A Visit with Stuart McLean

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When I first started listening to The Vinyl Café, I don’t know how many years ago, it was the stories about Dave and Morley and their friends and neighbours that caught my interest. I would be driving on my way to some errand or appointment, between noon and 1 p.m. on a Sunday, and would happen to turn the radio on – CBC Radio 1 – just as Dave and Morley were putting together a crib or managing calls on a found cell phone.

Upon arriving at my destination I’d sit in my parked car, engine off, radio on, occasionally laughing out loud at Dave’s foibles. I’m sorry to say I’ve had to blame author and Vinyl Café host Stuart McLean for more than one late arrival.

I’ve since followed Dave and Morley and their children, Sam and Stephanie, through first dances, summer jobs, road trips and Christmas parties, tough times and celebrations, in print and over the airwaves, for close to 10 years.

I still love those stories, and the wonderful balance of hilarity and sentiment that Stuart has injected into the fictional family’s goings-on since he created them back in 1994. But in recent years, I’ve become even more enamoured of Stuart’s essays – the missives he uses to open the show, often featuring his travels or thoughts on where he’s been, and the people he’s met.

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From the red soil of Prince Edward Island or Winnipeg’s elm trees, to favourite children’s story authors and a visit to (the late CBC radio broadcaster) Peter Gzowski’s cabin, his personal essays have helped tweak my interest in Canada and travel and, most notably, paying more attention to the details.

So I was delighted to learn, while talking to Stuart on the telephone for a Pear Tree interview last month, that many of these stories will be coming out in book form this month in a volume called The Vinyl Café Notebooks.

“It’s a collection of essays from the last 15 years of Vinyl Café,” Stuart explained. “It’s a collection of my favourites – short pieces that are much more personal. A lot of it comes from me. I’m sharing part of myself.”

Stuart is well known for his appreciation of small, seemingly unimportant moments and things, epitomized by a sign in Dave’s fictional record shop, The Vinyl Café, that reads, “We might not be big, but we’re small.”

Of course, with more than a million listeners every weekend across Canada on CBC Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio, and a growing number of Public Radio stations in the United States, the former Ryerson University professor cannot be accused of being small himself. But he still gravitates to things that are small. Perhaps it’s that appreciation that causes his writing to resonate with so many people. That, and an insatiable curiosity for his surroundings.

While it’s not always possible during short stops, when he can Stuart likes to go for walks in whatever city he’s visiting on tour. He’s usually accompanied by Vinyl Café producer Jess Milton, who shares his love of discovery.

“We don’t go off with a plan,” he said. “We let our feet take us where they take us.”

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His favourite destinations are water spots, whether city fountain or lake, places he can go for a coffee and sandwich to hang out for a while, and book stores, where he likes to give a little bit back to some of his biggest supporters.

Here in the Okanagan, Stuart likes to check out the local wineries and vineyards with his crew, and is quite fond of the countryside.

“The thing that comes to mind from the Okanagan is the countryside. It’s different from what I’m used to, living in Toronto now and growing up in the Laurentian Mountains. It speaks to me in some way. It’s reassuring to be there,” he said.

Being on the road 150 days a year, “which,” he puts into context, “ is about as much as Bob Dylan,” Stuart has seen much of his native Canada and the United States. But there’s still a lot he’d like to see.

Mongolia is one place. Stuart says that over the years he’s practiced “active disknowledge” of the country and plans to one day show up, sans suitcase, and learn about it firsthand.

He also wants to visit Buton someday, where he says they have, instead of a gross national product a “gross national happiness index.” And, closer to home, he’d like to spend some time in Tofino, on Vancover Island, and Newfoundland’s L’Anse aux Meadows, the earliest known settlement in the New World.

Three things that Stuart says enhances his travel experience are to pack light, to talk to people and ask questions wherever he goes, and to travel with friends.

“I’ve always found those things helpful,” he said.

Stuart will be with a whole crew of friends when he comes into the Okanagan next week during his 2010 fall tour – although with all the props and equipment needed to put on a show, he won’t be travelling so light.

He’ll also be bringing some stories from the Vinyl Cafe, and musical guest Matt Andersen.

Stuart will be at the Vernon and District Performing Arts Centre next Monday, 11 October at 7:30 p.m., and at the Kelowna Community Theatre the following Wednesday and Thursday, 13-14 October at 7:30 p.m.  Tickets for the shows are available at ticketseller.ca, and ticketmaster.ca.

In the meantime, click here for a link to a podcast, in honour of Thanksgiving this weekend. If you haven’t heard Dave Cooks the Turkey, well, you just have to!

– Words by Lori-Anne Poirier

– Colour photo by Ilia Horsburgh; black and white photos by Martin Weinhold.

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5 Comments

  1. Pingback: Stuart McLean talks to The Pear Tree! « what looks in

  2. I’m dusting off my Visa for this! Wonderful story 🙂

  3. Kinda the Canadian radio icon, really a part of any canadian’s memories.

  4. I wish I could be there to go see him. We listen to podcasts while we’re here in Guyana!!!

  5. I can’t wait! It’s always a blast, and I enjoy the simple stage setup of a cozy chair, coffee table, some books, a light and a mug of something delicious… It makes you feel like you’re sitting back with Stuart and friends (hundreds of strangers in the audience) in a comfortable living room, just sharing stories. Fantastic way to spend an evening!

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