I interviewed Gil Risling and his brother, Bill, in January, 2018, at my usual place – the Co-op Café. It was quite a congenial affair – about three hours. I finished Bill’s remarkable life and musical career and then turned my attention to Gil. Heck of a guy Gil is (as well as his brother Bill). About halfway through the interview, the Louisiana Hayride professional touring group worked its way into our conversation. I remarked, “We went to see them at the Dekker Centre a couple of months ago. Really great show and a heck of a lead guitar player.”
“Thank you,” said Gil.
“Thank you? What do you mean thank you?”
“Well, that’s what I do in the show – play guitar and sing; at least that’s my role with Louisiana Hayride – at least for now,” he grinned. He added that he and his wife Lori own and operate the show.”
“Really? Seriously?” What was I doing here in the presence of a professional musician who could play guitar and I, in comparison, couldn’t?
“Yep. Really,” said Gil. “We travel all over western Canada.” Once I got over my initial surprise, we got down to the serious business of interviewing for a great story in the Regional News-Optimist.
Gil was born the youngest of eight on April 16, 1949, to Rochus Risling and Barbara Risling (nee Schneider) at Wilkie. He took his Grades 1 to 6 at Uzleman School, located one and a half miles southwest of their farm – six and one half miles northwest of Revenue. He completed Grades 7 and 8 at Revenue School. When Revenue School closed down, the students were bussed to Tramping Lake. Gil completed Grades 9 to 12 at Tramping Lake School. Gil noted with some humour that during Grades 1 to 5 he and his brother Bill hauled water every morning in cream cans – setting a cream can on an old car hood pulled as a sleigh one and a half miles across fields over snow banks and telephone lines. The boys hauled water to school every day for 25 cents a can – good money for two young boys in those days.
Sports were a big part of Gil’s life. In 1965, the Tramping Lake volleyball team won the provincial championship, beating St. Thomas College from North Battleford in the final. The games were played at the University of Saskatchewan Physical Education Gymnasium. Tramping Lake beat out all of the Saskatchewan teams, including Saskatoon and Regina, in order to advance to the provincial finals. Gil was only in Grade 9 in 1965, but he was playing with the seniors as their setter. Tramping Lake didn’t have a gym so Gil practiced outside. He also had a passion for fastball and at age 14 was a left-handed windmill pitcher with the Revenue Falcons, winning the senior west central championship three years later at age of 17. Later, while living in Calgary, he pitched fastball against teams from Calgary, High River, Okotoks and Airdrie.
At Tramping Lake, Gil was taught by the Ursiline Sisters. They were a strict Catholic order and had a major effect on Gil’s development as a student and musician, instilling in him a sense of duty and a strong work ethic. The Sisters were big on music. Gil had been playing guitar and singing country and pop from the age of seven; Johnny Cash was his idol. The Sisters took a special interest in their young charge and schooled him in the basics of classical theory and practice. So began Gil’s musical journey in the classical field, which, in turn, led him to the Banff School of Fine Arts on a full scholarship for two summers studying technique and repertoire – opera.
After high school, Gil was accepted into the Banff School of Fine Arts on a music scholarship. His intent was to pursue a career in opera, encouraged by his former teachers and the Saskatchewan Music Festival Association. (That’s right, folks, opera for a future consummate country and rock n’ roll singer).
In 1968, Gil worked at the Saskatoon Co-op store and took singing lessons. In the summer of 1968, he moved to Banff to attend the Banff School of Fine Arts. In the fall of 1968, Gil moved to Calgary where he worked at the Hudson Bay and took singing lessons from Algar Higgins. Gil studied again at the Banff School of Fine Arts in the summer of 1969. In the fall he moved back to Calgary where he took lessons and worked at Silver Automotive, an auto parts business. He also played in a rock band called Shilo that played gigs in Calgary and area. Gil also performed with the Young Canadians around Calgary and at the Calgary Stampede. He was also fortunate enough to be awarded a first place certificate in the LADE. Gil sang opera in the musicals My Fair Lady and The King and I at the Calgary Jubilee Auditorium.
In 1972, Gil landed a job as a DJ and TV newscaster with CKSA Radio and Television in Lloydminster. It was a good training station for Gil who wanted a start in the business – news, commercials, interviews, weather. Gil was with CKSA for two years. Ernie Ford, who worked for CKSA for 30 years, was the program director and Wes Saunders was the news director. CKSA was a versatile company, covering rodeos, sports events, musical performances and more, a good place to gain experience.
Next, Gil was offered a job as a freewheeling anchor with CJFB Television in Swift Current. He did everything: news, sports, interviews, weather, etc. Gil was with CJFB Television for a number of years. The money was good – $575 a month six days a week.
In 1977, Gil opened “Sounds Good,” a state of the art music enterprise. It was located in the Wheatland Mall in Swift Current. The store sold a full line of equipment – PA systems, a full line of guitars and accessories, organs and “church stuff” (equipment and music for churches). Gil hired music teachers to instruct mostly guitar and keyboards.
Gil sold the business in 1980 and went back to work for CJFB. In 1983, hge was offered the production manager’s job with a local radio station, CKSW 570. He worked there as a production manager and later moved to sales. But Gil’s first love was music. He entertained with his one-man band all across southern Saskatchewan and part of Montana.
In 1991, Gil moved to Salmon Arm, B.C.,to work for the Salmon Arm Observer newspaper. He logged two years with the Observer and then moved over to the Salmon Arm radio station, CKXR, as a news anchor. Gil was employed by CKXR (Copper Island Broadcasting), until 2000 at which time the station was sold to a big company, Tel-Emedia of Quebec, a conglomerate that bought more than a hundred smaller stations.
After leaving the radio station, Gil started his own business in 2001, manufacturing Northern Lights Campfire Colours. A package sold for $1.69. His large customers Canada wide included Canadian Tire, Home Hardware and dollar stores. The business grossed $375,000 in the first year of operation.
Gil closed business in 2009 due to competition from China and, with his wife Lori, formed the Louisiana Hayride – a great show of professional singers and instrumentalists. Louisiana Hayride grosses six figures annually so it’s not only a great draw for its performances, it’s highly successful financially in a high-risk industry. The cast and crew with some 500 concerts under their belt are now in their 10th year touring theatres all across western Canada, returning with new shows year after year. The members of Louisiana Hayride include: Gil Risling owner frontman - lead guitar and lead vocals; Andrea Anderson, vocals; William Brookfield, keyboard, banjo, guitar, vocals; and Derek Pulliam, stand up bass, bass guitar and vocals.
The Hayride has a Battlefords connection through Troy Wakelin, singer/songwriter and Curtis Kopp touring drummer, bass player and singer. The boys toured with the Hayride for a year and are now committed to other projects. Lori Risling is the creator of the show and is the heart and soul of Louisiana Hayride. She books venues, books musicians, does payroll, does everything it takes to keep the Hayride rolling down the highway. In addition, she engages the audience as MC.
Gil said “the Dekker Centre in North Battleford is the best place to play in western Canada.” The stage presence is the most important thing but Gil noted that you can back your trailer right into the loading dock and unload your equipment in a warm environment. Gil and the band have nothing but good to say about the Dekker Centre and the audiences it attracts.
On a personal note, Gil and Lori were married on May 9, 1981. They have three children, Shannon (Gil's daughter), Melissa and Mathew and five grand children, Riston, Kayden and Emerson Cey, Avolena and Radick. When he has time, Gil’s hobbies include hunting game birds, and fishing in the northern lakes. Gil, his wife and the band also combine work and recreation. They have done four cruises, two of which the band was hired to perform the Louisiana Show. It was a great experience.
It has been a distinct pleasure and honour to have written the life story and musical journey of Gil Risling. On top of his extraordinary life and many successes in business and now music, his first love, he is in possession of a gregarious and warm personality – a fine gentleman. It has been an honour.
The complete Hayride spring tour schedule can be found at www.hayrideshow.com.
The North Battleford Show is on Tuesday, June 4 at the Dekker Centre. This show tends to sell out so get your tickets now at the Dekker Centre, 306-445-7700 or online www.dekkercentre