When asked how she started playing the blues, King City, Ont.-born singer-songwriter Amanda Zelina (alias The Coppertone) is quick to answer. “It wasn’t a choice,” she says. “As soon as my young ears heard John Lee Hooker’s ‘Boom Boom,’ I was hooked.”

A fresh face in the world of modern blues artists, The Coppertone draws inspiration from the classic sounds of down- south American blues, but with her own honest take on it. Her latest album, Hymns for the Hollow, came out in May of 2013. Now based in L.A., she’s currently running an Indiegogo campaign to help fund her next album.

Dallas Good and Travis Good have performed and recorded with Neil Young, author Margaret Atwood, Randy Bachman, Buffy Sainte-Marie and actor Gordon Pinsent. But it was another Canadian icon – one with whom they’ve yet to collaborate – who offered some crucial wisdom.

It was 1996, when their band the Sadies was getting started, and Dallas’ and Travis’ father, Bruce Good, of bluegrass heroes the Good Brothers, was celebrating his 50th birthday at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern. Into the club walks Gordon Lightfoot, who’d had the senior Goods open for him during the ‘70s. “Afterwards,” Travis recalls, “Lightfoot turns to us and says, ‘The only advice I’ll give you is do your own songs.’ We took heed and started getting rid of all those traditional bluegrass murder ballads and tried to write our own.”

At first, the Sadies made their mark with Dallas and Travis as formidable guitar slingers, backed by their rhythmic accomplices of upright bassist Sean Dean and drummer Mike Belitsky. Mostly, they were a killer instrumental band, reveling in their love of surf songs and spaghetti western music. Although the group also embraced ‘60s psychedelic and garage-rock sounds, the brothers never entirely strayed from the country roots of their Good family upbringing.

“It wasn’t like we grew up Partridge Family-style at all, but we were surrounded by good records and lots of instruments. – Dallas Good

The Sadies members honed their chops touring, either on their own or opening for Blue Rodeo and the Tragically Hip. They also became Neko Case’s backing band and recorded with such diverse artists as Jon Langford, John Doe, André Williams and Roger Knox – all influential collaborations.

But it was Gary Louris, of U.S. country-rockers The Jayhawks, who had the greatest impact on their compositional skills. Louris produced the Sadies’ last two studio albums, 2007’s critically acclaimed New Seasons and 2010’s Polaris Prize-nominated Darker Circles.

“I can’t stress enough how much Gary changed my approach to songwriting,” says Dallas, “even with simple rules like ‘don’t overuse certain words.’ He really gave me confidence as a lyricist.” Adds Travis: “We’re pretty confident with guitars, but not with words and singing. Gary’s great for that and suggested harmonies that my brain just doesn’t pick up on.”

Louris has also produced the Sadies’ next studio album, due out in the late summer of what promises to be an especially busy year – even for one of Canada’s hardest-working bands. Following that untitled recording will be a rock album with the Hip’s Gord Downie.

Already out is The Good Family Album, a bluegrass affair that brings Dallas and Travis together with their father Bruce, uncle Larry Good, mother Margaret and cousin D’arcy Good, all backed by the Sadies’ Dean and Belitsky. The album features eight songs written by the family and two written with longtime Sadies cohort Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo.

“I initially rejected bluegrass for punk – until I found out that bluegrass is a lot faster and harder to play.” – Dallas Good

Dallas, who co-wrote “Life Passes (And Old Fires Die)” with Daniel Romano and another pair with D’arcy, says that recording covers like “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” was never an option. “That would be old hat and far too predictable,” says Dallas, who also co-wrote “Restless River” with Bruce, about his dad’s First Nations mother. Adds Dallas: “Writing with D’arcy was great, because I’ve always considered her the most talented member of the family.”

A Goods project brings things full circle for Dallas and Travis. Both were born in the bluegrass world of their father and uncles, while Travis joined the Good Brothers band after high school. “It wasn’t like we grew up Partridge Family-style at all,” Dallas recalls, “but we were surrounded by good records and lots of instruments. I initially rejected bluegrass for punk – until I found out that bluegrass is a lot faster and harder to play than most hardcore and aggressive music.”

As a kid, Travis took lessons from Red Shea, Lightfoot’s guitarist in the ’60s, and both he and Dallas remember being backstage at many shows involving Lightfoot and the Good Brothers. Another Lightfoot connection is Margaret’s “Same Old Song” on The Good Family Album: it includes the playing of Terry Clements, the folk legend’s longtime guitarist, from the song’s original demo.

The stars aligned for the Sadies in 2010, when they got to back Neil Young on a recording for Garth Hudson’s compilation A Canadian Celebration of The Band. Since then, the group has toured with Young and has lately performed with Randy Bachman, who’s written a song for the Sadies called “Canadian Garage.”

A collaboration with Lightfoot has, so far, remained elusive, although Dallas and Travis recorded a Lightfoot tribute with Keelor and Rick White, of Elevator, in a side project called The Unintended. After working with Downie and Pinsent (with whom Travis and Keelor recorded last year’s Down and Out in Upalong), an album with Lightfoot would cap an already stellar career – and complete a distinctly Canadian hat trick.

“I already have the perfect title for it – Out of Our Gords,” laughs Travis. “Now, if only we could just rope Lightfoot into it.”

The first time The Tom Fun Orchestra performed for an audience, more than a few of the musicians in the band were playing songs they’d barely heard once, if at all. It was 2005 and the East Coast Music Awards were being held in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Though he’d only been writing and performing his own music for a few months while travelling in Scotland, singer-songwriter Ian MacDougall decided he was ready to perform for his hometown, and figured the musical event was as good an opportunity as any for a show. Two days after his return to Cape Breton, MacDougall was onstage with nine friends, performing his songs for a crowd.

“We’re a bunch of friends doing something absolutely ridiculous, and who now get to travel to weird places together.” – Ian MacDougall

“I imagine it was terrible,” laughs MacDougall in his characteristically self-deprecating style. “I think that’s why I wanted to have such a big band. I figured if there were enough of us, we couldn’t be that bad!” But early audiences responded well to the band’s eclectic energy, comparing them to everything from Broken Social Scene to the Pogues. “We were fueled by the feedback,” MacDougall recalls. “We realized we enjoyed it and wanted to take it more seriously.”

Two full-length albums and a handful of awards later, The Tom Fun Orchestra is still going strong. While the band currently tours with seven people (ranging in age from 24 to 42), more than 30 have been included on the roster over the years. “It’s nice because there is such an abundance of talent around here,” says MacDougall, who sings, plays guitar, and writes the songs. Though he didn’t grow up playing music, MacDougall, who has a “fondness for words in a big way”, was first drawn to songwriting because of the space it allowed him to play with language.

“I figured if there were enough of us, we couldn’t be that bad!” – Ian MacDougall

With a new album in the works, the band’s sound continues to evolve (recent incarnations have made room for more guitars and fewer fiddles). MacDougall says he’s constantly amazed and thankful that their music has taken them as far as it has – including on tours through Australia and the U.K. “I think what’s really special about this whole thing,” says MacDougall, “is that it’s a bunch of friends doing something absolutely ridiculous, and who now get to travel to weird places together.”

Track Record
• Tom Fun is a nickname that MacDougall says he “got stuck with a long time ago”. The band’s early incarnations were all variations on the theme, but they settled on The Tom Fun Orchestra when it came time to record their first album.
• While he says it is never intentional, MacDougall admits that Cape Breton often creeps in as a theme in his writing. “It’s where we grew up and where we have spent most of our lives – and somehow it always burns its way into the songs.”
• The Tom Fun Orchestra won the Galaxy Rising Star Award at the 2009 EMCAs, followed by an award for Video of the Year in 2010. They also won Music Nova Scotia Awards in 2008 for Entertainer of the Year and Galaxy Rising Star.