Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Pioneer spirit, prairie resting place

Brandon songwriter bringing Winnipeg-born showbiz legend Bob Nolan home for posthumous honour

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For western-music pioneer Bob Nolan, this really is the end of a long, dusty trail.

The Winnipeg-born western music legend, a founding member of the famed Sons of the Pioneers, died in 1980 in California and, according to details of his labyrinthian life story, never actually knew he was born in Manitoba. But this week, with the help of the current version of Sons of the Pioneers, Nolan will be given a final resting place in his prairie hometown.

Retired radio broadcaster and aspiring country songwriter Brian Bergquist of Brandon is the man behind the effort to bring Bob Nolan home, and he says this weekend will mark an important milestone in Manitoba's country-music history.

"It's a very unique story -- very sad in parts -- and I'm proud of the fact it's coming full circle," Bergquist, 64, said this week in a telephone interview from his Brandon home. "Maybe it's my age talking, but I'm hoping Bob is going to be looking down from cowboy heaven and thanking all the people involved for bringing him home."

As part of a special tribute to Nolan, the Sons of the Pioneers will perform at the Pantages Playhouse Theatre on Monday (7:30 p.m., tickets $53.25 at Ticketmaster).

Nolan, who was born Robert Clarence Nobles in Winnipeg in 1913, survived a broken home, a difficult and transient childhood and a move to the U.S. that, by today's standards, might be considered to have been a cross-border child abduction.

After spending his adolescence in Arizona -- including a broken marriage of his own as a teenager -- he ended up in Los Angeles, where he began working as a lifeguard in Santa Monica while trying to launch a career as a singer.

After answering a newspaper ad seeking "Yodeller for an old-time act, to travel. Tenor preferred," Nolan met a young musician/actor named Leonard Slye, who would later change his name to Roy Rogers. In 1934, they teamed with Tim Spencer to form the Sons of the Pioneers, a group that would become a huge radio sensation with such Nolan-penned tunes as Tumbling Tumbleweeds, Cool Water and There's a Roundup in the Sky.

During his career, Nolan wrote and performed western music and appeared in nearly 100 movies. He retired from show business in 1949 and went into semi-seclusion while continuing to write songs. In 1971, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. He released his last album, Bob Nolan: The Sound of a Pioneer, in 1980 at age 72.

The Sons of the Pioneers, with various rosters of singers and musicians, have continued to perform for more than 70 years. It was Bergquist's love of their traditional musical style that led him to the unusual story of Bob Nolan, and of Nolan's Winnipeg roots.

Also a native of Winnipeg, Bergquist began his broadcasting career in Thompson and Brandon before heading west to posts in Alberta and B.C.; eventually, his radio-related travels took him to the Yukon, where he found inspiration in the work of Canadian poet Robert Service (The Cremation of Sam McGee) and wrote his own book of verse, Poems From the Pumps of My Robert Service Station.

A couple of musicians he'd met in Whitehorse suggested that some of his poems could be turned into songs; with the support of management at the radio station, Bergquist rounded up a makeshift band and recorded a couple of CDs.

Bergquist retired after a 33-year career in radio. He and his wife moved back to Brandon in 2002, where he joined a cowboy poetry group and began performing at local events. After recording another CD, Cowboy Coterie, last year, he decided to send a sample of his music to his favourite group, Sons of the Pioneers.

Much to his surprise, the band's manager listened to the CD and shared it with the group, then later called Bergquist to offer a few words of encouragement.

It was while reading about the Sons of the Pioneers on the band's website ( that Bergquist discovered Nolan's Winnipeg roots and decided it was time for the country-music legend to be fittingly honoured in his hometown.

His research put him in touch with Nolan's grandson, Calin Coburn, who revealed that after Nolan's death, his ashes were spread by the wind in a favourite spot in the Mojave Desert. But Coburn's mother -- Nolan's daughter -- kept part of her father's remains, which remained in the family's possession for more than three decades.

Upon hearing about Bergquist's hometown tribute plans, Coburn and historian Elizabeth Drake McDonald -- who co-created the Bob Nolan website ( -- suggested that Winnipeg would be an appropriate final resting place for the remainder of Nolan's ashes.

"Of course, I'm very honoured," said Bergquist. "I never thought, at the beginning of this, that I would literally be bringing Bob Nolan home."

The Sons of the Pioneers will play five shows in Manitoba -- three in Brandon on Friday and Saturday, one in Winkler on Sunday and then Monday's date in Winnipeg. A private memorial service for Nolan will be held earlier on Monday at the Fort Garry Hotel, and Bergquist revealed that Bob Nolan will also be named the first inductee into the fledgling Manitoba Country Music Hall of Fame.

"And I'm doing something special on 65th birthday, in February -- I'll be establishing the Bob Nolan Western Music scholarship, which will be a yearly contest for writers of western music," he said. "We're going to start it in Manitoba and then work out to the rest of Canada in the second year, and the Sons of the Pioneers themselves will be picking the winning songs." Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 G4


Updated on Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 12:15 PM CDT: adds fact box

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