Interview: David McPherson, “The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History”

Even for those who are not intimately familiar with Toronto’s music history, the name “Horseshoe Tavern” nevertheless has a curious and special ring to it.  This historic venue, celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, has hosted an extensive and impressive variety of artists, many of whom saw their careers launched from its small stage.

David McPherson, longtime music writer (and fan), has written an engaging and enlightening history of the Shoe, filled to the brim with fascinating anecdotes of times gone by and concerts all of us wish we’d attended.  From its days featuring stars from south of the border (typically from Nashville), through the era of Stompin’ Tom Connors, to artists such as Blue Rodeo and beyond, the Shoe has seen a tremendous amount of music history, and the story is well told.

Whether you’ve not yet been to the Horseshoe Tavern, or whether you’ve been there dozens of times, you’ll enjoy this book tremendously – we certainly did.  (And it’s also redoubled our intentions to get back to the Shoe as soon as we can for a show.)

We appreciate David’s generosity in taking the time to talk to us about the new book.

With this being the 70th year of the Shoe’s existence, it’s obviously a perfect time to write its story… but besides the timing, what prompted you to write this book now?

Why not now? The 70th anniversary of the bar was definitely a peg and a perfect entry point to start my research. For me, music is the elixir of life. I can’t imagine a world without music. I’ve also always loved history. It was one of my favorite subjects, next to English and Phys-Ed, throughout my formal education years. Like most things in life, I’ve discovered, there is always a little luck in being at the right place at just the right time and then seizing that moment. For me, this came a few years ago when I was watching a show at The Dakota Tavern, another of my favorite live music venues. In between watching the performer, I chatted with a fellow music scribe and shared my dream of writing a book on music. He let me know that he knew of a local publisher (Dundurn Press) that was looking to produce more books related to music and he gave me an editor’s name to contact. A couple of emails later and a book proposal and I suddenly had a book deal.  I felt this was an important piece of Toronto’s musical history that warranted a book. On every major anniversary in the last 25 years, there have been articles, tributes, and news stories, but never a complete history in the form of a book. I figured as the bar approached its 70th anniversary, it was as good a time as any to put pen to paper and to share this tale with a wider audience.

Although these types of headlines have subsided recently, the news stories about music venue closures in Toronto flew thick and fast several months ago. You describe the Shoe’s historic impact on Toronto’s music scene very eloquently; how do you see its impact now and in years to come, especially as other venues shut down?

You are correct. This book is as much about trying to share my passion for live music and the importance of preserving these historic venues, as it is an ode to an iconic Toronto bar. From the long gone famed Yorkville venues in the 1960s such as The Riverboat to Yonge Street venues from the 1970s such as The Coq D’or that too, have come and gone, to the many bars along the Queen Street strip where The Shoe still stands strong 70 years on, the impact is definitely historic. Thanks to the business acumen and passion of current majority owner Jeff Cohen and partner-in-music Craig Laskey the Horseshoe is still a beacon for music lovers to hear bands six nights a week. I believe, as long as the current owners are at the helm, from the weekly Nu Music Nites Dave Bookman still runs today to the rest of the venue’s programming, The Horseshoe Tavern will continue to remain a leader in showcasing local, national, and international talent, giving a place to play and a chance to take their careers to another level for so many bands.

I was really intrigued by the description of the early clientele being primarily from outside Toronto (migrants to the city).  Beyond Jack Starr’s customer-first orientation and (of course) the music, was there something else about the tavern that drew outsiders in particular, at least in the early days?

In the early days before music rained from the rafters six nights a week, what drew people to The Horseshoe Tavern was the people. In a way, like the famed TV bar in the 1980s sitcom Cheers, it was a place where everybody knew your name. Jack Starr created a place where blue-collar folks, rounders, down-and-outs, police officers, and outsiders could all mix and mingle at the bar and feel a kinship. The Shoe in those days was a home away from home for these drifters and emigrants to the big city. Oh, and apparently, the kitchen in the early days also served a fine roast beef dinner.

David McPherson

Stompin’ Tom Connors earned his own chapter in the book because of his tremendous influence. One thought I had while reading, though, is that unlike many of the artists who played at the Shoe before him (some of the great country artists from south of the border), he was Canadian, as were a number of artists who played there after him.  How do you see the transition historically to a music scene that is primarily – and proudly, I hope – Canadian, that no longer necessarily counts success in the US as ‘the’ thing that matters?

That’s a good point. In the early days, Jack Starr’s music model was to bring in the best and differentiate his club from the rest of the live music venues in the city. During the mid-to late 1950s into the early 1970s, those artists ended up being mainly the biggest stars of the day from south of the border – and specifically as you reference – Grand Ole Opry country and western stars. You could say that Stompin’ Tom paved the way. He was the first true Canadian star that made his mark at The Horseshoe. He still holds the record for the most consecutive nights played at the club (22). In the 1970s, his success led to Starr taking a chance on, and hiring, many other Canadian country artists such as Michael T. Wall and Roy Penney. Later, as the day-to-day management changed, this trend continued. While there was always a mix of U.S. and international performers gracing the Shoe’s stage, it became an inherent mandate to promote local and give Canadian acts a chance to shine. These homegrown success stories, many of which I touch on in the book, include such adored Canadian artists as Blue Rodeo, Nickelback, The Watchmen, Lowest of the Low, and The Tragically Hip.

You quote Joey Serlin as talking about the “weight and the history” that he’s felt while playing at the tavern. As a fan who has seen so many shows there, how have you perceived that history?  Does it indeed feel as though there are ghosts there?

As a fan, I have indeed perceived that history and the weight that the walls carry. The room does in feel haunted. Not in the sense of you will get spooked, but that there is, as Colin Linden – the first person I interviewed for this book, described to me, a gravitas there. You don’t need to see photos on the walls of all the people who have walked through those non-descript doors, set up their gear, and played a sweaty set while an audience got lost for a few hours in their songs. That feeling that the Horseshoe houses spirits is definitely strong and is hard for a first-timer not to experience. The pull is there.

If you had to pick a few shows you’ve seen there over the years that especially stood out, what would you choose?

As I write in the introduction, I came to the Horseshoe later than most, but I did make up for lost time. I discovered many musicians here and felt the ghosts from the outset. There are definitely a handful of shows that stand out. The first show I saw there was Texas country-punk rockers The Old 97s back in 1999. Just because it was my first time there and this undiscovered band became one of my favorites, makes it special. Later, I saw a young Serena Ryder sing an a cappella version of Etta James’ “At Last,” that still rings in my ears. Other memorable nights include: The Drive-By Truckers on All Hallowed Eve; promoter Richard Flohil’s 75th birthday bash filled with too many guests to recall; the first time I saw Matt Mays and El Torpedo perform during the North By North East Music Festival one year, and many NQ Arbuckle shows. I’m sure there are dozens more I’m forgetting.

There are a lot of takeaways to be had from your book, but one that comes through loud and clear is the importance of live music, both for artists and for fans. In this age of streaming music and what seems like an increasingly crowded marketplace, how do you think live music can continue to thrive, not only at the Horseshoe but in other places as well?

That’s a great question. I’m glad that you received that message, as that was one of the keys I was trying to convey: live music is alive and well and is important. As Neil Young sings in “Union Man,” – “live music bumper stickers should be issued!” While it is becoming more challenging for live music and live music venues to not only survive – but thrive – in this crowded marketplace where there are so many other outlets and activities to beg for your dollars and your time, I feel that it will keep on keeping on thanks to the passion of those running the venues and the passion of music lovers like you that keep writing about and covering the ever-changing live music scene. As rents rise, gentrification continues, and people’s tastes and interests change, I do wonder sometimes how long the Shoe can maintain this pace. All any one of us can do is get out of the house, off the couch, put down our phones, and attend a show. Support live music in your city. For, if you don’t, these iconic venues may eventually shut their doors, which to me, would be a sad day indeed.

~ L

The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History will be published by Dundurn Press on 21 September 2017 (in Canada) and a few weeks later elsewhere.  Visit Dundurn Press’ website to learn more and order a copy of the book.

The official book launch event will take place at – where else!? – the Horseshoe Tavern on 11 October 2017 at 5:00 pm.

Photo credit: Photosbyholly, Waterloo, ON


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