The Horseshoe Tavern has been a fixture of the Toronto music scene for 70 years now, playing host to everyone from Willie Nelson to Stompin' Tom Connors, Loretta Lynn, Blue Rodeo, the Tragically Hip and the Rolling Stones. The walls of the joint can't talk, but others can and did to David McPherson, author of The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History, a colourful and meticulous account of the iconic venue. The Globe and Mail spoke to the veteran journalist at – where else? – the 'Shoe.
When people talk about the legacy of the Horseshoe Tavern, the history tends to begin with Stompin' Tom Connors in the 1960s and seventies. But it began before that, with an international reputation, right?
It did. When they first brought music in here, it slowly became the spot for a lot of Nashville artists. Before Stompin' Tom ever played the Horseshoe, he knew it was the place he wanted to play. He kept bugging the owner, Jack Starr, until he finally got his chance to get in here. So, yes, the reputation preceded Stompin' Tom.
With all your research, did anything pop up and surprise you about the place?
Just those early years, that it was such a big country music place. I didn't know to what extent so many legends played here. Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson played here. In fact, Willie was in the audience one night, watching Stompin' Tom. He turned to the guy he was with and said, "This guy is going to be something." But there are a lot of stories here. I mean, even the bartenders are legends. One of them, Teddy Fury, told me all sorts of tales. The joke is that my book is called the complete history, but I couldn't fit everything in. It's my hope that the book spurs memories, with people recalling and sharing their favourite 'Shoe evenings.
I've been asked that a few times. The Old 97's was my first show here. I moved to Toronto after journalism school and I saw an ad in Now Magazine for New Music Night, with Dave Bookman. It said "country-punk," which sounded interesting enough. They ended becoming one of my favourite bands.
That's probably not uncommon, seeing someone for the very first time at the Horseshoe.
That's right. And what's interesting is that this place has so many different eras. Maybe someone went to Ryerson or U of T, or someone got their first job in Toronto and saw Stompin' Tom here in the seventies. In the 1980s, there were people who were lucky enough to see Blue Rodeo as they were building up their following. I mean, the parents of Blue Rodeo bass player Bazil Donovan would come and see the country legends here. They were East Coasters who migrated to Toronto. They loved country music and they'd come out to the Horseshoe.
Bazil probably wouldn't have made it, in his parents' eyes, until he played here.
Probably not. You're right.
For most Torontonians, the Horseshoe has always been here. But there was a short time when it wasn't, right?
It happened. There are always certain periods that people would like to forget. It did go under in the early 1980s. That's when the original owner brought in Ken Sprackman and others to revive it. But since then, the Horseshoe has been pretty steady.
What's your sense of the Horseshoe's reputation among agents and musicians?
There has always been a bit of a family atmosphere that pervaded here. The people in the music business know it's a friendly place for them to showcase their artists. You have two bartenders who have been here for more than 60 years combined. They wouldn't have stayed that long if their wasn't something about the place.
You close the book by discussing the future of the Horseshoe. What's your sense about the viability of the venue?
The original family no longer owns the Horseshoe, but they do still own the building. They want to keep it alive as long as the people running the Horseshoe have the same spirit and passion to run it as a music club, as they always have. But who knows what will happen tomorrow? As I say in the book, though, I'd like to bring my son here one day. He's 11 years old. This place has made it to 70 years. I hope it makes it to 80 or 90.
This interview has been edited and condensed.