Spotlight On Niagara

In Depth: A Conversation With Niagara's Country Superstar Tim Hicks

By David DeRocco                   

As music fans, we all know what a song can do to lift our spirits, especially in troubled times. For Niagara’s own country music ambassador TIM HICKS, writing “What A Song Should Do” did something no other song of his had done in the past – lift him into the #1 position on the Canadian country charts. That crowning achievement is just the latest in a career full of milestones that continue to elevate Hicks’ superstar status in both Canadian country music circles and around the world.

In less than a decade since trading in bar gigs for a recording career in country music, Hicks has cemented his reputation as an elite chart-topping and must-see touring act. His platinum selling catalogue of critically-praised releases include “Throw Down”, “5:01”, “5:01+”,Shake These Walls” and most recently, 2018’s “New Tattoo.” In the process, Hicks has earned four JUNO Award nominations, a CCMA Award, two PLATINUM selling singles, seven GOLD singles, one GOLD album and thirteen Top 10 radio hits – including his No. 1 chart-topper “What A Song Should Do.

With the 2020 release of his new EP, Wreck, Hicks is back in fine fashion, preaching to the converted and winning over new fans with his firehouse brand of raucous, guitar-driven new country. The three tracks – “No Truck Song,” “Ride Or Die” and "Wreck This Town" – reflect the ongoing emergence of both his songwriting talents and his custom-crafted brand of kick-ass country. With his “Wreck This Town” World Tour on temporary hold due to the international Convid19 restrictions, HICKS has followed the lead of other artists, performing impromptu gigs for fans on Facebook Live, which he did on St. Patrick’s Day. Recently, Hicks took time to chat with GoBeWeekly about the new EP, the impact of postponing a tour, and why Canadian country singers wind up singing with a country twang.

GoBe: Last time we talked New Tattoo had just been released and I believe the last thing I said in the interview was ‘you need to release “What A Song Should Do” because it was bound to be a #1 hit.’ Seems I was right. Do you need any other career advice from me while we’re chatting?

TIM: No, I’m just going to keep sending music to you. You can tell me which are going be #1 hits.

GoBe: You’ve obviously had a great run with platinum level success, seven gold singles and 13 Top 10 hits. But what did hitting #1 with that song mean to you?

TIM: That was a big moment. It’s almost like a sense of relief. I never thought I would have a #1. I thought if there was ever a song that I released that had a shot at it, it was “What A Song Should Do.” I’ve gotten out of the daily chart obsession that sort of happens when you get a record deal and start releasing music. You’re constantly checking charts to see how your song’s doing and I stopped doing that. It wasn’t until it hit #4 that people started texting me saying, ‘it’s going, it’s going #1.’ When it happened, we were all just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring from my management to give the word. It was such an unbelievable feeling. My wife was like, ‘can you relax now, are you going to enjoy it?’ And I was like, yes, every second of it. You could not knock me down that week. It was a big moment. I’ve climbed the mountain. If I never do it again in my career, that’s okay. I can move on now.

GoBe: How does having a #1 song impact you as an artist? Other than the joy, sense of accomplishment and some bragging rights, are there residual benefits?

TIM: It was just validation that the industry is still behind you. That’s the biggest thing about radio. Radio is driven by the industry. It was affirmation to me that the industry is still behind what I’m doing which is important. I’ve explained that to up and coming artists, people trying to put songs out to radio that don’t have distribution or a team behind them or a radio tracker. The one thing I tell them, everyone has to decide to invest in you as an artist. Everybody has to get behind you and put in their two cents to help you get to where you’re going. That was a special moment of confirmation that everyone is still digging what I’m doing.

GoBe: That’s so true. Having worked country music radio I know it can be fickle when the winds of change blow in.

TIM: I think that’s true for any genre. Any time an artist puts out a new record or new music you never know. You just don’t know if people are willing to come along until you put out your music and see.

GoBe: You’ve got some great original tracks out on this new EP. Is this a teaser for a full album or just the metrics of the business right now?

TIM: How can I say this without giving away the plot? There’s a plan in place for sure that will reveal itself upon the next EP release, which won’t be too far away. We’ve talked about this before. People change the way they consume music. I’m a guy kind of stuck in the album phase of music. I love classic rock, I love classic country, I love records, getting up and flipping the record over. I love bodies of work. As an artist, I’m always thinking about bodies of work as well. I like to have 12 songs that all have a similar thread through them. But it’s different now. Committing to 12 songs that are already a year old when you put them out, then tour them for the next 18 months, some of those songs are three years old by the end of the album cycle. We just took a step back and said, ‘what’s the best way we can release music and do that more often.’ I thought this was a unique way of kind of doing that, releasing more tracks more frequently. When you release an album and release a single, people all go to Spotify or iTunes to get your single, but you’ve got 11 other songs that might not see the light of day. This allows me to be creative and be fluid. If I wrote a great song tomorrow, we could rush in, cut it, and potentially put it out. It’s an interesting way to do it as an artist.

GoBe: When you verbalize it like that, it does seem to make way more sense than the old way.

TIM: I know. But there’s something about holding a record. We do pressing to vinyl, but it really is still kind of a collector thing. Music people like to have albums. But most people don’t care about that anymore. They just want a cool track they can go jog to or something to add to their playlist. That’s completely fine.

GoBe: Let’s do a bit of a dive into the tracks on the EP starting with “Wreck This Town.” To my ears, there’s a little hint of the Flo Rida/T-Pain song “Low” in there.

TIM: (laughing) Somebody else said that. I’ve never heard that song so I don’t know where that came from. A few people have mentioned that it has that kind of flow about it. That came out of one of these night-time wild card writing sessions I do every time I’m in Nashville. Writing songs in Nashville is very much a day job. It happens between 10 and 4. But lately, I seem to have a better track record getting songs cut that we wrote when it’s dark out for whatever reason. Every time I’m in town I do a sort of night write hang with the same rotating cast of characters, whoever can make it. We have a few beers, order some pizza and write without an agenda. That means no one’s allowed to say no, you can go down any road you want, we’re not writing to try to tick a box. We’re just writing for the sake of seeing what happens. That was an instance where I tabled the idea that I need a song that would be a great show opener. What can we come up with. On that session in particular, I’ll never forget it. It was like, ‘you’re not supposed to say ‘raise your glass’ anymore, because it’s been said too many times.’ I was like, ‘who cares.’ I want to write something that feels good that my fans are going to dig. We call it red meat. When I write a song like “Here Comes the Thunder” or “Stompin’ Ground,” “Loud,” these are songs we refer to as “red meat.” I always come back to them, because the fans that follow me seem to like that kind of thing. I was like, “I need Tim Hicks red meat.” Someone said ‘boots on the ground,’ I rhymed it with ‘wreck this town,’ and we were off and running.

GoBe: Whether that nod to Flor Rida was there intentionally or not, how has the success of Little Nas X’s “Old Town Road” broadened the landscape in defining what country music can be or should be?

TIM: That really pushed the limits and really got a lot of people talking. The biggest mark that that song has left is in the time of it. Now all of a sudden we’re trying to edit three minute songs. “No Truck Song” was a great example of this. It was like 3:09, and my record company was like “we need to get this down under three minutes.” I’m thinking, ‘under three minutes, what are we doing here, really?’ Everyone was like, “oh yeah, “Old Town Road,” it’s under a minute-forty.” I was like, ‘listen, it’s wonderful that a song like that came in and shook everybody up, but that doesn’t mean that every song I write has to be a minute-forty now.’ Kudos to them for pushing limits. I’m the first guy that’s game for pushing limits. It went in a direction that wasn’t natural to me. I don’t come home and put on “Old Town Road.” I had a moment at my kids school. They were having an assembly and that song came on, and 300 kids 13 to 6 were singing that song at the top of their lungs, so there’s something to be said about that

GoBe: “No Truck Song” is more in my wheelhouse. I love the guitar work. Where did you find the guy in the video who looks like if Brad Pitt was a meth head?

TIM: (Laughing) You know what’s funny about him? We shot that video out in the desert in California. We were on the set, and I said to (the actor), ‘Are you ready to be famous in Canada?’ And he said, ‘Canada, is that where this is coming out? I’m from Calgary?’ It was by total accident we found a Canadian actor trying to make it in Hollywood and gave him a gig. His name is Justin Tate, he’s a really great guy, super talented. He loved the role, and we had a riot that day filming that video.

GoBe: “Ride or Die” is more a contemporary ballad. I noticed you filmed the whole video sitting on a couch. Is that a subliminal nod to the guys in Niagara who do the Band On A Couch” interviews?

TIM: No, I’m not aware of those guys. Those little videos are us just trying to do something different. They always put the songs, audio only, on YouTube. But instead of just putting the song up and putting the record cover on, we’d film little video vignettes to just go with the song as content. So that’s not actually an official video. If the song became a single we’d shoot a proper video for it. That was just because there was a couch around in my dressing room in the TV studio in California.

GoBe: Let’s get a little introspective here. Your career has been constantly reaching new heights, from album success to headlining tours. You’ve been playing music long enough to know how random success can be and how uncontrollable factors can impact it. When you stop and reflect on where you are right now, what’s your primary thought. Is it appreciation, or a greater sense there’s still work to be done?

TIM: I think a bit of that. I say this all the time. My goal was only ever to kind of be like Blue Rodeo. To have some success in Canada and be able to tour a long time, and get to a point where I could put out a new record or not and still go out and play hit songs and support my family playing music. I think there’s still work to be done. They’re in a whole other category of legacy at this point. That’s always been my goal. So when these opportunities come up to get to go play Europe and Australia, to me it’s just 100 percent gravy. The thing I worry about the most, or is on my mind, is just being able to continue doing what I do, because it is the entertainment business. I’m seven years in at the national level in Canada. That in of itself is a career. If the train fell off the tracks tomorrow, and I couldn’t do music anymore, I would die a happy man. But I also feel there’s always more to do, more people to reach. I just really want to continue to tour as long as I can.

GoBe: So what happens to the train when something like this virus scare hits. You’ve had to cancel some dates or at least postpone. The logistics of putting a tour together we all know is enormous. How does Covid 19 impact a guy like you.

TIM: It’s heartbreaking really. But I do take solace in the fact that it’s not just my tour. Every tour in the world that was out there touring at that moment was called back home. If it was just me I’d probably feel pretty bummed out about it, but because it’s everybody I just feel like we’re doing our part. We were about to go down to Australia to play a festival where there was 20 to 30 thousand people. You can’t get that many people together under the current climate. It is painful and it’s expensive. Most of the partners we dealt with, like airlines for example, have been pretty good about refunds. Air Canada kind of banks your trips. We’re constantly buying and moving flights, so at the end of the day it’s going to be okay. Luckily we live in Canada where we can tap into government things like Factor or Star Maker, things that can offer a bit of financial relief to cover the hard costs we lose what something like this happens. Other than that we’re just waiting to go. With any luck we’ll get to start our Canadian leg at the end of May. My wife is a public health nurse, so she’s on the front line of this. I look to her for the cutting edge of information on what’s going on.

GoBe: You’ve done the Facebook Live thing on St. Patty’s Day. How did you enjoy doing that and are there any fears that might become the future path for live performances where you don’t have to tour and everyone comes to you?

TIM: Wouldn’t that be amazing. If somebody can figure out how to monetize that, that would be the way. Like all things, this will pass. We’ll be out soon playing live venues. This is history in the making. We’ll all be talking about what we did during the pandemic. The response from that was so overwhelming positive. I don’t typically go back and read comments because you can become obsessed with that. But my wife was reading some of the comments back to me afterwards and she was almost in tears over people’s positivity that we had done that. Things that I didn’t think they’d enjoy about it they loved, like seeing the reflection of (Tim’s wife) Amanda dancing in the pictures on the wall, hearing the kids singing along. I really had no idea how starved people were for entertainment even two days into the lockdown. It was really overwhelming. It won’t be the last time I do something like that. It’s so easy to do. Put a phone in front of a performer and sing some songs with your guitar.

GoBe: It’s a brilliant move promotionally. You’re not giving away anything for free. You’re utilizing Social Media in the way it was intended, to actually connect with people. If you’re a fan of Tim Hicks and connect live on social media it’s powerful. If the Stones did that and I was chatting with Keith I’d be in heaven.

TIM: Wouldn’t that be cool

GoBe: Last question, which I’m asking on behalf of someone else who every time I interview a Canadian country artist asks me to ask this question. Why do Canadian country singers wind up sounding like they have an accent when they sing country music? Is that just part of the expected delivery?

TIM: I think it’s in the genre. I get that all the time, especially with a song like “Stronger Beer.” I try my best to try and not sing like that. But it is country music and it feels good to sing it a certain way. The way I liken it is like this. I’m so glad you asked me because I’ve been preparing for this question for seven years. Every opera singer in the world tries to sing with an Italian accent. Why? Because it’s understood in opera that the language is Italian. With country, it’s kind of in the way that you sing it, and you can’t help but sing it in a certain way. It would be the equivalent of everyone saying that when The Beatles sing they don’t sing with a British accent, because they were trying to sound like American rock and roll. I think that they didn’t do it on purpose, it just came out like that. For some reason as country singers, when you sing vowels they come out a certain way because you’re singing country music. It’s not meant to offend anybody or pretend we’re from someplace that we’re not. It’s just inherent in the genre.


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