Richard Francis Nolan, singer, songwriter, guitarist (born 4 February 1939 in Corner Brook, NL; died 13 December 2005 in Carbonear, NL). One of Newfoundland’s most prominent music ambassadors, Dick Nolan recorded more than 40 albums, most of which fused country music with traditional Newfoundland, Maritime and Irish folk music. He was the first Newfoundlander nominated for a Juno Award, the first to perform at the Grand Ole Opry and the first to reach the gold level of sales in Canada. His albums Fisherman's Boy (1972), Home Again This Year (1972) and Happy Newfoundlanders (1973) sold more than 50,000 copies each. He received Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Music Industry Association of Newfoundland and Labrador and the East Coast Music Awards.
Early Years and Career
In his early teens, Nolan sang on local radio and in 1954 gave his first performance on CBC Radio. In 1959 he moved to Toronto, where he worked a number of jobs and performed in various nightclubs. In the early 1960s, he and his band, the Blue Valley Boys, were the house band at the Horseshoe Tavern, where they backed such US country stars as Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare and Charley Pride.
Between 1959 and 1969, Nolan made 14 LPs for Arc Records, including two albums of songs by Johnny Cash. Nolan’s Arc recordings featured “truck driving” country material, as well as Newfoundland, Maritime and Christmas songs. He released one album with the Blue Valley Boys, one in duet with his daughter, Bonnie Lou Nolan, and two with Marlene Beaudry. He began to enjoy some success in the mid-1960s; his cover of Hank Snow’s “Golden Rocket” reached No. 2 on RPM’s Country Chart in 1965 and “The Fool” hit No. 8 in 1967.
Nolan returned to Corner Brook in 1968. In the early 1970s, he performed on his own weekly television program on CJON-TV, as well as at nightclubs throughout the province. In 1972, he began to record for RCA (see BMG Music Canada). His first LP, Fisherman's Boy (1972, CAS-2576), included the song “Aunt Martha's Sheep,” composed by fellow Newfoundlander Ellis Coles. Written in a traditional ballad style, but with contemporary Newfoundland references in its lyrics, the comical and folksy song reached No. 35 on the RPM Country Chart and received a BMI Certificate of Honour for song writing. It became Nolan’s signature tune, driving sales of Fisherman’s Boy to more than 50,000 copies. It was followed by the hits “Home Again This Year,” which peaked at No. 9 on the Country Chart in 1972, and “Me and Brother Bill” in 1973.
Nolan returned to Toronto in 1973, and performed in restaurants and nightclubs catering to Newfoundlanders. He appeared on CBC TV’s The Tommy Hunter Show, Elwood Glover’s Luncheon Date and Stompin’ Tom’s Canada, as well as in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry. He released 41 LPs in total through Arc, RCA, Pickwick and Boot Records, including Fisherman's Boy (1972), Home Again This Year (1972) and Happy Newfoundlanders (1973), which each sold more than 50,000 copies; however, they pre-dated Music Canada’s sales certifications system and were not officially certified as gold records. In 1975, he received a Juno Award nomination for Country Male Vocalist of the Year.
In 1992, Nolan performed on the album Singers for Fishermen, a musical response to the closure of the Newfoundland cod fishery. His later recordings included the gospel album Family Bible (1994), as well as Pretty Girls of Newfoundland (1996), Down By the Sea (1998), Christmas Morn in Newfoundland (with Eddie Coffey, 1998) and Newfoundland Good Times (1999). Nolan returned to Newfoundland in 2004 and lived his final days on Bell Island. His songs have been published by Bay Music and Dunbar Music.
Although rich in local colour and in keeping with folk music traditions (as evidenced by a highly personalized rendition of "I'se the B'y"), Nolan's music was by no means exclusively aimed at a Newfoundland audience. His commercial successes, notably "Aunt Martha's Sheep," captured the imagination of listeners across North America. He shared the concert stage with country stars such as Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Stompin’ Tom Connors, among others. His songs are sometimes criticized, perhaps unfairly, for perpetuating stereotypical notions of Newfoundland.
Honours and Legacy
In November 2005, shortly before his death a month later, Nolan was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Music Industry Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. A retrospective compilation entitled The Best of Dick Nolan was released in 2006. In 2009, he was posthumously awarded the Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award at the East Coast Music Awards. Later that year, the Stephenville Theatre Festival launched Fisherman’s Boy, a musical tribute to Nolan’s work.
Nolan enjoyed unprecedented popularity amongst expatriate Newfoundlanders. There can be no denying the magnetic appeal of his rich baritone voice, similar to that of Stan Rogers and Burl Ives, or his lasting impact on Canadian popular culture. He is remembered in his home province as a pioneer who helped open pathways for future generations of musicians on the international stage.
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.