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A whole lotta Hank

He’s opened for Blue Rodeo, headlined the Calgary Stampede, and after a few years away, he’s returning to the Commercial Tavern for one night only.

Joe Matheson brings his Hank Williams “Live” 1952 show to Maryhill this Sunday for an afternoon of classic Williams tunes, as one of just two such shows he’s doing in southern Ontario this fall.

“People say, ‘boy it really was like sitting there watching Hank,’ and even some old-timers who saw Hank perform have told me it was just like watching Hank on stage, the dance moves and the wisecracks. I’m pretty proud of it. This little show is a pretty special one for me,” Matheson said on the line from Alliston.

His foray in Hank Williams music began when he was asked to do the play, Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave. There’s lots of singing in it, which Matheson enjoys, but he didn’t like the way it made the late country singer look.

“He certainly had a lot of demons and he had his bad side, but there was so much other life and humor and craziness to him. One guy said when I was complaining about that, ‘well why don’t you write your own show? ‘And I thought, ‘you know what, that’s not a bad idea,’” Matheson said.

And so, his “Live” 1952 show was born. But this is different from your typical tribute show where the performer sings a song and tells a bit about the singer’s life. Matheson’s show starts with telling the crowd they’re in a bar and the special guest is Hank Williams. When Matheson comes out he’s playing Williams, and he’s in character for the whole show.

“All the stories I tell in the show are true. I did a lot of research for it. So people get a look at what Hank might have been like in real life. It gives them a real look inside how he felt about certain things and how he reacted to certain things. So it turned into a pretty personal kind of evening as well as having all these great country songs,” Matheson said.

He’s done the show a couple times at the Commercial and took some videos of it, which can be found online. They covered up the part of the sign that says the home of country music, the Commercial Tavern, and changed it to the home of country music, the Kawliga Café, which is the fictitious bar they’re playing in when they do this show.

“I’ve been doing these shows out a lot in western Canada. Actually I sort of took a couple years off from the show. I did it for five or six years, quite a bit around south central Ontario. But then I got into this thing where I kept going out west to do the show. It was really doing well out that way. For whatever reason, the interest in Ontario wasn’t as great as it had been. Now all of a sudden the people want the show again,” Matheson said.

Hailing from Saskatchewan, Matheson never planned to work in theatre. He graduated from journalism school and worked as editor of a business journal until he ended up in a musical revue at EXPO 86 in Vancouver.

Joe Matheson’s Hank Williams show “Live” 1952 takes centre stage at The Commercial Tavern in Maryhill for one night only on Sunday.
Joe Matheson’s Hank Williams show “Live” 1952 takes centre stage at The Commercial Tavern in Maryhill for one night only on Sunday.

“I got hired to go out to EXPO 86 in Vancouver. They said they’d hire me as a singer, or if I wanted to be in this musical theatre show they were doing. I could go out for a week as a singer or I could go out for the whole six months as part of this show. I did the show kind of on a lark. I really fell in love with the idea of putting shows on and I already loved music and singing, so then I decided to give musical theatre a shot,” Matheson said.

He’s played guitar and sang since he was young, but mostly for his own entertainment. A friend of his always told him he should sing professionally. He and Matheson’s mom were just about the only two people who thought that, he jokes.

“Unfortunately he took his own life, and after that I just really started thinking about what I was doing with my life. I had a pretty decent job and decent career. I worked for newspapers and radio stations, but I thought you know what I’m going to give this singing thing a shot,” Matheson said.

His musical theatre career took off after the EXPO, sending him across Europe as Frank in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, Berger in HAIR, and Chip in On The Town. He also played Joseph in Princess Anne’s annual UNICEF Christmas benefit for Queen Elizabeth.

He worked as a singer on a cruise ship for a year, came to Toronto for a visit, and stayed for 10 years, performing in productions like Grease, Miss Saigon, and Ragtime. The list goes on.

Despite his hugely long list of theatre creds, he’s still most known for his Hank Williams show.

“I’ve always deep down inside had this thing for country music,” Matheson said,

He’ll head to Halifax, NS in October for four of his Hank Williams shows at Neptune Theatre. He’s always wanted to take his show to the Maritimes, but he and his band just never were able to make it happen. Up until now, the farthest east he’s taken the show is Ottawa.

But after the stint in Halifax it’s back to business for Matheson, as theatre is his bread and butter. He’ll be starring as The Geographer in Theatre Calgary’s production of The Little Prince – The Musical in January. His wife, Louise Pitre, plays The Snake in the musical.

He says he’s always looking for theatre that challenges him.

“It’s really neat to get outside of your comfort zone and do something that makes you work and maybe makes you a little bit nervous. Some of my favourite things have been a little bit unusual. I did a show called Moby Dick at the Stratford Festival and you know the story of Moby Dick, the great white whale and the crazy captain who goes chasing him and at the end everyone dies. But we did that entire book and we told that story in about 100 minutes with nothing but some classical music and then movement, mime and dance. I’d never done anything like that in my life. It was really cool, it was really hard work, it was really physical, and it was kind of scary,” Matheson said.

Matheson’s other Ontario stop with his Hank Williams show went over well in Hanover, and now he’s looking forward to spending an afternoon entertaining the country music lovers at Paul Weber’s Commercial Tavern.

“I like playing for people that like country music. The Commercial Tavern in Maryhill is just about one of my favourite places to play because those are serious, real, true, country music fans,” Matheson said.

Joe Matheson plays his “Live” Hank Williams 1952 show at the Commercial Tavern on September 27. Tickets are $25 and the show starts at 3 p.m., with doors opening at 2:30.

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