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Remembering the golden age of the tobacco era

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These days Will Carson does not play in a band, but the 23-year-old Tillsonburg-raised singer/musician, now living in Calgary, is still making music.

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One of his new originals, Built on Sand, was inspired by his Tillsonburg and area (Norfolk and Elgin County) roots. His hometown, however, is not referenced in the song – it focuses on the entire Norfolk Plains tobacco region.

The lyrics start with a verse describing how tobacco started in the area ‘from Aylmer through to Delhi’ and ‘all across the Norfolk plain.’

‘A hundred acres could feed a family and the counties roads got paved. We’d thank the Lord for all his gifts and for sending down some rain.’

‘A time when you could find love at the Belgian Hall and cross-town (or cross township) rivals could settle their scores on the football fields.’

‘I’d sit and listen too their stories as a young boy at the coffee shop, of days gone by when the tobacco was high. And I’d dream of being born back in those simpler times…’

‘Through the 50s and the 60s, man we’d thought it’d never change,’ Carson sings. ‘But nothing that’s built on sand can last forever, there ain’t no pausing the good ole days. It won’t be long till the kiln stays empty and the lakeshore road is all but washed away.’

Tillsonburg-raised singer and musician Will Carson released Built on Sand to Spotify and Apple Music earlier this year. (Contributed photo)
Tillsonburg-raised singer and musician Will Carson released Built on Sand to Spotify and Apple Music earlier this year. (Contributed photo) jpg, TN

Carson posted his country song on Apple Music, Spotify, and Instagram and the response from family and friends was encouraging.

“One person said it sounded like I described their life growing up, so to me that was ‘okay, I’ve done a good job.’

“If it can give people a look back at our agricultural past, and how it built our community, and built the counties around us, that’d be a great thing.”

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The idea for Built on Sand came from his university days. Studying agriculture at the University of Guelph, Carson did a third-year project on the tobacco industry and interviewed some local farmers, including his friend Zach Schonberger’s mother who grew up on a tobacco farm.

“After hearing some of the stories about Tillsonburg and the tobacco industry back in the day, the culture, even the money that was moving around… the fact that Norfolk County had all these paved roads,” said Carson. “I worked up in Wellington, Grey, Bruce Counties for summer jobs, working in agriculture, and it’s very unique that you see all the paved roads in Norfolk County. Or people buying pickups with straight cash. It shows the money and the economic powerhouse that the industry used to be.

“There was an old hotel in Tillsonburg (Imperial) where if a farmer was looking for a labourer for the day, you’d just walk through the hotel and bang on doors and say, ‘Who wants to work today?’ And you’d find people. People my age hear that and say ‘how would that ever work?’

“After hearing those stories, I was thinking ‘I wish I was around for the heyday of the tobacco era.’ This summer, as everyone’s kind of looking back at what used to be, I just wrote a song looking back, a little bit of a historical review in the first couple of verses, and a little bit of my own take at the end about how I’ve seen Tillsonburg change, even over my 23 years of life.

“If you talk to people maybe 50 years and above that are from the Tillsonburg area, everybody picked tobacco back in the day. But I think you’d be hard pressed to find somebody my age in the area that’s picked tobacco.”

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Carson’s family moved to Tillsonburg when he was about 1 year old, and did not work in the industry growing up.

“I think I was maybe 22 when I learned that the Special Event Centre (in Tillsonburg) was the old tobacco auction. I think there’s just so many things about the area that I feel like my generation missed out on, culturally. By the time I got to Glendale (High School), you could probably count the number of tobacco farm families on one hand almost. So it’s really changed.”

BRANCHWATER BANDITS

Carson first learned to play piano, then switched to guitar lessons with Dan Dube when he was in Grade 4.

“I first started playing music in front of people at Tillsonburg Alliance Church, then toward the end of high school that’s when I started doing more country music.

“I’ve had a long history of people in Tillsonburg supporting me and listening when I wasn’t that good,” Carson laughed.

Carson and his friend Zach Schonberger (keyboardist) first played together at a Glendale talent show. In 2015, with other local and area talent, they had formed a country rock band, Branchwater Bandits (changed from Zach and the Moonshine Bandits), describing themselves as ‘A bunch of good ole boys who love good music and good times. The boys can be found fishing, hunting or driving in trucks when not on the road with music.’

From 2015-2020 the band’s lineup changed, but Carson and Schonberger stuck with it while at university playing multiple years at the Tillsonburg Turtlefest and at local venues like The Copper Mug and Sammy Krenshaw’s, as well as festival, pub and private shows in the London and Guelph areas.

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Their originals included their signature song Small Town Canadian Raised, as well as Next Second Chance, Leavin’ Man, and The Lifeguard Song.

Branchwater’s final show, March 18, 2020 at The Brass Taps in Guelph had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was a real disappointment,” said Carson. “It was the first week that they announced the restrictions and we had one last show to perform at Guelph before graduation.”

Carson went on to graduate from the University of Guelph in April (Bachelor of Science/Agriculture) and took a job in the industry (ag marketing) in Calgary. Schonberger attends UWO medical school.

“Since moving out west, I’ve just started doing a little bit more (music),” said Carson, who started writing and recording his own music as a way to pass the time during the COVID-19 pandemic. “It wasn’t that the band broke up, per say, it’s more ‘distance’ and ‘getting older’ kind of put an end to that.”

Although the Branchwater Bandits are done, a reunion show might be possible some day if the opportunity presents itself.

“We’ve got a whole set list. If there’s an opportunity when I’m at home some time, we’ll have to get the band back together.”

For now, Carson will continue playing and recording on his own.

“With the lack of opportunity to actually play live music, I haven’t really played for live audiences. This is more just a hobby. With me moving away from home, it’s my way of continuing to write – I like to write music, that’s something I enjoy doing. It’s a way to share music back home with friends and family. If anybody else finds it and finds it interesting, that’s awesome.”

cabbott@postmedia.com

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