Resurrecting cowboy mythology

By Lawrence Bailey

The lonesome cowboy is a central figure of Western iconography. He is the man who roams the countryside, patrols the wild frontier land and keeps us all safe. He is rugged and he is quiet. He is the hero of horizons and the king of sundown. Strange then that one such character was raised in the late 20th century in downtown Calgary. Matt Burgener has long been a man about town, but has only recently begun to gain cult-like notoriety as his honky-tonk alter ego, country musician Matt Masters.

"I’ve got to hand it to my folks, they’re into high art and high culture but are still willing to go to the Night Gallery," explains the lanky crooner over a cup of coffee. "They’ve been there more often than I can count and that’s really cool. I mean, my dad taught me how to play guitar when I was a kid."

After a childhood spent primarily in Calgary, trying this and trying that, Masters found himself following a girl to Vancouver. While the girl is long gone, he discovered something about himself while out on the West Coast–a desire to be a country singer.

"I wrote my first song in Vancouver and I named myself in Vancouver, too," he says, reminiscing about the early days. "It had important ramifications into the making of my persona. Matt Masters was initially theorized in Vancouver, although it was still two years before anything really got movin’."

But the ball was rolling, and Matt started to define this Masters character–this alter ego. He began cultivating the aspects of Masters that existed in him and gradually an almost schizophrenic symmetry emerged. There were two clear and distinct Matts now, almost like Clark Kent and Superman. But was Masters taking over?

"There are definitely parts of me that are becoming Matt Masters. But there are parts of me that are very much not Matt Masters as well," he says cryptically, pausing to think of an example. "I mean, I’ve written for local publications and I wasn’t signing it Masters. I was signing it Burgener because I wasn’t a cowboy when I wrote it. I was the politically-bred, boarding-school taught, upper middle class history grad.

"I’ve always found it interesting how people redefine their identity," he continues. "I’m in the midst of a pretty serious redefinition. Half the people I know think I’m a cowboy–and I grew up in downtown Calgary."

So why, one wonders, would he cultivate such a persona? This is a man who strides out on stage decked to the nines in cowboy gear and belts out songs about red boots and Saskatchewan in an exaggerated twang. What is it about the whole culture-about the cowboy myth–that grips him so?

"Cowboys in Calgary are so fake. There are no more wranglers in town. They’re all out working, they aren’t at the university or the Ship and Anchor," he states. "But I can put on a cowboy hat, a pair of cowboy boots and sing some cowboy songs and people are willing to give me some sort of connection to a 100-year-old dead tradition. I’m not an old cowboy, I’m a 26-year-old urbanite incorporating my local mythology into a stage show. I think Calgarians need heroes, they need cowboy heroes."

Simply put, Matt Burgener loves country music and he loves entertaining. Matt Masters is the perfect vehicle for this, the perfect vehicle for the man who proudly declares that he’s "an entertainer, not a musician." But will it ever be more than a fun thing to do on the side?

"I often wondered that–until last summer," he admits, as a grin slowly creeps over his face. "Then last summer I realized I could make a living off this.

"As I approach it as a profession, there are doors that open up. In late March, I played as the closing entertainment for a conference by the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies and that paid better than the Gallery or Ship ever has. I’m really lucky that my music is so transferable, I can play to seniors as well as 22-year-old hipsters. I couldn’t do that if I were in an indie rock band or a metal band."

With shows rolling more frequently, this cowpoke has eyes that get bigger with each passing day. His star is beginning to rise, thanks to two and a half years of hard work, good fortune and more charisma, both on stage and off, than anyone could possibly fathom. So, is there success around the corner? Is there a record deal hiding in the shadows?

"I haven’t received any calls yet," he laughs at the prospect. "But I’d take a major label deal in a heartbeat. I mean, there’s the whole story about selling out, about some record label owning you and your creativity, but compare that to working as a waiter to pay the bills. Sure your music is your own, but 45 hours of your week are owned by Joe Boss at the restaurant. If you’re washing dishes, what’s so ‘keeping it real’ about that?

"If there’s any way I could get a million people to hear a song of mine I’d be a fool not to take it. But I’m not too concerned with making it big right away. Success comes in two ways: on a golden plate or by earning it, and I don’t mind paying my dues."

And what’s on deck for Mr. Masters in the immediate future?

"I have these great visions in my head of spending a day driving around rural Nova Scotia and getting myself booked for a week, playing every night," he says. "Right now, I really want to get out of town for a bit; I’ve been here for almost three years. But Calgary is my home, so I’ll always end up back here."


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