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The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern: A Complete History

By By David McPherson

Dundurn Press, 208 pages,

Reviewed by David McPherson, December 2017

Find it on Amazon

The Horseshoe Tavern is a modest throwback bar, which has endured through Toronto's growth as an international city. Even today, it exists as an island amongst shiny steel and urban growth. It shares its DNA with the countless anachronistic outposts that dot the cityscapes of North America: reminders of barnstorming days of country and western and bluegrass artists. Nashville's Station Inn, situated as it is in the chrome and glass of the modern-day Gulch might be a close analog for those that are unfamiliar with Toronto.

This circumstance alone does not warrant a full history, but David McPherson has taken The Horseshoe and allowed its walls to talk, giving the reader and wonderful tour through country music from the mid-20th century to now. This conceit, when executed well, as McPherson does, gives a rich feeling of place and time. And, despite being a chronicle of country and western acts for the last 60 years, McPherson's telling has a uniquely Canadian flavor, which distinguishes his tales from a normal telling of bands and acts.

The Horseshoe had a dalliance with rock and punk acts, most notably in the 1980s and 90s, but its bread and butter was country and western music. Countless other clubs came and went in Toronto, but the Horseshoe persisted. Ownership changed, sometimes in bizarre circumstances. One owner handed off the keys to a record shop owner in suburban Toronto and went to New York to start The Hard Rock Cafe with Dan Ackroyd. The new owner has the keys and $200 Canadian in his pocket.

"The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern" is a product of its subject; hits and misses, forgotten house bands (The Blue Rodeo) and legends (Link Wray, Bill Anderson, Ernest Tubb, Willie Nelson). McPherson tells plenty of stories, some of them undoubtedly true.

But, the real narrative will be supplied by the reader. "The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern" is an exercise in literary pointillism; the reader will recall bands or places or slices in time connected with the Horseshoe and relate her own experience in music to the bubbling dysfunctional distemper of a dive bar that enjoyed remarkable longevity in the music world. It was ofttimes messy, and the future uncertain for the acts and the Horseshoe's management, but the music and the accompanying scene survived.

For this reason, the reader should be grateful to McPherson for preserving some of the meshuggos of the Horseshoe. He writes clearly and directly. Like all authors, he depends on the cooperation and memories of Those Who Were There. A place like the Horseshoe is unlikely to have a resident historian or even someone who remembers who played there last Tuesday night. So, McPherson's dexterous unearthing of some of The Horseshoe Tavern's history is most welcome.