There are a handful of clubs whose names have become synonymous with the artists who played there, and the scenes for which they served as incubators—the Marquee Club in London, CBGB in New York, the Troubadour in Los Angeles. In Toronto, there’s the Horseshoe Tavern. While many venues its size have struggled to survive in recent years, the Queen Street West fixture has continued to thrive through its open-minded booking strategy, which keeps adding to its 70-year legacy.
Author David McPherson dives into that rich material in his new book, The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History, available now through Dundurn Press. Starting with the club’s pre-gentrified origins as a refuge for transplanted Maritimers and meeting place for some of Toronto’s most notorious underworld figures, McPherson traces its gradual transformation into a mandatory stop on the North American touring circuit for up-and-coming international acts.
But while the ‘Shoe has hosted its share of unforgettable nights, from early appearances by the Talking Heads and the Police to a surprise Rolling Stones show in 1997, its lasting importance has been as one of the cornerstones of the Toronto (and by extension Canada’s) indie scene. Starting in the mid-1980s, bands such as Blue Rodeo and The Tragically Hip honed their craft at the ‘Shoe, while later it became a crucial outpost for the U.S. alt-country movement, becoming a favourite stop for the likes of Wilco, The Jayhawks, and many others.
In conjunction with McPherson’s book, the Horseshoe is putting on a special series of 70th anniversary shows from now until the end of the year featuring some of the old guard, but its mandate to showcase the best cutting edge artists from both here in Canada and from around the world will undoubtedly keep it going strong for the foreseeable future.
How did you come to write this book?
Like many things in life, it involved a little serendipity – I was in the right place at the right time. I was at the Dakota Tavern one night, chatting with a fellow music scribe. I told him I’ve always wanted to write a book about music and he said he suggested I contact Dundurn Press, which was keen on adding more music titles. He passed on the name of the editor, and I pitched him a few ideas, one of which was on the history of the Horseshoe Tavern. They loved that idea, and after I signed a contract, I met with the current owners of The Horseshoe to get their buy-in, and suddenly I was writing a book. This project was the perfect marriage of two things I love—history and music. It was really a dream come true to do it.
Who were some of your favourite interviews for the book?
There were so many. If I had to pick a couple it would be bartender Teddy Fury and musician/producer Colin Linden. Fury has held court, mostly in the back bar, for three decades. Oh, the stories he can tell. And, he did share many of them with me one memorable night in Toronto – starting at a Starbucks on Queen and then continuing the conversation in the Horseshoe. Some of Teddy’s stories were a little too juicy to print, but they were all entertaining. I choose Linden since he was the first person I chatted with for my book and he first played the Horseshoe more than 40 years ago. I basically just sat back and listened to him recount story after story of all of the nights he played there – from his first gig as a 16-year-old sitting in with David Wilcox, to his solo debut, and later all the memorable nights playing with Blackie & The Rodeo Kings. His enthusiasm for my project was a big motivator and inspiration as I dug deep into the research.
Now that the book is done, how would you encapsulate the Horseshoe's importance?
The Horseshoe is not just a music bar. Nor is it just a drinking establishment. The building is a Toronto landmark. As such, the ‘Shoe deserves to be preserved as part of the heritage of the city. As Queen Street West evolved from a blue-collar strip to the more gentrified streetscape today, the Horseshoe has stood the test of time; each era and decade of the tavern’s 70 years are intertwined with the history of the city. It has kept pace with the trends, and played a vital role in showcasing—and preserving—the heritage and music of Toronto. It’s a home away from home for so many musicians, as well as a cultural icon in the Canadian musical landscape. It remains as relevant today as it did when Jack Starr founded the country club back in 1947 in a place that once housed a blacksmith shop. The more the landscape around it changes, the more 370 Queen Street West remains the same.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about the venue?
It was fascinating to discover its early history when it was known as Nashville North. I had a vague idea that it started out as a country bar, but I was not aware of how many Grand Ole Opry stars made the trek north and played there regularly. From Loretta Lynn and Little Jimmy Dickens to Charley Pride, Tex Ritter, and Bill Anderson, in the 1950s and 1960s, The Horseshoe Tavern was one of the premier venues in Canada in which to see these country stars perform. Line-ups were several blocks long and there was a house band that learned the songs of these Nashville cats and backed up these stars for weeklong residencies. I interviewed people like Roy Penny, who was in the original house band, and even talked with some of those that played there, such as Bill Anderson.
What's been your own most memorable experience at the Horseshoe?
A tough question. Although I came to discover The Horseshoe Tavern later than most—I moved to the city in 1999—I made up for lost time. My first show was seeing The Old 97s on a Dave Bookman Nu Music Night. That was memorable as I discovered the music of this country-punk outfit from El Paso, Texas that night and since then they’ve become one of my favourite bands. Other highlights were seeing the Drive-By Truckers the night before Halloween when they played long past last call, a Jesse Malin gig when rumors flew that Bruce Springsteen might show up since he was in town for TIFF. Bruce didn’t turn up but Malin and his band put on an incredible show to a sold-out audience. Then of course there have been the many North By Northeast showcases over the years, and NQ Arbuckle shows are always nights to remember.