As far as Canadian country music goes, Larry Mercer is an icon. For more than 60 years he performed, produced and wrote a lifetime’s worth of country music magic.
Earlier this year, he released his autobiography, Have Mercey: My First 60 Years Making Music which began when the Hanover native’s mother, Cecilia, began keeping a scrapbook after his first appearance on the CKNX Travelling Barn Dance in 1955. He continued the scrapbook tradition and the new book gives readers a peek into that glorious collection.
With 15 Juno Award nominations and seven wins with his band The Mercey Brothers, Larry is no stranger to the excitement of Juno Awards season. In fact, he wanted to let 519 readers in on a rare photo of him at the very first awards show with celebrities like Stompin’ Tom Connors and Anne Murray.
We spoke about the book, the Juno’s and writing a mega song for the legendary Charlie Pride.
You have a new book.
I put it out in January. I’ve been writing it for two years. The book goes from 1956 until 2020. In 1956, I was on the CKNX Barn Dance out of Wingham. My mother actually started a scrapbook at that point, right down to what song I was singing, whether my grandparents came that day, or if we had a flat tire.
Back in those days we had lot of flat tires.
But I was only 16 years old, so my parents would always drive to these and my mother passed away when she was 42, but she had stopped the book before that. I kept on, so I’ve got 22 scrapbooks all in chronological order, and I’ve got most of my date books of where we played and what date, so I knew I had a lot of information that I could use to write a book.
I’ve got three great grandkids and grandkids, and I wanted to have something so they would know what their grandfather did, about his life and so on. I was doing something more, just for my family, but as I got going and going, and it’s got 423 pages and 100 some pictures, I might as well be selling this book. That’s how it got started.
It couldn’t have been easy to choose the material. There’s more than 60 years worth of music history in here.
Yeah, there is. I had the scrapbooks and I would just take one scrapbook and just go through it and write down the things I might like to talk about – what happened, what dates, when that happened and brought it down to one page with the different things to talk about. Then I would start the first one and eventually I would have that year done.
It’s not all about The Mercey Brothers or myself, there’s quite a bit entered about the history of country music in Canada with different people. We had our own record company, MBS with people who started in the business like Terry Carisse out of Ottawa, and Marie Bottrell from London – she was the first one on our label.
You said it started as a project so that your grandchildren could understand your career a little better. How did it go from being just something you’re putting together for them to being a full book?
There was a fella’ named Tom Ryerson from Woodstock that wrote a number of books. He wrote one on the Brantford music scene, for example. He was writing about MBS, our record company. He had it in a studio in his house and had a lot of things wrong, so I suggested he come down to Ilderton because I’ve got all the MBS records, and he could get it all from the horse’s mouth.
I showed him my scrapbooks – here’s my life here. He said if I wanted to write a book, he’d help. The next day, he sent me a template of how to write a book. I just kept going and started one. I put my mother’s whole book in my book to start out with. I just took it one book at a time. I didn’t just start doing it, it just happened and I kept on doing it.
Do you think it would have happened if your mother didn’t actually start those scrapbooks?
Probably not. I became kind of a hoarder of all these books, my brothers didn’t. I’m the one that has all this stuff and I think that just shows me how to keepsake, and maybe I was just one of those people who did that, but it worked out pretty good.
Was your mother involved in your career at all or was she just a big fan who saved everything?
My dad played guitar a little bit and my mother played a little fiddle, but it was just for fun. That was fun in those days and she was certainly a push for me, my dad was too.
My mother died when she was 42, and Raymond, my brother, started in 1958. We were very lucky that we were close. We lived in Hanover, Ontario and Wingham was only 30 miles away. They had a TV station and we were close enough.
Raymond’s first appearance singing any place was live on television. It wasn’t at a Legion Hall or Catholic Women’s League meeting, it was right on television. There were probably two scared guys right there because everything was live in those days.
We were on a show called Talent Caravan in 1960, which is like an American Idol and we won second in Canada that year. Our mother passed away in April, and we won in the finals in June. So she really never saw us do well on that or see it because that was really the big start of our careers.
We were second to the fella that won first, his name was Homer James – and he was a gospel singer that went on to work with the Billy Graham organization. From that we got onto Country Hoedown, Red River Jamboree in Winnipeg and Don Messer’s Jubilee Show in Halifax. There’s nothing like television to get you going.
Radio and Television from the old days seemed to be a lot more important and relevant to people than it is now. What do you think made it so relevant?
I think it’s the changes that have been made in it that are really the big thing here. In the early days of radio, and putting out records, you could go to any radio station – and we did and we wouldn’t go through a talent agent to a radio station – they would welcome you, they would do an interview with you, and they were personalities themselves, like the disc jockeys.
It was important to us that when we’d be playing in a bar, often in between sets, we would go and write a personal letter to the Disc Jockeys at radio station, because it became very personal. If you were thankful for them for playing your product, playing records, it went a long way.
I still have friends who were Disc Jockeys way back from the 70’s.
That radio is a big part of Stompin’ Tom Connors history. In his books, he talks a lot about his travels and stopping into the radio stations. It sounds like you went through the exact same process.
This isn’t radio, but in the bars, we were friendly, we would go down to tables, we’d talk to people, and we would get their address, and if we were going to say, Kingston or something, we’d have a whole bunch of addresses and we would write a postcard out and saying, ‘We’re coming’. On a Monday night, we had good crowds.
It isn’t just about singing it and playing it, it’s also a business, and that’s how I ran it. It was a form of promotion to get those cards out to people and then they’d come and see you.
This interview is going to be featured in our Juno Awards issue, and of course, you are absolutely no stranger to the Juno Awards. You must have a favorite Juno memory.
We were at the first Juno Awards, I think it was called the Gold Leaf Awards, and we were there at the first one at the St. Lawrence Hall in Toronto. I’ve got a picture with Stompin’ Tom, Pierre Juneau (who the Juno Awards are named after), Anne Murray and Myrna Lorrie. That was a good one. Any of them were good. There were so much better when you won (laughter), but we were lucky to have won seven over the years.
I heard you sold the rights to the Mercey Brothers music in 2020. What led to that decision?
What lead to it was one of my nieces heard a Mercey Brother song, “Whistle On The River” on a program called Stranger Things. We didn’t watch it, but being in the business, somebody owes us money for that, because they’re using our product. So I searched for five months trying to find out who used the song. I finally got somebody at Columbia Records and they gave me an email address for a supervisor at Netflix.
So I sent an email and the next day, I get a call from a guy in Florida saying “I guess I owe you money”. It was maybe three months before that I had my daughter come over to the home here and showing her the files and the publishing company because I’m 81 years old.
When this guy mentioned he’d like to buy all the music, I talked to my brother Lloyd and I thought boy, this should be good because it would be my wife or daughter wouldn’t have to worry about what they were going to do with this stuff.
It was a win-win situation, because he is sending it out all around the world. He really wanted it for television shows, movies, songs like that. When a company is making a movie that’s about the 60s, they want 60s music, or they want 70s music and he didn’t have much country, so when he wanted to buy it, it sounded like a good thing.
The good thing was that if he gets a song used, and it’s The Mercey Brothers singing it, we get paid as the artist. Otherwise, the stuff was just sitting in a filing cabinet not doing anything – it wasn’t making anything and there was no chance of making anything, so this way it does.
The only thing is, right now with the pandemic we have it started about the same time I sold the company, so a lot of movie companies haven’t been making movies and it’s not quite the same as it was. But of course if we pass away or something like that, our children will still have them, so we thought it was a good thing.
The young country artists like Brett Kissel and so on, they’re not doing the old type of music. This was a good way to get it possibly used again. In fact, the famous slogan is keeping the music alive. That’s what this guy in Florida is doing, keeping the music alive.
Was “America The Great” part of this?
Yup, I sold that. There was a friend in Georgia who sent me a song “America the Great” and I didn’t like it, it was a talking song, but the chorus, I really liked. So I rewrote the song, except the chorus, and I put a new melody to it. I wanted to get it to Charley Pride.
I knew that when Charley came up here I had a friend doing some photography work for him, so I called him and asked whether he could get it to Charley for me. He said he couldn’t, but he gave me the managers information, and so on. So I sent it to him. In about two weeks, I got a call that Charley liked the song and he wanted to do it.
Well, it took nine months before he did the song at all. I saw him in-between in Hamilton one time, and he started singing the song for me.
I thought he does really like the song, and then it ended up he recorded it. His wife didn’t like five of the songs on the album, so they had to start over, but my song would be in.
My wife and I were in Florida and Charley was playing at the Strawberry Festival there. We were able to get back into the compound and Charley’s manager came in. He said he thought Charley was gonna sing my song that day. He’s never done it before.
He came back about 10 minutes later and said he’s up on stage just rehearsing it now if you want to go and listen. So my wife and I went backstage and Charley saw me back there and he said, “here’s my Canadian friend”. To make a long story short, in the middle of the concert, he said “I’ve got a new album coming out tomorrow and I’ve got a couple of songs that I’d like to do, and one is written by a Canadian.
He introduced me to the crowd that and he started to sing the song. In the first verse, a few people stood up, in the second verse more got up, but by the chorus, 10,000 Americans were standing for this song. I couldn’t buy something like that, to be there and have that happen. Charley said he was blown away and never had a song that he ever did the first time get that type of reception.
So he did it a lot, like on most of the shows that he did in America, and he did it sometimes if I would be at the show here in Canada. It was really a thrill for me to have him do that. When you have a song that a big act would like to do, they usually want some of the publishing or they want some of the writing, so they’ll redo a couple of different words, but Charley didn’t want anything. He said, Larry, I don’t have to be greedy.
He said if I’m doing more of your songs, I won’t want anything either. Then on his last album, he did three songs that were Mercey Brother songs. I’ve got really good memories of Charley.
Did you enjoy having a studio of your own?
I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would because we were all paying for it. I enjoyed it, there’s no two ways about it. The reason we closed it was because interest rates were at 19.5% and nobody was recording too much. We didn’t want to go bankrupt, we had owned a few places around it that we could sell, so we sold it, sold off stuff and got out of the business.
We’re in for seven years, we had a heck of a good studio. We were at RCA at the time that we had our own studio and we thought we could have a little four track studio and then we could record some stuff home and take it down to RCA and add to it and then I thought maybe we should do an eight tracking. It just kind of grew. In fact, the building we bought was an old Mennonite machine shop in Elmira and we were building a garage onto it with for our trailer or to put our instruments and things in, so we didn’t have them in my driveway or Raymond’s driveway or Lloyd’s driveway – we had our own little place.
So we put these footings in for a double garage. We ended up building a studio and adding another garage on the back and then we bought the house that was on the corner. It just grew. Elmira is a pretty Mennonite area. We had this really soundproofed, so we didn’t hear the clickity clacks of the horses outside when we were recording. When we sold it, we say we sold it to the dogs, and it literally went to the dogs. We sold to the veterinarian in town. (laughter)
What do you think readers will get out of your book?
I’m finding that they’re getting a much better understanding of what a musician’s life is like. People that have read the book can’t believe how much we traveled., and how much we worked. When you’re young, you can do a lot of things. We were lucky, we didn’t have a bus or something, but we would fly to a job out West or down East. I remember playing once in Prince Edward Island on a Friday night, then on a Saturday night we would be in Nova Scotia and then on Sunday we’d be out in Saskatchewan. We couldn’t do that driving and we would just rent trucks and we’d fly with 28 pieces of equipment. We were always our own roadies.
I carried a little book with me all the time of how to load a Dodge van, a Chevy van or a Ford van. We would get a 15 passenger van and have them take the seats out. We decided that we would make absolutely no more money by getting a better lighting system. We’d have to go to different trucks and other things. So our lighting worked for us.
After all those years, the business end of it just becomes routine, but the music part of it would remain your creative end.
We had some darn good groups too. When Raymond left in 1980, Lloyd and I continued on with a four piece band instead of three piece. We had some excellent musicians, and they would normally only stay two years, because they would get bored with what we were playing. You would make records, so people got to know you and that’s the songs people would want to hear when they come to see you, and the other guys sang whatever songs and they got tired of it.
All of those guys that left after two years were all friends though and there’s no hard feelings. In fact, one fella was Darrell Scott. He wrote songs for The Chicks (previously known as The Dixie Chicks) and Travis Tritt. He was from Nashville and he went back to school in Boston and then to Nashville and wrote songs for The Chicks and bands like that.
For more information on the Book, music, performances and more check out MerceyBrother.com