An evening at Canada’s oldest country music bar in the basement of an insurance office. Imagine Cheers but with 80-year-olds in cowboy hats.
It might surprise you to learn that one Canada’s oldest and most renowned country music institutions is in the basement of a dingy 1960s office building, also home to a daycare, an insurance agency and a karate studio. For over 50 years, The Wheel Club’s been a sanctuary for Montréal’s country music purists and one of its neighbourhood’s most beloved watering holes. What’s made The Wheel Club famous however, is its weekly Hillbilly Night, an open jam and celebration of a classic country sound.
Hillbilly Night hasn’t changed since it began in 1966. The format and rules established by founder Bob Fuller remain simple and unbreakable: On Monday nights, as of 9 p.m., no drums or electric instruments are allowed, and playing songs written beyond 1965 is forbidden. Bob felt that 1965 was the year country music’s authenticity began to fade. The genre had become mainstream and country was turning pop. Hillbilly Night was his way of keeping real country music alive. Here, Bill Coveduck tunes his guitar before stepping onstage.
Mike Held was the first person I met at The Wheel. I walked in the door and he greeted me like a friendly, long-lost grandpa. Mike’s responsible for carrying on two important Hillbilly Night traditions: Passing out free licorice and ringing the bell on the table to applaud an exceptional performance.“In the early days, Bob Fuller would ring the bell when someone played a song really well. If not, no bell. But that was a long time ago. Me, I ring the bell for everyone.”
Jeannie Arsenault discovered Hillbilly Night on Jan. 18, 1974 and has been coming ever since. She’s missed the Monday event only ten times in 45 years. Bill Anthony started coming with his dad, Bill Anthony Sr. when he was 17. He’s now 56. Jeannie and Bill are just two of many who’ve called The Wheel Club home for nearly their whole lives. Others have been coming, playing music and often sitting in the exact same chair for 17, 24 or even 31 years.
Bill Bland’s been central to Hillbilly Night since day one. Every Monday night, he shows up with his fiddle in a backpack, takes his position in the right corner of the stage and plays from start to finish. No chit chatting, no taking breaks, just fiddlin’. Photos throughout the club show Bill at different eras of his life at The Wheel: Fiddlin’ with a lush head of hair in the ’70s, fiddlin’ in a stylish straw hat in the ‘80s and fiddlin’ at Bob Fuller’s birthday party in the ’90s.
For those who associate country music with Shania Twain, Garth Brooks or Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, a trip to The Wheel Club can be an eye-opening experience. More than just a rustic music venue, The Wheel functions as an elite country music college where visitors are educated about the history, traditions and pioneers of the genre.
Jeannie correcting a brave newcomer who’d just stepped up to the mic. There’s a distinct “right” and “wrong” way to perform an old country tune at Hillbilly Night. For example, playing a song as Hank Williams recorded it in 1947: Right. Offering up a jazzy rendition of it: Wrong. Finger-picking a banjo like Earl Scruggs in 1953: Right. Finger-picking a banjo like Dolly Parton in 1977: Wrong. You’ll be asked to stop.
“If you want to play country, you have to dress country,” Bill Anthony says. On my first night at The Wheel, I was struck by the stylishness of 27-year-old Morgan Jones and his impeccable white Biltmore hat. Over the course of the night I realized that Bill was dead serious. Every performer that took the stage was dressed like they’d stepped out of a Roy Rogers movie, with authentic cowboy hats, boots, bolo ties and embroidered shirts. Anybody wearing a hoodie or pair of Nikes was clearly an amateur.
With most of The Wheel Club’s patrons in their sixties, seventies and eighties, the atmosphere’s generally calm, civilized and there’s a lot of sitting around. But once the music starts and the fiddle kicks in it’s only a matter of time before the dance floor is packed with people spinning, twirling, clapping and tapping their feet.
Eric Sandmark’s a prolific hillbilly rocker with the energy of someone more than half his age. He insisted I take his picture outside in the alley on the club’s icy rooftop. I was afraid he was going to slip and break his back but thankfully that didn’t happen. A relentless promoter of his band, Eric Sandmark & His Rumblers, he’s a fierce country music advocate bridging the old-time culture with the new.
I talked with Molly and Karen, Concordia University students who were visiting The Wheel for the first time. They couldn’t stay long as they both had exams in the morning. The fact that Hillbilly Night is on Monday makes it a barrier for a lot of people to attend, and it became apparent that while The Wheel Club is a staple in so many people’s lives, it’s seen as a hokey novelty bar to others.
Around 10 p.m., Mike begins licorice distribution. The flavors are traditional red or black, none of that fancy new stuff. Snacks are a big deal at The Wheel Club. In the back corner there’s a table set up with popcorn, pretzels, Pringles and Cheetos. You can fill up a bowl for $2 and if you’re a musician, snacks are free.
Rob Scott’s the most gregarious of the club’s three owners. As a personal trainer he has the energy and the hustle to keep The Wheel rollin’, even in tough times. He sells raffle tickets, hosts fundraising events and is the club’s passionate social media hype man. With thin profit margins, staying in business is tricky, and attracting new people to the club, especially young folks who’ll spend money on drinks, is the biggest challenge.
Former manager Dick Hearn worked as a firefighter in Newfoundland for 34 years before moving to Montréal and taking over the club from “some other guy who couldn’t pay the bills.” He no longer manages the club but comes in almost every night to bartend, visit with friends and enjoy the music. “I’ve made more friends here in 30 years that you would in five lifetimes.”