Back and forth with Steve Fruitman
Veteran folk DJ Steve Fruitman recently hosted the last episode of his long-running Back to the Sugar Camp show on CIUT in Toronto, and is moving on to a new show in a new time slot.
Sugar Camp Music will air Thursdays at 3 pm on CIUT, starting on February 16.
We asked Steve to look back on Back to the Sugar Camp’s history, and forth to the Sugar Camp Music format.
Tell us how and when that show got started.
The first episode of Back to the Sugar Camp was on October 14, 1999. The first track played was La Cardeuse by Mark Haines and Tom Leighton. I first began programming at CIUT back in June 1988 – seems like an eon ago! – the program was called Mariposa Radio Folkwaves at first. It was a roots music program which I later renamed The Great North Wind. I ran with that for eleven years before signing off in June, 1999. I was off the airwaves for four months and came up with the Back To The Sugar Camp idea. It was named after a Ward Allen fiddle tune that many mistake for Maple Sugar. It’s very similar.
During the time you’ve been programming BTTSC, you’ve become a bit of an institution. What do you feel is unique about the show?
An institution eh? 🙂
What was unique about the Sugar Camp was that it was almost entirely Canadian. It was not a ‘folk’ music show. I don’t know what roots music means anymore. But it delved into the heart of Canadiana, exploring country music legends like Wilf Carter and Smiling Dick, interviewing hundreds of songwriters; just going all over the place. I think having so many great performers, not only appearing on the program, but most of them playing live on air, was unique. I mean, it’s Toronto, everyone comes through here at some point in time, and it was rather easy to capture most of them.
It was always a problem balancing the live stuff with the recorded stuff. Part of me always wanted to play DJ, just spin great disks; part of me wanted to interview people. Sometimes the interviews would just take over and I’d feel stifled, not playing enough music. Such is the life! I’d just get fed up after a while, banish myself to the mythical Sugar Camp woods, and not want to see anybody in the studio for months on end. I’d just grit my teeth and turn people down.
I once interviewed a fella that did a folk show up in North Bay and he was astounded that I actually turned people down. He was practically salivating, claiming that if he ever got a chance to interview any of them up in North Bay he’d be living out a dream. So doing a program here in Toronto is a rather special opportunity. I’ve been very lucky.
Tell us about the Porcupine Awards. Artists are quite proud when they win them. How did they arise?
They don’t actually win them; they are more like the Governor-General’s Awards, so I like to think of them as being earned. I inaugurated the Porcupines in 1990, thinking of them as a one-off program presented like an awards show, but for folk-oriented performers who just deserved to be recognized for their heart-felt works. I nearly didn’t do a second year of Porcupines, but people started asking so I decided to make it an annual thing on the Great North Wind. When I started doing Back To The Sugar Camp I modified the awards, and now, after 22 years…. Ya, many hundreds of awards have been given out. In 1993, I began inducting people into the Porcupine Music Hall of Fame.
If you look at the History of the Porcupines you’ll notice huge holes and omissions: Like, I just gave Ian and Sylvia their first award after 22 years! But it’s not a popularity contest.
From the feedback I get, most artists love the Porcupine Awards they receive because most of them have never, ever been awarded anything before. Never been truly recognized for what they have given us. I know that these awards are from my own perspective, but no one can ever deny that the recipients have not earned them. And in this country it’s very lonely out there, so everything helps.
Unsung heroes are the ones who usually get the Porcupine Awards.
You’ve had an admiration for Stompin’ Tom that verges on adoration. What makes him special?
Wow! Where do I begin? Let’s just say that he’s a guy who put all the aspects together. He wasn’t the first guy to do what he does, but he just had so much energy, so many great ideas, so many great songs, and he was for real. He lived the life that he sung about. Just look at the body of his work and it’s incredible. I know, most people like ‘Tillsonburg’ and ‘Bud The Spud’, but he’s written so many wonderful songs over the years and he just keeps on doing it. But to get personal, let’s go back to Timmins, Ontario, summer of ’65.
I’m a Timmins lad but we moved down to Toronto, so I was sent back north every summer to run off steam and get out of my mother’s hair. I stayed with my grandparents. So in the summer of ’65 I arrived with all my albums (Beatles, DC5, Searchers, Beach Boys, Animals – must have had 20 of ’em). But my first listen to Luke’s Guitar by Tom C Connors, recorded at The Maple Leaf Hotel and released as a 45 by CKGB radio station in Timmins was electrifying. Just one song and I was hooked. He was singing about my part of the world. He was singing to me.
I’ve gotten to know him, Tom Connors, the guy who performs as Stompin’ Tom. The real guy, not the stage guy. When I go to his house we either sit and talk all night long or play music, and he might do one or two of his own songs, but he has a repertoire of literally 3000 country songs that he can sing from heart. I find that quite amazing, actually. He’s sort of like what Jackie Washington was, a great living repository of songs. So I play a Stompin’ Tom song just about every show to show how diverse and far reaching his songs are. And most of them are timeless. I could go on and on……
By the way: Tom’s just recorded another 120 songs of old time country favourites as well as a new album. So that’s 11 albums worth of material recorded since November, 2011!
Over the years, what stands out as the real highlight of the show for you?
My first real big moment, when I first got started, was getting a live telephone interview with Stompin’ Tom in 1989 when everyone said that it couldn’t be done.
Becoming friends with people like Graham Townsend was really important; he used to sit and listen every week from his home up in Barrie and would call up to give me background info I lacked. Interviewing legends like Dick Nolan, Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan, Earl Haywood, Ned Landry, Ivan Hicks, Randy Bachman (on Lenny Breau) were real highlights. Capturing some fabulous moments in the studio was always a blast, like when I got James Keelaghan and Oscar Lopez arguing about how James talked Oscar into getting a tattoo, a show that was over-the-top as soon as I turned their mics on. So many great memories!
But if you really want to know, the biggest highlight to me was when my guests felt happy after the program. Watching them come out of the interview booth with big smiles on their faces, feeling like we just did good live radio – that, to me, said it best.
What was your most embarrassing moment?
That’s easy. I was getting ready to do a live interview – by phone – with a member of a band called Labrador Black Spruce from Labrador City about their new CD. Trouble was, five minutes before the show I realized that I left their CD in my machine at home. I had their first cassette with me but I felt like a total moron trying to explain to this guy, live on air, why I couldn’t play anything from the new album.
Tell us about the new format. What should we look forward to?
Longer sets of music. I want to play between 14 -16 songs an hour. I’ll still do Stompin’ Tom Time but it’ll float around and be heard any time in the hour. And specials will be featured from time to time. But the music won’t be very different from what I’ve been doing at the Sugar Camp; just less talk and more of it. I really don’t want to get into doing interviews very much. My guests will be more like co-hosts. So – heavy on music. The Porcupines will not change. Web site will remain the same.
Also, I’ve moved to the 3 pm Thursday time slot; I’ve never done an afternoon show before – I’ve always had night shows. So I’m really looking forward to generating a new audience with the new show – a daytime crowd.
Steve, the folk DJ on community radio is one of the unsung heroes of the scene. How can people show their appreciation for what you and others do?
If I may be so bold! The DJs are the most disregarded pieces of the puzzle in the industry. Especially so if they’re on a Campus / Community station. You rarely hear of them getting mention for services rendered in the music community (I mean, there is the occasional exception). These are people who, week in, week out, go in to do their programs. Some of them will tell you it’s the love of the music that keeps them going, but after nearly 25 years of doing this I can honestly say that “love” is only a part of it. The responsibility to one’s station and listeners, the on-going commitment to doing the program, the constant learning one needs to do, it all adds up to a whole lot more than most people could possibly imagine.
It’s a lonely place, behind the mic. Nobody sees you; you have no idea who’s out there listening.
From my perspective, the DJ is one of the most important pieces of the of the puzzle. As Bernie Finkelstein stated on my program, without the DJs his artists would not get the airplay exposure that ensures that people go out and buy their albums. The DJ is also usually the first to hear new releases, the first to know about new performers, and to bring them to a listening audience.
How can people best show their appreciation? Tell people about these shows. It’s that simple (and send in a few bucks at fundraising time). Word of mouth: “Hey, there’s a really good program I listen to…..blah blah blah.” I often find a great disconnection between the artists, the industry folk, and the listener, because so few support the radio programs that play the music they make, or want to hear. I think people generally just take it all for granted: any time they want to tune it it’s just there, for free!
But realize that these programs are mostly run (year in, year out) by volunteers, people committed to doing their best to bring the music to the people. They should be valued and honoured, and everyone out there – musicians, industry czars, listeners – should be promoting these heroic figures who sit behind the mic and produced honest-to-goodness radio shows. (I have honoured many of them with Porcupine Awards over the years).
Best of luck with the new show.
Thank you David. Can I just say that Roots Music Canada is quickly becoming an institution itself. Good on David Newland and Andy Frank. And lastly, all my hopes for Andy’s quick recovery.
Thank you Steve – and best of luck with Sugar Camp Music!
Nice article- Steve definitely deserves a special award for his consistent dedication to Canadian & local musicians al these years. Thanks so much Steve, & have fun in you new time slot!
Thanks to Steve for his ongoing great work at CIUT, and thank you for the kind thoughts. Steve’s one of the truly good people in radio and in the community.
I’m looking forward to the first 599 episodes of Sugar Camp Music.
Steve leads by example, and has quietly and selflessly set the standard for top quality Canadian radio/internet. He introduced me to excellent Canadian music and artists that I wouldn’t hear anywhere else, and he demonstrated that campus/community radio is where it’s at!
Great interview David. Steve is definitely one of the quiet unsung heroes of Canadian folk music.