Doc Walker has experienced numerous changes over the years as the band evolved from small country band from Portage la Prairie to award-winning act with a coast-to-coast following.
But some things remain the same.
"Yesterday I was sticking out of the back of the bus repairing the alternator, so some things never change," frontman Chris Thorsteinson says with a laugh.
When the band members first started touring Canada more than a decade ago they were driving a troublesome 1974 MCI beast they dubbed Frank the Tank. These days they are in a newer 1994 Prevost bus named Ruby equipped with satellite TV and an Internet connection, but no matter the conditions inside the bus and the band's national status, Thorsteinson still plays mechanic when the crap hits the fan belt.
"I learned a lot from fixing that last bus," he says.
Minor vehicle repairs are just some of the things Thorsteinson has learned over the years. Recently he and his bandmates built their own studio in his old elementary school in Westbourne, 34 kilometres northwest of Portage, where they recorded their new album 16 & 1, named after Canada's two main highways.
"The funny thing is, my dad went to school there when it first opened in the '50s and I went there for elementary," says the 36-year-old Thorsteinson. "It closed down about 10 years ago,"
The band -- Thorsteinson, Dave Wasyliw and Murray Pulver -- bought the school a few years ago and used it as a place to store gear and park their bus between tours. They eventually decided it would make a perfect studio, so they purchased a mixing console, some vintage equipment and constructed their own recording space in the four-room, 3,800-square-foot schoolhouse that still includes a wood shop in the basement the public is welcome to use.
"Where I Belong is written about Westbourne," says Thorsteinson, who still lives in town. "I was singing the vocal to that and looking at my parents' house and thinking, 'Wow, my desk was right there.'"
Most of their seventh album was recorded in the new studio, but other parts were cut everywhere from Nashville to various hotel rooms across Canada and on the tour bus, a necessity since they spend so much time on the road.
The band is currently in the middle of the Are You With Me Tonight? cross-country tour, which stops at the Pantages Playhouse Theatre tonight. The band will be playing songs from its new album, some greatest hits and a selection of Christmas material off its new Christmas EP, Remember December.
"We just give them a bit of Christmas," Thorsteinson says. "We're playing it by ear. We're going to try to learn some more songs by the time we get there. Maybe some Elvis, although I do a better Porky Pig Blue Christmas than Elvis."
Neither version is covered on the band's Christmas EP, but both Bob Seger's Get Out of Denver and the Crash Test Dummies' I Think I'll Disappear Now are reworked by Doc Walker on 16 & 1.
Thorsteinson didn't even have to test out his Brad Roberts impression since the Crash Test Dummies vocalist appears as a guest on the song, a cut from the band's 1993 album, God Shuffled His Feet.
Guitarist Pulver played with the Dummies for five years and served as the liaison between Roberts and the band. Roberts was in instantly and sent his vocal tracks to the group via email from his home in New York.
"It's back to the folk part of the Crash Test Dummies," Thorsteinson says. "It kind of has a bit of a country structure. We didn't want to cover a big hit -- you can't really cover Brad's stuff because it's so unique. Being such a fan of the Crash Test Dummies and to hear Brad on the record, I'm like a little kid. I show all my buddies."
It's another highlight in a career that includes a Juno Award for country recording of the year in 2000 for Beautiful Life and 11 Canadian Country Music Association awards, including multiple trophies for group or duo of the year and fan's choice.
Their status has led them to be selected by the Winnipeg Free Press as the ambassadors of the paper's annual Pennies from Heaven campaign to raise money for the Christmas Cheer Board and Winnipeg Harvest.
"It's something we've been wanting to do for a long time," Thorsteinson says. "We do a lot of work with big national charities like the Cancer Foundation, but it's nice to see a direct impact at the local level."
Angels from the campaign will be floating around the Playhouse Saturday collecting donations.
Pantages Playhouse Theatre
Saturday at 8 p.m.
Tickets $46.75 at Ticketmaster