LAST DECEMBER, EWAN CURRIE WAS SITTING IN A BAR in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, well on his way to extreme drunkenness. "Shit was bleak," he says: After six and a half years together and countless touring treks across the vast Canadian landscape, his band, the Sheepdogs, was tens of thousands of dollars in debt and out of breaks. Just a month before, the Sheepdogs had been invited to a showcase of Canadian acts in front of some music publishers; the band had made the trip to Los Angeles, only to play a couple of songs to a listless crowd of industry types. "I was left with this feeling of hopelessness," says Currie, the band's singer. "I saw high school friends get jobs and get married and become adults, and I'm still pursuing this artistic dream where I have no money, no assets and a shitty car I can't even afford to register."
"It felt like nobody was paying any attention," says bassist Ryan Gullen. "It was like, 'What do we do now?'"
At that moment, Currie's cellphone rang. It was Gullen, with some strange news: The Sheepdogs had just been hand-picked as one of the 16 unsigned groups eligible to compete in a North American battle of the bands. The Sheepdogs weren't even aware that they'd entered the competition — a Canadian music manager they'd randomly met at a party in Toronto had submitted their demo. The winner, Currie learned, would be on the cover of ROLLING STONE and score a deal with Atlantic Records. "It was mysterious and surreal, but of course I was intrigued," Currie says, sipping margaritas with his bandmates — Gullen, drummer Sam Corbett and guitarist Leot Hanson — at a burrito place in their remote hometown of Saskatoon. "I couldn't make sense of it. I was so far away from the action in Los Angeles and Toronto and New York. I was like, 'I'm here now in Moose Jaw, so far away from everything. How am I going to be there?'" Currie's bandmates nod when he adds, "This contest was a life preserver for us. It got our juice back."
Now, after more than 1.5 million votes cast and four intense rounds of competition, which included a performance at Bonnaroo and appearances on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, these four longhaired and bearded Canadian dudes in their mid-twenties who worship Seventies-era rock, soul and blues — particularly if it hails from the southern U.S. — have emerged as the winners of the contest, and become the first unsigned band to appear on the cover of ROLLING STONE. And deservedly so: After hundreds of shows — at open-mic nights, 20-capacity bars, hot dog stands, a yurt and even in a tree — the Sheepdogs have perfected their vintage boogie-rock sound, with its flourishes of psychedelia, Allman Brothers-inspired guitar-weaving (they simply call it "guitar-mony") and winding three-part vocal harmonies. Their third album, 2010's Learn & Burn, is immediately gratifying, recalling the Doors, Neil Young, the Beatles, Allen Toussaint and Creedence Clearwater Revival, and their tight live sets have the power to instantly win over classic-rock fans. Their new Atlantic Records labelmate Kid Rock, who mentored the Sheepdogs in the competition, is now a full-fledged fan. "They're exactly where rock & roll should be," he says.
And after I played my three favorite Sheepdogs songs for Kings of Leon's Caleb and Nathan Followill — "I Don't Know," "Please Don't Lead Me On" and "I Don't Get By" — the Kings have invited the band to open their Canadian arena tour in October. "They have a timeless sound, and you can hear their influences from song to song," says Caleb. "I can't wait to hear those harmonies live."
THE SHEEPDOGS HAVE LOGGED hundreds of thousands of kilometers in their white 1998 Dodge 3500 touring van. Nobody's sure of the exact number because the speedometer and odometer no longer function. They use a GPS navigator to monitor their speed. "There are two schools of thought," Gullen says. "You either put it on the dash where the speedometer actually is, but then it slides around, or you put it in the cup holder."
"The emergency-brake light, the engine light, the air-bag light and the oil light are always on," says the soft-spoken Corbett. "And it smells like a combination of weed, cigarettes and old fast-food bags — those really linger." The driver's-side window doesn't work, nor do the AC or heat. Baseball cards from the early 1990s featuring ballplayers with impressive facial hair decorate the Dodge, and a giant dream—catcher hangs from the rearview mirror.
The Sheepdogs' nightmare touring stories are epic. "Basically, anything and everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong for us," says Gullen. They can't agree on the most dispiriting moment, but the time their van's transmission blew on the way to Calgary is near the top of the list. For the last four hours of the drive, they had to stop every 10 minutes and pump in gallons of transmission fluid. They finally ditched the van 15 minutes from town, had friends drive them to the gig, and returned the next day to discover a pile of broken glass in the van's place. Or when they drove 34 hours to Toronto for a big-city club gig and arrived to find that the club was closed that night. (They all peed on the door.) Or the tour when their van was broken into four times. Or the multiple times they've booked shows in Halifax, only to have nobody show up, making the 50-hour drive back to Saskatoon even more depressing. "There's that Delaney and Bonnie song called 'Lonesome and a Long Way From Home,'" says Currie. "I play that song at moments like that."
"Touring has always been a total crap-shoot," says wild child and guitar prodigy Hanson, whose Saskatchewan accent is so thick you sometimes can't understand what he's saying. "We'd play a bar that totally sucked, and people would say, 'You guys should've played this place,' or 'Oh, you should play that night,' or 'Oh, if only Ribfest wasn't going on up the street.' We felt like we were cursed."
The Sheepdogs nearly disqualified themselves from the competition in March, in the midst of the marathon drive from Saskatoon to Toronto, en route to New York for round two of the contest. "We were near Sault Ste. Marie, and a cop coming the other way swings around and pulls us over for obstructed license plate, 'cause we were in a fucking snowstorm," says Gullen, who was at the wheel. "The cop sees my long hair, and the second thing he says to me is, 'Where's the bud?'"
"I was asleep in the back, and I had a half-ounce and some hash," says Currie, who sprinkles weed references in his lyrics and is the band's only pot smoker. "And Ryan figures it's best to 'fess up. So I give the cop my pencil case with the weed." The cop led Currie to his patrol car, where he tried to scare the singer straight. "He was like, 'This could kill you! You're throwing your life away! It's a gateway drug!' He basically made me shit my pants for 20 minutes." The cop handed Currie the bag, ordered him to stomp the dope into the snow and let him off with a warning, and proudly told them, "I knew you had weed in there! You know why? Because down at the precinct they call me the Nose!"
There are incidents whenever they cross the U.S. border. "One time the border agents saw the dream-catcher, which has feathers on it, so we waited there while they brought out the, like, wildlife specialist,” says Gullen. “Then she saw out hairy vests in the back that we sometimes wear onstage, and she thought we were fur traders!" As a parting shot, the border authorities always ask what the name of their band is, and then shoot back, "Never heard of ya."
IT'S THE FOURTH OF JULY, ONE week before the Sheepdogs learn of their victory, and the band is back in Saskatoon, the largest city in the Midwest province of Saskatchewan, some 200 miles north of the Montana border. In winter, the temperature sometimes drops to 40 below, and summer days are warm and pleasant, if not for the infestation of mosquitoes, with the sun shining well into the evening. The population of Saskatoon hovers around 200,000, but Hanson contextualizes, "It's big enough where you can have sex with a girl and, if you're lucky, not see her again for three weeks."
There's not much to do in Saskatoon. The glow-in-the-dark curling rink would have been fun, Gullen says, but it's closed for the summer. "It's a nice city, but it's so isolated," says Currie. "The edge of town really is the edge of town." The biggest source of provincial pride is the Saskatchewan Roughriders, the Canadian Football League team, who play down in the capital city of Regina and just got their asses handed to them in the season opener.
After tacos and multiple margaritas, the four Sheepdogs pile into Gullen's black VW Jetta. They all have their own cars, but the VW is the only ride they can afford to register. It is determined that we'll spend the evening bar-crawling, but first we stop by a package store for a sixer of Pilsner tall boys, and as we walk toward the banks of the South Saskatchewan River some local loser asks what we'll be doing with the sixth beer. Standing on a picnic table near the riverbank, Hanson points across the river at the squat downtown skyline, which is dominated by a Radisson hotel and framed by the antiquated Broadway and Victoria bridges. Currie hastily breaks down a sticky bud and rolls a joint. The rest of them fish Export A cigarettes from their packs, and everybody lights up.
"There's an old saying, 'Saskatoon's got nothing but hookers and hockey players,'" says Gullen, dressed like a rebel hippie with a bandanna headband, denim Lee jacket, and tightfitting jeans with slightly belled bottoms that flare out over his snakeskin boots. When he's not on the road, Gullen makes ends meet by working with the disabled. (Until recently, Currie worked as a bartender; Hanson picks up construction jobs, and Corbett works as a shoe salesman.)
"Joni Mitchell went to high school here," Corbett points out.
"Rowdy Roddy Piper was born here," says Currie with mock pride, disregarding the fact that the former WWF wrestling star wore a kilt and claimed he was Scottish.
Soon, they're bored of talking about Saskatoon, and start interviewing me about American culture.
"How short is Sylvester Stallone? Is he shorter than Tom Cruise?" asks Hanson, whose first name, Leot, has been handed down through his Norwegian ancestry.
Corbett: "Do you guys consider Delta the shittiest airline?"
Currie: "Is Bruno Mars the guy with the hat?"
Gullen: "Are there any inner-city equestrians, jumping over shopping carts and burnt-out cars and shit?"
Hanson: "Does Nashville have cockroaches?"
Currie, now quite stoned: "I never really thought about the term 'cockroach.' There's 'cock' and there's 'roach.' If you break it down it's not so bad."
"Yeah," says Gullen. "Two things you like to smoke."
After about 10 minutes, a swarm of mosquitoes has won the battle and we repair to the Yard and Flagon Pub, one of many bars and clubs that line Broadway Street, the three-block cultural epicenter of Saskatoon. The Sheepdogs have played every place on the strip, save for a run-down dive called Vangelis. ("My friend calls it Vagi-smellys," says Currie.) Despite the inherent tensions that arise from playing in a band together, the Sheepdogs seem to get along well. "A girl told me a story once about Eskimos," says Currie. "How they build up anger toward each other, but the weather is so bad that they redirect all of their anger toward that one common enemy. So, I guess, dealing with all of our problems, the constant troubleshooting… maybe that helps us not sit around and fester all of our hatred for each other."
Three days earlier, on Canada Day, the Sheepdogs played their biggest hometown show ever, drawing more than 3,000 fans to an outdoor stage downtown. The ROLLING STONE competition has captivated Saskatoon, and much of Canada. Friends and strangers approach them in the Yard or pull their cars over to congratulate them on reaching the finals. The placard in front of the local KFC reads VOTE FOR THE SHEEP DOG! and they were just featured on the cover of a local magazine, wearing suits and smoking cigars. They even have the support of Canada's ultraconservative prime minister, Stephen Harper. "We met him in Ottawa, where the parliament is," says Gullen. "We were opening a show for Bachman and Turner — they don't tour with the Overdrive anymore. His wife told us that they'd voted, and we gave them Sheepdogs pins."
"We got our picture taken with them," says Currie, "which is akin to having your picture taken with Bush. I mean, people really hate this guy in the artistic community. He's cut funding to the arts. But we're not superpolitical. And it was Sunday night and he was at a rock & roll show, so that has some merit, right?"
It's after midnight now, and we hop in a cab. The band repeatedly apologizes for taking me to the Colonial, but nevertheless we're on our way. It's a scummy roadhouse in a strip mall, less a singles bar than a sex farm for blithering drunks. Inside, it's a social melting pot: toothless degenerates, binge-drinking collegians and alcoholic members of the First Nations. One short, muscular white guy in a spandex T-shirt has a tribal tattoo across his face that would make Mike Tyson blush. "He's probably from Delisle," says Gullen. Blaring through the speakers is the awful yet extremely popular Canadian band the Tragically Hip, and occasionally the DJ will allow some inebriate to sing karaoke.
The Sheepdogs down congratulatory Jager shots at the bar, and Currie drags me to the DJ booth to duet with him on "As Days Go By," the theme song from Family Matters. Gullen joins us for Steely Dan's "Peg," with everyone trying to nail Michael McDonald's original backing vocals. Nobody knows where Hanson is, but he eventually resurfaces outside the bar. He was 86'ed from the Colonial after bouncers spotted him with an illicit substance in a bathroom stall. They won't let him back in, so we're off to the band's friend's recording studio for more drinking and smoking, and an ill-advised jam session. At 3 a.m., Gullen calls it a night by vomiting all over the steps of the studio.
YOU CAN'T ESCAPE THE REMOTENESS of Saskatoon — and the lack of opportunities that comes with that — in the songs Ewan Currie writes: "I don't get by, I just sit around getting high," he sings in the melancholy country rocker "I Don't Get By." "There's a world outside my window/I guess I'll languish right here in obscurity," he muses on "Learn & Burn," the title track from their 2010 album. Sitting in his basement man-cave, he says, "I guess my lyrics are subconsciously driven. I know it sounds arrogant, but I always felt like I had creative powers, like I had a good songwriting gift and a good voice and could create some tasty things, but after a while I just felt like it wasn't going to get across."
Currie is six feet three and barrel-chested; he's one of the younger members of the group but its undisputed leader, and writes all the songs. He still lives in his mother's house, which he sums up as "embarrassing." The basement is all his, and guitars, basses, an alto sax and other instruments are strewn on the garish red carpet. Against the wall is the PC that the band used to record Learn & Burn. He's wearing an Allman Brothers T-shirt, reclining on his La-Z-Boy. A Leon Russell record rests on his lap, and he's using it as a platform to twist a joint with a coconut-flavored rolling paper. "My Guy, My Girl," the mash-up by the Supremes and the Temptations, spins quietly on the turntable. His bookshelves are filled with paperback autobiographies by sports and music legends. "I love the salacious ones, like about the carousing '86 Mets," he says. "And as far as harrowing and shocking goes, David Crosby's book is up there with Requiem for a Dream." In an adjacent bedroom Currie sleeps alongside his prized possessions: more than 600 of his favorite LPs. Eyeing an old Band album, he sighs. "I hate to say it, but Levon Helm is my favorite," he says, singling out the only non-Canadian in the Band.
CURRIE INVITES ME TO HIS BACK patio — where his mom won't smell it — to smoke the tropical-flavored joint. There, he tells me his wildest dream: to travel to Memphis to visit Al Green's church and the Stax studios, and bum around the Deep South. Currie has written songs like "Southern Dreaming" and "Catfish 2 Boogaloo,"but the contest-sponsored trip to Bonnaroo was the first time he'd been anywhere east of Austin and south of New York. "For some reason I've always found the South fascinating," he says. "As a kid, I listened to a lot of Creedence, a lot of Kinks, and the Stones when they were reflecting the blues. And I remember as a kid watching Song of the South, the Disney movie that you can't find anymore now because it's so racist." Their set at Bonnaroo was a smash success, with a crowd of 3,000 chanting "Sheepdogs" and waving Canadian flags. The only downside was that Currie was often confused for My Morning Jacket's Jim James.
Currie was born in Australia and moved to Saskatoon at age 11. He and Gullen attended different schools, but through a regional program they'd meet once a week to rehearse in a concept band. "We both played clarinet," Currie says. "We were studs." Their friendship blossomed at Evan Hardy high school, where Currie played defensive line on the football team while also starring in shows like Bye Bye Birdie and The Sound of Music. Currie was inspired to start a rock group after seeing a terrible cover band play the Strokes' "Last Nite." "I was just like, 'Holy fuck,'" says Currie. '"I could get up there and sing way better than this douchebag.'" Currie and Gullen reconnected at the University of Saskatchewan, where they met Corbett. "Sam had a gift certificate for a music store, so he rented a drum kit," says Currie, who recently earned a B.A. in psychology. "Ryan used Sam's old bass, and I'd just gotten an electric guitar. We were like, 'Hey, let's start a supershitty rock band!'"
They rehearsed in Corbett's parents' basement, where a "No farting" sign still hangs behind the drum kit. They worked out their own tunes and jammed on garage-band rites of passage like "Suzie Q" and "Sunshine of Your Love," as well as covering contemporary stuff like the Strokes' Is This It, early Black Keys and Kings of Leon's 2003 debut, Youth & Young Manhood. Soon they were honing their chops at open-mic Tuesday nights at Lydia's. They called their trio the Breaks, and released an EP in 2006.
During that summer, they spotted Hanson at a party playing acoustic guitar. "I was just jamming some Kings of Leon songs from their first album," says Hanson, whose nickname is Squirrel. "Then Ewan and Ryan and Sam just joined in. They knew all the songs. We were singing every part. We were smashed." Hanson ended up barfing in a popcorn bowl that night, but the next day he was in the band, and soon quit his job as a sheet-metal worker. They started touring constantly, venturing farther and farther away from Saskatoon, and rechristened themselves the Sheepdogs. "That's when we started the 'guitar-monies,'" says Gullen. "People really responded to that. All of a sudden we were making the kind of music we were listening to."
"The first paying gig we got was opening for the fucking Mudmen," says Currie, "a punk band with two fat, identical brothers who play bagpipes."
AT THE COPPER MUG, THE SHEEP-dogs battle their hangovers with giant 32-ounce glass "schooners" of beer, 25-cent chicken wings and a plate of poutine, a local delicacy of french fries covered in cheese curds and brown gravy. Currie blasts CCR on the jukebox, and Charlotte, a redheaded waitress from the Yard, joins him for a low-key first date. As a decoration, the bar actually features a rusty trombone, which sparks a conversation about freaky sex lingo. Charlotte then ingratiates herself with the bandmates by asking if they've ever heard of a "Monroe Transfer," but she's too shy to define it.
We take a cab back to Broadway to check out open-mic night at Lydia's. "It's always fun to make fun of the open-jammers," says Hanson. (The Sheepdogs entertain themselves on the road by listening to shitty demos and tearing them apart.) Outside Lydia's a guy is playing the theme from Deliverance on his banjo, and inside a kid in a Strokes T-shirt warbles crappy emo songs. At about 1 a.m., the MC asks the Sheepdogs if they want to play. When they get onstage, Charlotte says, "From far away, they all look like Jesus."
In the past seven months, the Sheepdogs have gone from clubs to theaters to festivals, and they'll soon be rocking arenas. Tonight, though, they're back where they began, open-mic night. Corbett repositions the drums as the rest of the band tunes up borrowed instruments. Within a minute they've launched into a power set that includes "Who?" "How Late, How Long" and "I Don't Know." It's late, but the 30-odd people at Lydia's rush the stage and dance along. Currie plays an acoustic, sitting on a stool, and sings effortlessly, while Gullen thumps his bass and bounces to the beat. An old drunk headbangs along in the front. Hanson becomes frustrated when his acoustic slips out of tune and, midsong, ventures into the crowd to find a replacement. The trio play on, and Hanson rejoins them with an electric, just in time for a blistering solo on "How Late, How Long."
For 20 minutes, the Sheepdogs can forget about their debt, the ROLLING STONE competition and a grueling 34-hour van drive to Toronto that awaits them.
"We are the Sheepdogs," Currie says between songs. "You might know us from the cover of Saskatchewan's Fine Lifestyles magazine."