BM: There’s such a wide spectrum of country music now. You have your traditional sound like George Strait and you have your pop-rocky sound like Rascal Flatts. I think that we’re somewhere in between, with a bit of a rock influence.
AM: What was it like growing up in Alberta?
BM: I did a lot of hunting and fishing when I was growing up and still try to get back to Alberta in the fall to do that.
AM: How often do you visit Calgary?
BM: Every year we’ve played the Stampede, probably for 12 years.
AM: What do you like best about the city?
BM: The mountains, being able to sneak out and go skiing for a few days, or just getting out hiking. I think the great thing about Calgary too—it is one of those cities that is friendly when it comes to getting around without a car. With all the trails along the river, and parks, the city gives people a chance to get out and be active.
AM: What’s your favourite place to eat in town?
BM: There’s a great restaurant there called Belmont; they’ve got the best eggs Benedict I’ve ever had anywhere in North America, so that’s a stop I always make.
AM: Do you guys listen to any music before a concert to get revved up?
BM: Usually on the bus, there’s a wide variety of music, from AC/DC to Rob Zombie to Rob Thomas to Keith Urban to George Strait.
AM: You’re living in Nashville now. What’s the most common reaction you get when you mention you’re from Alberta?
BM: Most people, when you get further down south in the U.S., still think we live in igloos [laughs]. Obviously that’s not the case. Anytime we’ve had guys work for us who come up to Alberta for the first time, they’re just amazed—with the mountains, the open land and how fresh everything smells. Also, I know that some of the American guys who have worked for us say that the steaks seem to taste a little better up north.
AM: How do you like living in Nashville?
BM: Love it. It’s a great city. Obviously for what we do, it’s the centre of the music industry. And there’s a lot of great things to do around here—we’re actually on the golf course right now, golfing—first week of December and we’re still on the golf course—that’s not a bad thing [chuckles].
AM: How’s your game?
BM: I’ve had a couple of bad holes with snowmans on them, but other than that, I’m not doing too bad. I’m three over.
Check out Brad Mates and Emerson Drive in Calgary, at the Deerfoot Inn and Casino, January 18, 9 pm; visit www.ticketmaster.ca.—Andrew Mah