The Powderhorn Song
Interview and Photography by Philippe Widling
The dark wooden floor of the Powderhorn Saloon is still wet at 10 o’clock in the morning, gleaming in the dimly-lit establishment. As a young lady finishes mopping the floor over in the corner, two cowboys at the bar are st rumming acoustic guitars, their voices filling the saloon with the lyrics of a song they penned a few years back: “Time to sing some country cowboy songs to those Bragg Creek friends of mine …”
A tall thin man pushes the swinging doors and enters the saloon. Not wanting to interrupt the scene, he nods and quietly takes a seat at a small table, while Tim Mitchell and Pat Cardinal strum the last chords of their western song. As they lower their guitars, the last notes of the song fade into the temporary silence enveloping the big room, with Mitchell and Cardinal each helping themselves to a steaming mug of dark coffee. Their hands wrapped around the hot mugs, they begin fondly reminiscing aloud about their life on the road, music, and a Bragg Creek that few of the hamlet’s current residents know much about.
Cardinal has lived in Bragg Creek his entire life. His grandmother used to live just behind the round hall, where pictures of a five year-old Cardinal holding a guitar bring back memories from another era.
“When I was young, I didn’t realize we were poor; I thought we were camping,” recalls Cardinal, who grew up in a tent pitched across the street from the Husky gas station. “Life was tough – it was hard living, hard drinking, and hard dying.
“But we left a mark. This mall we’re sitting in right now: I cleared the trees to build it,” Cardinal relates. Born in South Dakota, where his dad hails from, Mitchell was raised in the Black Diamond/Turner Valley area south of Calgary. “I rodeoed when I was younger, but I decided that I wasn’t gonna make no money doing that, just break some bones. I had the urge to see the country, so I decided to truck,” Mitchell recounts. “A few years ago, some three-and-a-half-million miles later, I said, ‘That’s it, I’m done driving.’
“I was about eight years old when I started playing guitar. I asked my dad, a professional musician who ran a dance hall in Northern Alberta, to teach me,” relates Mitchell. “And with my uncle being a fiddle player, as Hank Jr. would sing it: ‘It’s a family tradition!’
“My love for horses is what originally brought me here,” he continues. “About 11 years ago I came to help a friend to look after some horses in Bragg Creek.
After he left I started outfitting, but five years ago I sold all the horses and started playing some guitar again. “I quit guitar before because I had lost the feeling for it, but Pat pulled me back into it.” “That’s when I came along,” Cardinal picks up. “I can’t read music and he can. I’m surprised I’ve been able to do it this long without being able to read a note.”
“He plays the chords but he doesn’t know what they’re called,” chuckles Mitchell.
A young waitress in jeans and a straw hat strolls by to top up the coffee mugs, while another man enters through the swinging doors and joins the saloon’s first guest of the day at the corner table. By now, country music is steadily piping through speakers on top of the stage opposite the bar. “I’d go visit him at the old mustang ranch that he had behind the community centre,” recounts Cardinal, “and every time I’d go and have coffee with him, that damn guitar would be looking at me. So I’d grab and strum it. When I missed any chords ,he’d go, ‘No, you’re missing a chord.’ “So I’d say, ‘What is it?’, and he would say he didn’t want to play anymore, but he really had no choice but to show me.
“So finally the gig was up, and pretty soon afterwards both guitars came out for good. That’s how we met – through drinking and our of love for music.
“Tim already knew a lot of the old songs; he loved the old songs of Merl Haggard, George Jones … the real country music. “So pretty soon Tim started playing our music and sharing our lifestyle. We get people coming in here from Calgary, who would see these two cowboys playing acoustic guitars in the Powderhorn Saloon, and they would go, ‘Whoa, it’s like walking into a movie set!’”
Cardinal asserts: “Well, my life has been like a movie set. I’ve lived a life that most people only read about or watch in movies. “I rode buffaloes at the Calgary Stampede when I was a kid. I rode steers, I rode bulls and I played country music everywhere I rodeoed.
“I’ve been pretty blessed, you know,” Cardinal reflects, “albeit sometimes I think I’ve been cursed too, and possessed. Some days I can’t move from rodeoing. I can’t get up and it hurts – that’s the cursed part.” Adds Mitchell: “Pat’s written a number of his own songs, and we’ve both done some recording. We started at the Ranchman’s years ago, what’s now known as the ‘Cowboy Church.’”
Cardinal explains: “On Sunday mornings, we’d be looking for a place to eat, because we didn’t want to cook breakfast. So we’d come in and bring the guitars. To walk in and see two cowboys sitting at the bar, playing acoustic guitars and singing old country music songs and cowboy songs … you can’t really buy that today – it’s a really cool thing!
“That’s why we wrote the Powderhorn Song – it’s about the people in here and us playing – and this song became sort of famous around here. People would come in and say, ‘Play that Powderhorn Song, I want my friends to hear it.’” Cardinal continues: “A lot of my songs come from the rodeo, being an Indian, being a cowboy. I used to wear braids and a cowboy hat. In high-school, one of my teachers asked me, ‘Pat, you wear braids, you wear a cowboy hat, what are you? Are you a cowboy or are you an Indian?’
“And so I wrote a song called Indians and Cowboys,” he chuckles. “Inspiration often comes from everyday life and everyday situations. It is often about the sun still coming up, people still falling in love, people getting into a fight, people still liking to drink …”
“And people still falling out of love too,” Mitchell deadpans as Cardinal pauses to take a sip from his coffee mug, quickly rejoining the conversation.
“I’m Cree, I dance Pow-Wow, I grew up a traditional person my whole life – fishing and hunting, which I still do to this day. When you drive into Bragg Creek on that number 8 Highway and you see the malls, the cars, the new businesses, the opportunities, the nature ... I see a very different Bragg Creek. I see home, and for my family it’s been home for 100 years. It’s got a special place in my heart.”
“We’ve got a lot of history here [but] life in Bragg Creek is very different now. I can imagine some of these kids around here today saying one day, ‘Remember those old cowboys who used to come and sing in here?’ One day we’re going to be part of that history too.”