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Country superstar Brett Kissel says merit means much in country music

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Values hardwired growing up on Alberta ranch still guide life; Kissel plays in Sudbury on Friday night

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Many country music purists surely hee-hawed upon learning hard rockers Kiss were a prime influence on superstar Garth Brooks.

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What, pray tell, would four big-haired, makeup-sporting, platform-boot-donning New Yorkers have in common with anyone whose regular headgear is a Stetson and whose footwear is more suited to horsemanship?

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Showmanship and dedication, that’s what.

Brooks saw no contradiction in the connection; nor does Canadian country superstar Brett Kissel, who has toured with this exalted member of American country royalty and equally shares such admiration for the glam rockers.

Bottom line: Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley and company never tire of putting on one helluva show, setting a sterling example for anyone equally determined to fully delight audiences.

“They’re the best showmen in the business,” Kissel says of Kiss. As a matter of fact, the Alberta-born and based musician took a bunch of his bandmates to see the Kings of the Nite Time World strut about on their elevated stages. It was as much about education and example as entertainment.

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“It was so magnificent,” Kissel said. “It was an enormous spectacle.”

Coincidentally, on the morning earlier this week when Postmedia spoke to Kissel from his rural Alberta home, he was packing up to hit the road to make his own stage magic as part of the current Canadian tour, which swings by Sudbury Friday evening at The Grand, 28 Elgin St., at 7 p.m. For more, go to tinyurl.com/4fp5r8ta.

Kissel hardly hesitates to answer when asked what other influences may surprise fans.

“There’s a charm and a class that Michael Bublé has when he carries himself on stage,” Kissel said. “That beautiful suit, his incredible band looking so sharp and the way that he’s so cheeky and comedic, but charming. His charisma is infectious … he’s such a great performer and entertainer.”

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Sir Elton John also delights.

“As a guy who lives on a cattle ranch and sings country songs like Make a Life, Not a Living, what can I relate Bennie and the Jets to in my current day?” Kissel said the a laugh.

Perhaps a salute to country/rock royalty the Eagles is more apropos; after all, every member of Kissel’s seven-piece band lends vocals, reminiscent of what the California unit has delivered for decades.

“Our harmonies are so good and I’m so proud of these guys,” Kissel said of his band.

But equally celebrated are traditional country stars, both current and legendary. One of many things Kissel, 33, who, himself, has racked up more than a decade of industry triumphs – multiple No. 1 singles and albums and plenty of Canadian country music industry kudos – hails about his musical genre is artist loyalty.

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“One of the best parts about country music is if you can rise up through the ranks, you really are invited into the clubs and into the circles of the stars that have made it, that might be more on the retired side of their career, that chapter,” he said.

In pop or rock, for instance, if artists are not “relevant today,” they often aren’t “relevant anymore.”

“And that’s really sad … to me, that’s a crying shame,” Kissel said. “Young (country) artists today still care a lot about George Fox, they still care a lot about Terri Clark, they still care a lot about Michelle Wright and Charlie Major and George Canyon … and, one day I hope that they’ll care about me.

“Hard work still matters. Merit still matters. Country music, I think, is the last genre that still has that type of ecosystem that I do not believe exists in pop or rock or hip hop at this time.”

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WORK COMES FIRST

Hard work and humility, Kissel says, just go hand-in-hand with growing up on a northern Alberta cattle ranch and witnessing, firsthand, the blood, sweat and tears, that go into making a living off the land.

“It’s very much a part of my genetic makeup and I’m very proud to be a farm kid,” said Kissel, whose home is a ranch purchased from his maternal grandparents, whose property neighboured his paternal grandparents’ ranch.

“They would tell me, ‘Before we eat, the cows have to eat,’ and ‘Before we can go into town, the work has to get done,’” Kissel said. “I do have times where I know I can be a little bit lazy and I catch myself in these moments because I live a bit of a different life now, but I’m very happy to have that base layer of work ethic.”

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One of the “big” reasons the married father of four wanted to buy the family farm was so that his kids could also grow up in “that type of environment and understand your food doesn’t just come from the grocery store.”

Not to mention not letting the young Kissels become too dazzled by the trappings of stardom; the entire gang is heading out on this multiple-month, cross-Canada tour, which involves some 20 people, two buses and a semi. A “giant contrast” to life on the farm.

“We’re going up and down the highway and you have thousands of people every single night singing your songs and wanting to take care of you,” Kissel said. “And that’s a beautiful thing. But it’s also important to come home to the farm where my grandpa continues to remind me, ‘You ain’t no country star on the farm. Wake your ass up. Time to do chores.’ It doesn’t matter if you’re tired because you just got off tour at three in the morning, or when I was 18 or 19 and partied with all my buddies and I’d be hung over and my grandpa would be like, ‘If you’re gonna hoot with the owls at night, you still got to get up and get to work.’”

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MIXING IT UP AND LOOKING SOUTH

Kissel’s heart may belong to country. That doesn’t mean he’s not ready, willing and able, to play nicely with others. Thrash metal god Dave Mustaine, rapper Nelly, and R&B group 98 Degrees, are among those Kissel has teamed up with. Although musically different, one common thread is all of these acts paid their dues; the singer of smash country hits Airwaves, Drink About Me, A Few Good Stories and Make a Life, Not a Living, released his debut album at 12 and played his share of smaller venues.

“And even if you do get discovered on TikTok, now you’ve been able to skip, four, five, six, seven steps on the ladder,” Kissel said. “So now you’re on step number seven of 10. OK, now what?”

And exploring more paths also means the prospect of achieving U.S. stardom. Kissel is no stranger to Nashville. He has a home there, has recorded there and has played the Grand Ole Opry “more times that I can count.” Drink About Me went to the top of the Canadian charts but didn’t make as many waves south of the 49th parallel.

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“Nashville is a really big part of me,” Kissel said. “But will I achieve Brad Paisley’s success? Will I achieve Garth Brooks’s success? It’s actually not up to me.

“Does success south of the border matter to me? I think success everywhere matters to me. I think I’m most excited about living a really good life and showing my kids that you can achieve something, and if you’re passionate about it, dreams can, and often do, come true.”

THE RIGHT DIRECTION

Kissel’s 10th studio album, 2023’s The Compass Project, is a four-part box set of offerings released individually throughout last year. He concedes releasing four albums – South Album, East Album, West Album and North Album – is an ambitious project, especially at a time when streaming singles on Spotify dominates so much of music consumption.

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Kissel loves and respects albums – “When I was a kid, I would listen top to bottom to an entire Brooks & Dunn album.” – and is confident much of his fan base is equally devoted to long listens.

“I felt it was just this amazing group of songs that needed a home,” he said. “I was so disappointed that over the last several years the state of the music business is all about releasing a hit, and only a hit. And if it ain’t a hit, it doesn’t matter. But all of these songs matter.”

Not that he is necessarily opposed to folks flocking to one favourite.

“That’s great,” Kissel said. “I’m honoured to be in that conversation or those playlists. But if you really want to take a deep dive, I’ve really opened myself up. I am very vulnerable with these records. I’ve revealed a lot of myself and my relationships.

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Albums contain themes. East Album is more mellow with “thoughtful, beautiful melodic” songs. Others are more rambunctious and the North Album is a live greatest hits package.

“I’m only 33, but I feel I’ve lived a lot of life in these 33 years, or I have a lot of past lives if you believe in that kind of stuff,” Kissel said with a laugh. “I’m at this point in my career, and life now, I’m very lucky that I get to put out a lot of material and take some creative risks, too.”

‘UNITY IS THE FOCUS’

It seems political divisions in Canada these days have rarely been deeper. Whereas disgruntled farmers once tossed grain at former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, these days, angry opponents of his son, who now leads the country, throw gravel at the subject of their rage.

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Kissel’s lyrics aren’t devoid of political overtones “just because I have to be honest about my life.” But he insists his messages are not meant to divide. He’ll leave that to others.

“There are many powers at play that truly love the division in this country, love the separation,” he said. “Separation has never been a positive thing, in our country or in the world. Unity is the focus and if I write songs about unity, even if they might poke holes in some of the hypocrisy that comes down from government, it’s meant to be unity. It’s meant to show that the East and the West, the right and the left, the red and the blue aren’t as far apart as we’re led to believe.”

Don’t expect Kissel to always necessarily wave the Western flag. Togetherness is the leitmotif.

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“That’s been a big part of the mandate to be a guy from the West, who grew up with oil and cattle, to be able to go to Ontario or the Maritimes or Quebec and say, ‘People who live in the world of the energy sector are really good people. They’re doing their best to put food on the table and take care of their families the same way the fisherman is in Newfoundland, the same as the hydro-power person is in Ontario, the same way the chef is in Quebec,’” he said. “We’re all here for the same goal, to raise our kids, live the best life that we can and leave things better than we found them.”

jougler@postmedia.com

On X: @JeffreyOugler

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