This is the song that more than any other convinced me to do a full album, after we had finished recording “Say I Do.” Originally I was just going to focus on that song and release it as a single and video, but “Cariboo” kept going through my head, such a simple heartfelt tune, I just knew I had to record it too as a fitting memorial for my father. And if we were going back in the studio for one more song, might as well do eight more and make it worth it!
When my dad, Gordon Perry, passed away in June of 2016, one of the ways I processed my grief was writing, as I had with my mother the year before. I wrote two new songs about him and our loss which, along with several more I wrote while mom was going through her year-long battle with cancer, will come out at some future date, packaged together as some kind of “In Memoriam” EP (it’s still too fresh now). We had his service a couple of months later, so I had time to think about what I would do for that – I knew I would have to pick up his guitar (the first guitar I ever touched, my guitar now but forever his) and play a song or two. I did end up playing one of the songs I wrote, fresh with grief, called “Picture of a Life” – very personal (Gord was a well-known photographer in the Quesnel area), pretty sad. Not ready to record.
But since he had also left behind volumes of poetry I thought I should go through and find something I could set to music in his honor, a posthumous father-son collaboration. There are some good candidates for songs among his poems, many in the range of cowboy poetry, others deeply thoughtful, more of them whimsical or outright silly (he loved Ogden Nash). But one stood out, a poem about the homeland he loved so much, written from the perspective of missing that home, and longing to see it again. As I read “My Cariboo” the longing and nostalgia in its lines applied as much to my thoughts of him as they did to our shared homeland, BC’s beautiful Big Country of forest, lakes, mountains and sprawling open range that we call The Cariboo.
I started in the key of C, a key that I can’t seem to avoid when I think of country or my dad’s generation and preferred music – it’s just where I naturally go. I played something slow, singing the lines simply, made the usual changes to F and G, but it wasn’t really clicking. The moment it took off was when I played around that open C-chord with some riffing notes, hammer-ons and pull-offs in a style I distinctly remember my dad playing himself. He loved that kind of melodic guitar playing, and though he was no master of our instrument, this was something he could do well – to a young me, supposed to be sleeping up in my room, this is what my dad would sound like downstairs late at night “noodling” around on the git-box.
What changed the song for the better was shedding the sadness and slow dirge-like tone – that happy riff and a good uptick in speed made it more of a celebration of the life he loved, exactly as I know he would’ve wanted it. In fact the ending of my rendition, where the pace picks up even more to a country-style rave-up, was a conscious addition I made knowing I would be playing it for all the people at his Celebration of Life in Quesnel – he doesn’t want you all out there shedding tears and mourning, let’s put a little smile on some faces! That and the laugh I let slip as we transition to the end part wipes away the last trace of sad reflection (also a nod to the laughter added at the end of George Harrison’s “Within You Without You”).
The verses all worked perfectly with my new song structure, his words fit remarkably well and unlike other poems set to music did not have to be reworked (I did change one line only, which one I’ll leave open for guessing). But those five verses were the whole of the poem and I needed a chorus. I found the chords that would work (nothing new or inventive, these are pretty standardized forms), but wasn’t sure what words I should add to the whole piece so I started out just singing “ooo-oooooh” in a sort of falsetto pseudo-yodel. Then of course I realized I could sing the word “Cariboo-oo” itself with that high “ooo” continuing the semi-yodelling. In the end I didn’t need to add many words, I simply continued the theme of calling and turned it into “recalling” to close out the refrain – “My Cariboo / How I’ve been recalling you.” Right in line with Dad’s theme; perhaps bringing in a little of my own nostalgia for the land where I grew up.
The still-life photograph (of all my mementos and story-pieces relating to songs on this album) includes a portrait taken of the 67th Scots Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force to World War I, with the hand-written caption at the bottom, “The Cariboo Boys.” They were pioneers living on the frontier (The Last Best West), so very few of those brave men you see standing there (my grandfather among them) were born anywhere near the Cariboo, but they rose when called to defend the land, or at least its governing nation’s interests.
My father was born in the bosom of the Cariboo, and so was I; but Hugh Henry Perry chose it as his homeland, though he was born thousands of miles and an international border away. And when the crunch came, he joined up with his fellow homesteaders in defense of his adopted country, of the rough and wild land they all loved. He was American still, but fought for the British as a Canadian – really, as self-identified “Cariboo Boy.” The land where he chose to make his life, he bequeathed as a legacy to my father (and all those uncles, aunts and many cousins!) which my father passed on to me. Home is what you love.