Joey Only can be called a lot of things, but a fake ain’t one of them.
Born in a southern Ontario swamp to a father who “cuts deer” for a living, Only grew up a punk-rock-activist-cum-country-singer.
“I think a lot of activists don’t like things like trucks and shooting deer,” laughed Only. “But I think that’s great.”
And after a brief stint in Whitehorse, his rural roots are on fire.
“I’d like to come back and stay — get a big truck and shoot some moose,” he said.
But shooting moose is not why he’s here.
Brave New Works flew Only north to perform at its December 29th show.
“They brought me up here but gave me no recommendation on when to leave,” said Only, who is currently crashing on a new acquaintance’s couch in Riverdale.
And while here, he has not been wasting his time.
Following his Whitehorse debut, Only became involved in last Saturday’s John Graham benefit, which raised $1,085 to support Graham during his house arrest in Vancouver.
“I am a close friend of Graham’s and have been very active in the Vancouver courtrooms,” said Only.
Graham is currently appealing his possible extradition to the US, where he is charged, many believe unjustly, with first-degree murder.
Only’s activism began when he was still in his early teens, playing in a southern Ontario punk band called The Persecuted.
“We were an incredibly small town little band,” he said.
After a few years in university — studying art and philosophy — Only returned to the country.
“I was tired of cities and noises and cars and lights, the destruction of all that is good,” he said.
He began playing old country tunes, inspired by the man in black, Johnny Cash.
Involved in a movement against Ontario premier Mike Harris, he was also an active member of No One is Illegal and the Tenant Action Group.
“We were fighting evictions and welfare cuts, and 15 or 20 of us would march into the welfare office and demand to see the executive director,” he said.
“There are ways to skip the bureaucratic process, because it doesn’t work, people can’t wait three months for cash they need now.”
Only believes in fighting, he wants to see action and does not worry too much about legalities.
Although this attitude has effected plenty of positive change, it has also gotten him into trouble.
“My step-dad cut-up 200 deer one year and gave the money to mom and said bring your son home for a visit,” said Only.
“So I came home and played a bunch of shows and that’s when I got thrown in jail. It was a bit of a bummer.”
Arrested after a Montreal riot in 2004, Only still faces a lengthy court battle.
“Lots of resources go into fighting something, and the process is really the punishment, regardless of the outcome,” he said.
Only’s probation has affected his touring schedule and, during his brief stint in jail, he even missed a booked show.
But this actually worked in Only’s favour.
“When you’re a country-folk singer people want to see that you’re radical and people actually like the fact that you have that reputation and are a bit off the cuff,” he said.
“I don’t mind cursing a little bit, drinking a little bit on stage, having a good time — people like when you are a real country boy and know the slang and like trucks.
“Then they know you’re the real thing.”
Only has been living in Vancouver since 2002.
“My cats were eaten by wild animals and my cabin was freezing,” he said, explaining why he left rural Ontario.
In Vancouver, Only became an active member of the Anti-Poverty Coalition after spending some time in squats and on the streets, where he caught pneumonia
A well-known activist, he even found himself on US no-fly lists, after the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001.
“There is a blurry line between terrorism and political action,” he explained.
It was after his Montreal arrest that Only really changed gears.
“I began to focus on being an activist songwriter,” he said.
“I have been travelling and playing and it is not all political, although I am often hired by unions and political groups to speak the truth as I see it.”
With his dark hair tucked under a green cap, reminiscent of communist China, Only looks more like a punk than a country singer.
“I like to wear my army pants on stage,” he said.
And that’s a suitable look for a singer writing acoustic cowboy punk tunes.
“Traditional country no longer exists on the radio; it is all Nashville glam pop,” he said.
Only is also critical of folk music,” airy, light, soft music that doesn’t drive home very deeply.
“I like to play old-time country songs with a bit of hedge and flair.”
Although Only admits he can get in people’s faces about stuff, he does not rub people the wrong way when on stage.
“My goal is to meet people where they’re at, encourage them with what they’re doing and inspire them to step forward and take pride in the old ways,” he said.
“The old ways are being lost, the old music, the simple living, the peace and quiet, hunting, fishing, loving the land.
“We’re at a point right now on this planet where I just can’t allow myself to
carry on like nothing’s out of the ordinary.”
So, Only is going to keep singing his politically driven songs.
“I feel I should do whatever I can do, even if we all fail and the next ice age comes and half the population of the planet is wiped out, at least I can die saying I tried and maybe a few other people will try because of that,” he said.
“I don’t know what else to do besides talk to people and try to give hope.”
Only has been playing at Paddy’s Place for the past few weeks.
“I do find that playing in small towns is way better than playing in the big cities,” he said.
“People appreciate it. In Toronto people can watch any act they want, but we show up in these small towns and people care you made the effort to come up and be with them — that’s the best part, meeting people who are just doing what they do.”
Only will be performing at Paddy’s Place Friday beginning at 9:30 p.m.
The show is free.