Brian Sklar and the Western Senators
The Polka Beat Goes On
by Levi Soulodre
August 7, 2009
The Session’s initial phone chat with Prince Albert-born western swing and polka musician extraordinaire Brian Sklar proved to be a quick yet exhilarating affair, affirming that he, his family and band The Western Senators were in Los Angeles, just on their way to the televised Grammy ceremonies. Three days before, they’d attended a special party thrown for Canadian nominees by the Canadian Consulate in L.A.
After an admittedly excited Sklar is back home in Regina, we engage in a neighbourly conversation that belies his musical status: a legitimately-proven professional entertainer (including 28 albums), full-time musician, and champion of the Saskatchewan old-time fiddle/polka scene for longer than this Session writer has been alive. Brian reflects on his extensive career, which has spanned television, radio, internet, and has built huge fan bases in Europe and North America, grounded by Brian’s belief in the profound bond between music and family, and in both professional showmanship balanced by musicianship.
This year, he and his band the Western Senators discovered they’d been nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Polka Album for their latest offering, Dueling Polkas - a collaborative effort between Walter Ostanek And His Band vs. Brian Sklar And The Western Senators. This year, they didn’t win the Grammy. Brian chuckles, “Although a couple of the guys were bummed out, there were some other nominees there - the Whites in particular, who’ve played all over the Grand Ole Opry, who have been playing for the past 60 years - who finally just won. So I don’t think we have anything to complain about!” (Ricky Skaggs & The Whites picked up this year’s Grammy for Best Southern, Country, or Bluegrass Gospel Album.
It was the twentieth Grammy nomination for (Ontario’s) Ostanek, who has three career wins. “Canada’s Polka King”, Ostanek has more than eighty albums to his credit, five of these with the Western Senators. And, for the past five years, the Senators have performed live with Ostanek and in their TV series PolkaRama (broadcast on Access stations across Saskatchewan).
When it comes to authenticity in talent, Brian is adamant that “the proof is in the pudding when you sit the musician on the stage on a stool without big production, and say ‘impress me.’ Freddie Pelletier (Saskatchewan guitarist) can do that; Joey Miskulin (of Riders in the Sky) can do that too.” When I add Calvin Vollrath to the list, Brian declares without hesitation, “Calvin is the greatest fiddle player alive…he’s put out prime, wonderful stuff, and has been a personal hero and friend of mine for a long time.” Although somewhat criminally avoiding his own amazing fiddling ability, Brian reasons that “although I do play some, when you’ve got the best (players) available, why not use them?”
While Dueling Polkas was released on dual Sunshine labels - Sunshine Canada (Winnipeg) and Sunshine USA (New York) - there’s no connection between the two. Brian’s own imprint, PolkaMania, is a subsidiary of Sunshine Canada. Brian has been on Sunshine for quite some time, having released his debut album there in 1986. A hit sprung from this outing, a tune called ‘57, which Brian describes as “a very good two-stepper about the year.” He elaborates, “I’m still a real disciple of the country and rock of the ‘50s and ‘60s.” He speaks highly of the unforgettable John Fogerty, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis performance he witnessed at this year’s Grammy ceremonies as “real rock ‘n roll.” Reflecting that on his own show, Brian states, “We have always incorporated showmanship, comedy, our own look, the highest possible standards of playing we can produce, and good vocal harmonies...stuff like that.”
Brian confesses he began playing quite by accident; his neighbour played the violin, and when school teachers discovered Brian’s musical ear, he was given a violin until, as he describes it, “I was thrown out of (lessons) in Grade 8 for playing ‘fiddle’ tunes!” Brian credits Buck Owens as a primary influence and the reason he got into country music, asserting he’s received a “self-ordained degree from the University of Buck Owens, with a major in West Coast, Western Swing playing!” Brian explains, “(Owens) revolutionized the country music industry, and I wanted to dress and look like him.” Brian even treasures a piece of Buck Owen legacy - the personal fiddle of Don Rich (Buck’s guitarist, fiddle player and backup vocalist). Brian also praises Frankie Yankovic’s playing as his introduction to the accordion, and was invigorated by live polka and country music on Saturday afternoon TV while growing up. Brian says a natural marriage was forged between country and polka: “As a matter of fact, one of the founding (and still current) members of the Senators, Joe Schultz, played with Yankovic in the ‘50s!” In addition to Schultz, the Western Senators boast another amazing accordionist, Yorkton’s Mark Leik, who performs most of the “lead accordion” duties for the Senators tunes on Dueling Polkas.
To keep the musical program as passionate and close as he can, Brian employs and plays with a large number of friends and family. He is deeply connected to his bandmates, musical friends, and influences, evident in the way he mentions a new name or returns to praise his bandmates. He’s particularly proud that many of his former players have gone on even greater success - Donny Parenteau (artist, and formerly with Neal McCoy), Rod Janzen (Dierks Bentley), Randle Currie (Brad Paisley) and Redd Volkaert (Merle Haggard) to name just a few!
While asserting that the music industry has been “a tough business, and it’s only getting tougher,” Brian still manages to successfully bring together music and family. “I’m very fortunate to have found a life partner who would put up with a full-time road musician!” Brian lovingly titled his publishing arm ‘Trudy Bear Music’, after his wife Trudy. Brian’s sons are very much involved in the business, too: son Damon Sklar designed the album artwork and “does a lot of promotional work for us,” while son Aaron Sklar joins his father onstage as drummer and vocalist. Rounding out the group’s lineup are Wayne Kuntz on bass and guitarist Todd Lueck (previously known for his work with Regina’s The Red Hot Burritos).
When asked if younger audiences are attending and interested in polka music, Brian immediately replies, “We go to Cleveland every year for a huge festival...where at least 40% of the audience is under the age of thirty, and dancing their guts out!” He adds, “I think the kids see the entertainment value and are impressed with the musicianship.”
One of Brian’s fondest accomplishments remains the creation of a 1995 made-for-TV special, “Frankie and Walter, One More Time...”, featuring the polka legends (Yankovic and Ostanek). He explains, “I brought them out (to Saskatchewan) to do the special. Yankovic was eighty years old...and we knew we wouldn’t be getting many more performances out of him.” Although Brian thought it might be prudent at the time to postpone the November tour until the spring, given a particularly bitter winter, Ostanek vetoed the idea - suggesting that Yankovic better do it now, or the shows might never happen! “(So) concerts and dances were filmed in Saskatoon, Regina, Yorkton and Prince Albert, and compiled into a one-hour special…That show played nine times on CBC, and won a bunch of awards.”
That wasn’t Brian’s first introduction to television, of course - having become a household name as host of the TV series “Number One West” from 1986-1993. “I made a point of having one Saskatchewan or Western Canadian on every show, and one Grand Ole Opry act, so we had 139 Saskatchewan acts on in six years.” Brian is a firm supporter of having a local act on all his bills. Currently, he’s programming the aforementioned “PolkaRama” series. Season three will begin taping at Casino Regina during the 1st Annual Polka Fest (May 16-17), which will include artists Al Almassy and Pleasure Tyme from Regina, Eddie Rodick and His Orchestra from Cleveland, and of course, Walter Ostanek and the Western Senators.
Brian finds that polka music in Saskatchewan holds a substance and vitality reflective of the province’s rural roots. When asked why he believes so many world-class country players originate here, he replies, “It’s in our genes…it’s cold most of the time, and there’s nothing else to do!” He also assures me that the split recording process undertaken for Dueling Polkas - consisting of Ostanek’s band working in Cleveland while Brian’s recorded in Regina - didn’t hinder the project at all. He praises their recording space, Touchwood Studios in Regina, as “a world-class, second-to-none recording facility.” It’s evident in the clarity and punctual tones of the Dueling Polkas album, to which Brian says, “That’s thanks to Johnny ‘Six Pack’ Gasparic having a great set of ears…You don’t have to go Stateside, and you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles to record; it’s more about the person sitting behind the board. It can be done in Saskatchewan, and done well.”
The Senators tunes on Dueling Polkas were written and produced by Sklar and Leik. (It’s akin to a double album - half Ostanek tunes, half Senators). Leik, whom Brian regards as “a hell of a player,” did the lead accordion work on the Senators’ portion. “It was a real labour of love,” Brian reflects, revealing that at the same time, they prepared enough material to have another set of songs ready for the next album!
It seems a bit daunting to hear the band will have time to put out a new album given their already busy schedule for ‘08. They’ve already traveled to Nashville, then California to take part in the Grammy festivities (for which Brian thanks SaskMusic’s Imminent Opportunities grant); they’re booked for pretty much every major polka festival throughout Western Canada and North America, and their incredible 38th consecutive Calgary Stampede performance. Having toured the world innumerable times, they’re planning to do some European dates in August - representing Brian’s thirty-fourth (!) tour through the continent. Nonetheless, he plans to release the new album before July. “Next year, we’ll get them,” Brian confidently states of future Grammy potential. He certainly has the momentum, ambition, personnel, and well-tuned professionalism to make another serious push as a Grammy contender next year.
In the way of advice, when it comes to pursuing a professional career as a musician and entertainer, Brian states, “You have to love what you’re doing! Give each performance 100%, every time.”