George Fox: Cows, Cassettes, and Building a Trail for Homegrown Canadian Country
By: Emily Holloway
Oringally posted on National Music Centre Amplify
A small-town rancher sells some cows to make a country record, then gets the big-break phone call that makes him a star almost overnight. It’s a story so good it might be mistaken for a country song, but there’s no denying it; the George Fox story is as real as it gets.
George Fox grew up on a cattle ranch near Cochrane, Alberta with his parents, Bert and Gert Fox. Between hauling hay and caring for cattle, there wasn’t much time for keeping up with the latest hits on the radio, so music wasn’t a big part of his early years.
In the 1970s, the movie American Graffiti was making waves in pop culture. It could have been the retro hairdos, the classic cars, or the nostalgic characters, but for Fox, it was the soundtrack.
It was Buddy Holly, Elvis, and ’50s rock ‘n’ roll. He was hooked, and right away he started learning those songs. While most kids might practice in the basement for years, Fox took it straight to the stage, and he did it in style.
“I just embraced that and went with it big time, I tried to make up for how bad I sounded by adding some flash” he says. “It was just pure fun.”
In a white jumpsuit and a leather vest with “The Fox” written on the back, a star was born. Or at least, the star of a small town high school rock band.
His introduction to the country genre came when he went to Sweden on a farm exchange program and his hosts asked him to bring all the American country records he could carry. Between Hank Williams classics and George Strait hits, he found something in country music that connected with his own life as a rural working man.
Soon, his country band was the source of entertainment for all the town’s happenings, from community events to square dances. “The Fox” had officially gone country.
TRADING COWS FOR CASSETTES
When he wasn’t working on the ranch or playing gigs, Fox was singing country covers for his own cassette tapes. He built a wooden sign from an old farmhouse cupboard that said “George Fox Cassettes” and carted them around wherever he played. Local stores like MacKay’s Ice Cream and Grand Saddlery sold them too — and they flew off the shelves.
Music had always been fun – and now, he was beginning to see some success. But to take his career further, he’d have to start writing his own songs. Luckily, inspiration found him late one night on the ranch.
“I remember being in calving season, and I was up all night, checking the cows and stuff. I had laid down for a little while, and I got this melody. I don’t know where it came from,” says Fox. “I got up ‘cause I had to check the cows anyway, and I was singing the song.”
The song, “Angelina,” would later become the first track on his debut record and his first Top 10 hit.
Traditionally, an aspiring artist would head south for Nashville at this point, paying dues and searching the neon lights for some illusive big break. Fox had a different trail in mind.
“That wasn’t me. I could not see how I could ever get into the music business that way, it was a mystery to me … So I just kind of started taking things into my own hands as far as recording.”
Recording an album without a record deal was ambitious, but Fox was determined, financing it himself with money he’d saved up to buy a tractor.
In 1987, he gathered the best musicians he could find, from local guitar player Jerry Martin to Chilliwack drummer Jerry Adolphe, and they began recording in Calgary’s Smooth Rock Studio with producer Dan Lowe.
“I always credit the cows. I kept selling more and more of my cows to get money, because it kept costing more and more to try and get this thing finished,” says Fox. “They paid the ultimate sacrifice, I guess you could say.”
The money was gone, the tape was finished, and now, he had to do something with it.
Fox took a trip to Vancouver and delivered his demo tape to music industry offices there. Then, he returned home to life as usual, working on the ranch and wondering if anything would come of it. One week later, that question was answered.
“It was November 19, that’s when everything changed. We were weaning the cattle, we had the calves all penned up in the corral, cows were bawling, 150 head of cows, and my mom’s at the house yelling down: ‘George, there’s a phone call from Toronto! A phone call about your tape!’ So, I threw a pitchfork and started running up there.
“They had me on speakerphone at the boardroom, and they were playing ‘I’ve Been Everywhere,’ one of the songs on my cassette, and they said, ‘George, we gotta get you down here, we can get your music into record stores and lots of radio all across Canada, and we can put you on stage with the hottest concert ticket in Canada right now as an opening act.’”
His tapes had made their way from Vancouver to Toronto, and the call came from Bob Roper at Warner Music Canada. They signed Fox to the label and released his self-titled debut album. He also signed with Anne Murray’s manager, Leonard T. Rambeau.
Within a year, he was opening for Randy Travis. His album went gold. “Angelina” hit No. 8 on the charts, and “Goldmine” would later crack the Top 10 as well.
The next few years were a whirlwind of success. His follow-up album, With All My Might, went gold and charted four Top 10 singles. Between 1990-1993, he won three CCMA Awards for Male Artist of the Year and three JUNO Awards for Country Male Vocalist of the Year.
He even became a star on screen, making television appearances on shows including Anne Murray’s Family Christmas, The Tommy Hunter Show, and his very own CBC special, George Fox’s New Country.
“‘George, you have a good story to tell,’” he recalls Warner president Stan Kulin saying. “That’s what they appreciated, I think. At the time, it was a little bit unique for an Alberta kid from the farm to get signed to a deal.”
He didn’t take it for granted.
Even as his career took off, Fox was still helping his parents on the cattle ranch. He might have hit songs on the radio, but you could still find him plowing the fields like he’d always done.
After all, that was the lifestyle he sang about. How could he ask the audience to believe him if he didn’t stay true to himself? He valued honesty, especially in his songwriting.
“I always figured a country song should tell a story, and people can relate to it hopefully, because it’s something that actually happened, there’s a real person in the song somehow,” says Fox. “Those have been my best songs.”
The song, “Here’s Hoping (There’ll Always Be a Cowboy),” is one of Fox’s favourite stories.
“It’s a song I wrote for my dad. He was a true farmer and rancher, so I wrote the song with him in mind. It’s a pretty accurate story. Anyone who looks up to their father I think relates to the song, even if they’re not from the farm or ranch.”
From “State Side” to “Clearly Canadian,” his northern roots come through loud and clear in his music. His sound was as country as anything, but unsurprisingly, those Canadian songs didn’t translate down south.
He lived in Nashville for several years and had a lot of fun, but it wasn’t where he belonged. In the end, he would have to choose between competing to be somebody, or creating music he believed in.
“You can’t do it unless you really believe in what you’re talking about. You may not realize that at the beginning, but ultimately, you gotta really be genuine or you’re gonna run into trouble,” says Fox.
As it turns out, he didn’t need Nashville. He blazed a trail for Canadian country artists right here at home.
The CCMA Awards show had always been hosted by an American, but Rambeau was adamant that the show should have a Canadian host.
“They said nobody will watch it unless we’ve got an American star,” Fox remembers. “And [Rambeau] said, ‘No no no, we’ve got to carry this show with Canadian talent.’ So he trotted me out there, and it worked. The ratings were great.”
Fox was the first Canadian host of the CCMA Awards, and he held that role for four consecutive years from 1991-1994.
HALL OF FAME
All these years later, in the aftermath of recording hit songs, reaching fans through radio and television, playing big stages with his heroes, receiving numerous awards, and now, being inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, there’s still one honour that stands out in Fox’s memory.
As you drive into Cochrane, you’ll see a street sign proudly planted there, telling you that you’re on George Fox Trail.
“It represents my mom and dad more than anything,” says Fox. “That old community that was the heartbeat of Cochrane. How would you beat that? You can win an award, but to have a beautiful street right along the Bow River, that’s really special to me.”
Leading up to his Hall of Fame induction this week, George Fox is taking the opportunity to reminisce and laugh with old friends, like Bob Roper, the man on the other end of that pivotal phone call more than 30 years ago.
“It turns out to be a lot of fun. People are coming out of the woodwork,” says Fox. “We had a big party and a hayride and everything, and I got all the old stuff out, the old pictures and the gold records and clothes and stuff. We had a blast.”
From do-it-yourself records to becoming a country music legend, Fox built a trail for Canadian artists and set an example of what can be done with homegrown country music. And as he looks back on it all, he does so with the same down-home humility he’s always been known for.
“Now I’m not saying I led the way, but things really moved along for me, and then there was a road for other artists to try. I certainly wasn’t the best, most talented guy to come along, but at least I showed it could be done.”
In honour of his induction, Fox is currently featured in the National Music Centre’s Homegrown Country exhibition. The exhibition is open now at Studio Bell in Calgary, showcasing some of Canada’s top country talents and the pioneers who paved the way for today’s rising stars. Learn more and plan your visit here.