Commonly acknowledged as the father of Canadian country music, Wilf Carter (Montana Slim) held a unique presence in the Canadian country music industry from the 1930’s until the end of the 1950’s, and served as a transitional figure between authentic cowboy folk music and the carefully composed, highly romantic Hollywood ‘singing cowboy’ genre.
Born in Port Hilford, Nova Scotia on December 18, 1904, Wilf Carter was inspired to pursue a musical career at the age of ten when his father, a Baptist Minister, took him to see a touring Swiss vaudeville artist known as ‘The Yodeling Fool.’ Working as a lumberjack during his teen years, Wilf decided to move to Alberta in the early 1920’s to pursue his dream of becoming a cowboy and rodeo performer, despite his father’s disapproval.
Carter began his career by entertaining at dances, camps, bunkhouses, and house parties. At age 20, he joined the Canadian rodeo circuit, where he mixed competing with singing. By 1929, Carter had moved to Calgary and, after a stint singing for money in the street, he landed a job with a Calgary radio station, CFCN (‘The Voice of the Prairies’) singing one night each week. He was later heard locally on CFAC, and nationally on the CRBC. By then, Carter had taken up the guitar, which he taught himself.
Two years later, Wilf sang as a trail rider for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) treks in the Canadian Rockies. The CPR was so impressed by his performances he was invited to perform on the maiden voyage of the S.S. Empress of Britain in 1933. While on his way to the Empress of Britain, he stopped at a small studio in Montreal, Quebec to record My Swiss Moonlight Lullaby and The Capture of Albert Johnson (based on a real-life murder hunt). By the time he returned from the voyage, the two sides were pressed and released by RCA Victor as Wilf Carter’s first recording. It was a bestseller in 1934 and became the first hit record ever by a Canadian country performer.
True of many performers of the time, Wilf was heavily influenced by the music of white blues singer Jimmie Rodgers, famous for his series of ‘blue yodels,’ a unique set of songs featuring blues lyrics accompanied by guitar and yodeling. Carter went on to become one of the most skilled yodelers in country and western music. A Swiss influence can be heard in recordings such as Little Old Log Shack I Can Always Call My Home, My Little Yoho Lady, and Streamlined Yodel Song. Carter also developed a specialty speed yodel he called his ‘three-in-one yodel,’ illustrated in My Swiss Moonlight Lullaby.
In 1935, Carter ventured to New York, where, as ‘Montana Slim’ (a name he picked up when the typist transcribing lyrics attached it to him), he was a host for two US radio country music shows on the CBS and NBC networks. In 1937, he married Bobbi Bryan, a Pennsylvania-born nurse, returned to Calgary and continued his broadcasting career on CBC Radio.
Carter recorded prolifically from 1933 to 1940, released more than 40 original and compilation LPs during his lengthy career, and wrote several hundred songs best known for their cowboy, hobo, and prairie imagery. He enjoyed an international reputation as far a-field as Australia, where he once toured.
A devastating automobile accident in 1940 left Carter inactive for nine years; his popularity sustained by the periodic release of new recordings throughout the 1940’s. In 1949, Carter resumed live performances with tours in Canada and the United States. With his daughters Sheila and Carol as back-up singers and dancers, Wilf went on the road as ‘The Family Show With The Folks You Know’ in 1953. He performed at the Calgary Stampede for the very first time in 1964. Carter went into semi-retirement in Florida in the late 1960’s, although he continued to record and perform occasionally. Some of his later RCA sides, although intended for the Canadian market, did get released in America.
Carter died of stomach cancer two weeks short of his 92nd birthday on December 5, 1996 in Scottsdale, Arizona. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Association Hall of Fame in 1971, Juno Awards Hall of Fame in 1985, and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989.
Known for his simple, straightforward singing and guitar style, Carter was an influence on other Canadian artists including Stompin’ Tom Connors and Slim Whitman, who had considerable success in Britain with There’s a Love Knot in My Lariat.