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As his star rises, Canadian country singer Owen Riegling returns to his roots

Written by on May 14, 2024

TORONTO — Owen Riegling wants to savour this fleeting small-town Canadian moment.

Not every day is a rising country music star afforded the chance to rewind their career just as it’s picking up speed. But in a way, that’s exactly what the 25-year-old from Mildmay, Ont., is doing this month.

As his nostalgic feel-good single “Old Dirt Roads” climbs to No. 2 this week on Mediabase’s country radio chart for Canadian acts, Riegling has gone back to his roots by playing shows at select bars and pubs across four provinces.

The sold-out Buckle Up Tour began its 12-date run in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba earlier this month. The Ontario leg of the tour kicks off Wednesday in Thunder Bay.

Packing fans into small local venues comes with a certain appeal for the musician, he said in a recent video interview from his tour bus.

“My songs are about small-town lifestyle, and it’s kind of just who I am, through and through,” he said.

As he peered out at the majestic Banff, Alta., mountains from his tour bus window early in the tour, Riegling considered what life might look like in a couple of months.

When his debut EP “Bruce County” arrives on May 24, it’ll offer a few new shades of his country personality — notably as a brooding storyteller on the dramatic country-rock anthem “Moonshines,” and a more playful artist on the rip-roaring single “Dan.” It’ll also include “Bud Light the Way,” a melodic sing-along that attracted the beer sponsor for his tour.

And then he’s moving onto a bunch of summer festival dates on the big stages he’s become familiar with over the past two years, after winning a coveted singing contest.

“It’s awesome being in front of that many people,” he said of the big shows.

“And it’s a totally different feeling than a room of 300 or 500 people where there’s no guardrail blocking us.”

He said he’d been looking forward to performing in small venues where he’s “really close to people and getting shoulder-to-shoulder and almost bumping our heads off the roof when we’re on stage.”

Such an experience is almost nostalgic for Riegling, who grew up on a 100-acre farm on the outskirts of Mildmay, a community of 1,200 people about two hours northwest of Toronto.

His interest in music took hold around age 10 after he got his first guitar as a Christmas present. The gift led him to sign up for lessons with a local teacher who attuned him to the history of country music.

“One of my first shows was with my guitar teacher and his family band,” he remembered.

“I jumped up with them and played three songs, which was awesome. After that, I got in the truck and told my parents: ‘I want to keep doing this … Whatever that was, I want to feel it again.'”

And so he began chasing the high of playing live. He called up every pub, local fair and festival in Bruce County that came to mind, offering his services as an acoustic performer. Eventually, he built up a repertoire of the region’s venues.

“After a couple of years doing that, my calendar was full every Thursday, Friday and Saturday playing little bars, four hours a night,” he said.

Early on, his set list consisted mostly of hits from other country stars, in particular his Nashville idol Eric Church, but eventually Riegling snuck in a growing selection of his originals.

As his confidence built up, so did his drive to get things done.

After hesitating for a few years, he recorded a video application for the 2022 Boots and Hearts Emerging Artists Showcase, a talent search tied to the popular Ontario music festival. The audition was filmed at the Harley’s Pub and Perk in Mildmay, one of the spaces that supported his earliest days as a musician.

Riegling won the competition and a prize from Universal Music Canada to release one of his singles. The label was so impressed that they signed him to their artist roster.

“The last two years since I won have just been a whirlwind,” he said.

Riegling’s tour wraps up at Harley’s Pub in Mildmay on May 24, an evening that brings his full-circle moment to completion. He’s still buzzing about how it’s all come together.

‘”People are singing my songs,” he said. “That’s the coolest thing.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2024.

David Friend, The Canadian Press