by Alissa Johnson
In 1994, Nashville singer-songwriter Jerry Vandiver, whose song “It Doesn’t Get Any Countrier Than This” had just been recorded by Tim McGraw, portaged a behemoth of an aluminum canoe across a rocky and root-filled portage. He was no stranger to paddling; he’d moved that canoe from his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri, to Nashville when he set out to see if he could make it in the country music business. But this was his first trip to Quetico Provincial Park, and lugging that canoe over such a challenging portage inspired him.
LISTEN: “Rocks and Roots” by Jerry Vandiver
“I said, ‘When we get back to Nashville, I’m going to write a song called “Rocks and Roots”, and by golly I did,” Jerry said. At the time, however, he didn’t see a market for songs inspired by canoe country or the outdoors.
“One thing they say in this business is to write what you know, and occasionally I would write something inspired by my outdoor love and then change it to fit more of the American market. Reba McEntire is not going to cut a song about camping, so in the quest of making a living, I made those adjustments,” Jerry continued. “However I would occasionally still find myself writing some songs about what I love. I wrote ‘em anyway and put ‘em in a drawer.”
Jerry had no way of knowing those songs would one day get pulled back out to make an album of paddlesongs. He only knew that his love affair with canoe country was instantaneous. Quetico Provincial Park was unlike any place he’d been.
“I remember sitting on a campsite cliff overlooking Curtain Falls in Quetico, and we had been in eight or nine days at that point, and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t care that Reba is cutting a record next week. I’m here and I’m going to enjoy this every bit that I can,” Jerry said. He has been back to Quetico or the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness every year since. He and his wife even married and honeymooned in the Boundary Waters, holding their reception at the Chainsaw Sisters Saloon off the Echo Trail. In canoe country he found what so many paddlers have: the ability to live in the present moment, a sense of accomplishment, and camaraderie with paddlemates.
“Plus, there’s just the complete serenity, the complete self-awareness that place brings…” Jerry said. “When you’re out there and there’s a loon calling, a bald eagle overhead and the Milky Way comes out… I’ve never experienced a place better than that and I’ve been all over the world.”
That love for canoe country and Jerry’s other passion—songwriting—came together when he eventually learned about a Canadian album called Canoe Songs. He submitted two for consideration on volume II and they were accepted. Though a female singer recorded the songs for the album, Jerry played at the Canadian Canoe Museum as part of the CD’s release, and a seed was planted.
An ardent fan of Canoecopia, a three-day canoe event in Madison, Wisconsin hosted by Rutabaga Paddlesports, Jerry toyed with the idea of writing and recording an album of canoe songs. He wanted to play and sell the CDs at Canoecopia, and Rutabaga owner, Darren Bush, encouraged him to do so. Jerry’s first paddlesongs album was born: True and Deep: Songs for the Heart of the Paddler.
“I went up [to the show] wondering if I would even have an audience,” Jerry said. But the songs were well received, and Jerry was inspired to keep writing. Next thing he knew, he was booking rooms in Minnesota and other parts of the Midwest for what he called his Paddle and Pickin’ Tour, and over time, one album became three with a fourth on the way.
He’s become something of a fixture in the canoeing community, playing events like the Great American Canoe Festival in Ely and the Boundary Waters Expo off the Gunflint Trail. Together with Tofte singer and songwriter Eric Frost, he co-wrote a song with Dave and Amy Freeman, who spent a year in the BWCAW highlighting the dangers of proposed sulfide-ore copper mining near wilderness, and then played it during their exit ceremony. One song, “Leave No Trace,” caught the attention of that organization, which made a video to go with it. And North Star Canoes has become a sponsor.
Jerry’s songs, are not, however, just about canoeing. Yes, “Me and Molly” is about canoe dogs, and “Camp Coffee” memorializes morning coffee rituals. But many of Jerry’s paddlesongs act as perfect metaphors for life, and in the opening moments, aren’t obviously about canoeing.
LISTEN: “Camp Coffee” by Jerry Vandiver
That’s intentional, he says, and something that Rutabaga’s Bush encouraged him to do. It allows him to explore topics like relationships and the battle of the sexes, and has become a fun part of the songwriting process.
Jerry admits that compared to a traditional country audience—the 15 million records, say, that Tim McGraw sold with Jerry’s songs—the audience for paddlesong albums is small. But it is also a special one. As he said, music and paddling touch the soul, and he’s stumbled on a unique combination of both.
“[At shows,] I’m playing songs that have never been heard on the radio, and [the audience is] singing along to them. There’s nothing more special than that,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. I really like hearing my song on the radio with Tim McGraw singing, but it touches a place deeper in my heart when I’m playing songs about something I love so much and sharing it with people who feel the same way.”