How a 1988 folk album kickstarted the modern N.L. music industry

·4 min read
Kelly Russell, musician and Tony Ploughman, manager, Fred's Records, with Fred's Records all-time, best selling album, All the Best: Folk Music of St. John's, Newfoundland.  (Heather Barrett/CBC - image credit)
Kelly Russell, musician and Tony Ploughman, manager, Fred's Records, with Fred's Records all-time, best selling album, All the Best: Folk Music of St. John's, Newfoundland. (Heather Barrett/CBC - image credit)

Albums by Van Halen, Def Leppard, and George Michael were some of Billboard's No. 1 albums of 1988, but the most popular album at Fred's Records in St. John's area the same era was something a little more traditional.

All the Best: Folk Music of St. John's, Newfoundland was such a hit, says Tony Ploughman, the manager of Fred's Records, that it remains the store's best selling album of all time.

"Everybody bought it." said Ploughman. "Locals, tourists, all ages." 

"People who worked here [at Fred's] as far back as 32, 33 years ago — this is the soundtrack to their summer."

After several years out of print, All the Best has been re-released by Atlantic Music in one of its original 1988 formats: the CD.

'I want to pick your brain' 

The unlikely juggernaut was the idea of well-known traditional musician Kelly Russell.

Russell was part of a wave of Newfoundland and Labrador musicians in the 1970s and '80s who were updating local traditional music with a contemporary sound and bringing it to a wider audience.

"He poked his head in, and said, 'want to go to The Ship [Inn pub] for a pint? What time do you get off?'" recalled Ploughman. "'I want to pick your brain.'"

"There were a lot of artists and songs and tunes that were directly related to St. John's. I thought a themed album, based on music of this city, would be a great idea," said Russell.

Russell, Ploughman, and a few others huddled at a table at The Ship and quickly made a shortlist.

Russell, through his music label Pigeon Inlet Productions, dug up some government and private industry funding, and started recording artists and songs in a local St. John's recording studio.

The St. John's music fabric

All the Best features some of Newfoundland and Labrador's best known, now long-established musicians: Pamela Morgan and Anita Best, Jim Payne, Tickle Harbour, Christina Smith and Jean Hewson in all their late '80s glory.

"Anyone who was part of the St. John's music fabric is on here," said Ploughman.

Ron Hynes recorded what has become the definitive version of The St. John's Waltz. Frank Maher and Art Stoyles brought townie accordion music to mainstream ears with their versions of Running the Goat and The Portuguese Waltzes. 

Russell has particularly fond memories of tenor John White's whimsical recording of Signal Hill. 

"John was getting up in years at that point," recalled Russell.

"He did about 10 or 12 takes of the songs, and we took all the best parts."

'Proliferation of music' 

Ploughman credited All the Best with kickstarting the modern Newfoundland and Labrador recording industry.

According to Russell, All the Best was the first CD recording actually made in Newfoundland and Labrador, featuring artists and music from this province, and more local musicians were taking note.

"If All the Best can be out with all those artists on it, then why can't anyone else?" said Russell.

Soon after, brand new groups such as The Irish Descendants and Great Big Sea recorded and released their first locally produced CDs. The rest is history.

"You've only got to look at the front rack at Fred's Records to see the proliferation of music that's coming out of Newfoundland and Labrador today."  said Russell.

Heather Barrett/CBC
Heather Barrett/CBC

A timeless recording

A lot has changed in the 34 years since All the Best was first released. The internet and digital technology have completely transformed the music recording industry.

Fred's Records is one of the few brick-and-mortar record stores left standing, as most people access recorded music online through digital downloads and playlists.

Tracks from All the Best have held up to the test of time. They are still in rotation in public spaces across the province and on radio stations across the country. The album became a calling card for its featured artists, giving them enough recognition to tour internationally.

Today, Newfoundland and Labrador's folk music scene is bigger and more diverse, with artists bringing influences from all over the world.

Who would be on All the Best today?

"Kelly and I will have to go to The Ship and plan a four-disc vinyl box set," said Ploughman.

"It would have to be a [digital] playlist, and a very long one," added Russell.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador