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k.d. Lang: The Woman Who Redefined “Alberta Spirit” 

As the iconic singer gears up for her induction to The Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, we look back at how she got here

What do you think of when someone asks what it means to be “Albertan?”

If you’re a native who grew up here, the answer will likely vary widely, matching the mix of people here.

If you’re not from here, however, it’s all too easy to bundle us up in a tidy little western box.

Cowboy hat, pickup truck, blue collar, white, god-fearing, and a Tory. Albertans can’t think of anything better than coming home, kicking back with an ice cold beer, and planning the next time he’s going fishin’. 

That stereotype exists for a reason. Who doesn’t appreciate a good cold beer among friends and some old classic country crooners?

However, if anyone has done a better job of upending the narrative of what it means to be an “Albertan” than k.d lang, we’d love to hear it! 

k.d. lang's official portrait for the Alberta Government | alberta.ca
k.d. lang’s official portrait for the Alberta Government | alberta.ca
A young and innocent k.d. Lang | inoneearnet.wordpress.com
A young and innocent k.d. Lang | inoneearnet.wordpress.com

Born Kathryn Dawn Lang in Edmonton on November 2nd, 1961, she grew up in a cookie-cutter home. 

The youngest of four children born to an elementary school teacher mother and a pharmacist father, she once told The New York Times that Edmonton was so small that “you knew everyone from the day you were born until the day you could get yourself out there.”

“In high school, I took an aptitude test that said I was 98 percent guaranteed to be a mechanic,” she once told Rolling Stone Magazine.

Her dedicated mother drove more than an hour every week to take Lang and her siblings to piano lessons, which turned out to be where Lang found her first love.

“I knew what I wanted to be the day I had my first piano lesson. I fell in love with music, and I’ll stay in love forever,” is a well-known quote of hers.

While studying at Red Deer College, Lang found her second true love in Patsy Cline. 

kdlangarchive-blog
One of the many evolving looks of k.d. Lang | kdlangarchive-blog

After playing in a student production about the iconic country star’s life, Lang took on what would be a lifelong embodiment or inspiration from the legend.

Wildly claiming to be Patsy’s reincarnation, Lang crafted a persona that defied categorization.

Starting off with a hard punk, rockabilly streak to her image, she linked up with musician and songwriter Ben Mink, forming a group called the Reclines in Patsy’s honour.

Right from the start, the group garnered considerable success locally, kickstarting Lang’s career with the album Friday Dance Promenade and firmly establishing her reputation in Canada with A Truly Western Promenade in 1984.

One of her most iconic moments came the following year when she showed up to the 1985 Juno’s to accept her award for “most promising female vocalist” in a wedding dress

It was quite the antithesis of the rest of her image, although, as you can see in the video, her dancing was still very much on brand.

If there’s one thing Lang never stopped doing, it was refusing to be defined.

k.d. in her rockabilly phase  | From the Vaults CBC
k.d. in her rockabilly phase | From the Vaults | CBC

International Acclaim

After landing a contract with Sire Records in 1986, she launched her career in the United States.

With her androgynous look, quite the opposite of the marketing behind every other female (or male, for that matter) country star of the time, it took her a little time to garner a real international crowd.

But her songs and singing pushed her over the top.

Lang impressed critics with her 1986 album, Angel with a Lariat, but American fans didn’t really get on board with Lang until 1987 when she partnered with Roy Orbison.

She gave her all on the supporting vocals for a new recording of his 1961 hit Crying, the hit got her her first Grammy.

Lang and Orbison together in a promotional photo | Youtube
Lang and Orbison together in a promotional photo | Youtube

From there, her 1989 album Shadowland became the basis for two country hits: I’m Down to My Last Cigarette and Lock, Stock and Teardrops, which showed her talent in a way that overshadowed her perceived “peculiarities.” 

It also allowed her to collaborate with legendary producer Owen Bradley, who had also produced Patsy Cline.

Before the "Meat Stinks" animal rights campaign the town of Consort proudly claimed k.d. Lang as their own. Afterwards, not so much | CBC Gem | Facebook
Before the “Meat Stinks” animal rights campaign the town of Consort proudly claimed k.d. Lang as their own. Afterwards, not so much! | CBC Gem | Facebook

They say all publicity is good publicity, and in 1990, Lang became a nonstop talking point especially in cattle country in Alberta.

At the time she was living in Consort and she participated in an animals rights commercial against the beef industry. The fall out was titanic!

As you can imagine, few from her rural town were much on board with her vegetarian ideas and the town who once lauded her quickly disowned her.

Across the province radio stations banned her music, hay bales were set on fire barricading the entrances to theatres she was playing, bomb threats were sent to the record comapny, and k.d. was villified by ranchers from Alberta to Texas.

Later in 1992 she announced she was a lesbian; not really a surprise to many.

“It was easier to come out as a lesbian than it was to come out as a vegetarian,” said k.d in an interview with CBC.

As she once explained to People Magazine, “I was there in Nashville, a lesbian, a vegetarian, a Canadian, and trying to get in with this white, male, Christian society. They were like, ‘What the hell are you doing here, girl?'”

k.d. lang after 'coming out' in 1992 | Paul Natkin | Getty Images
k.d. lang after ‘coming out’ in 1992 | Paul Natkin | Getty Images

Talent Overshadows Controversy

Combine amazing singing with a persona that couldn’t be duplicated, and k.d. was destined for even bigger things.

With 1992’s Ingenue, Lang morphed her classic country style, shaping a new sound – if not a genre – all her own. 

The August 1993 cover of Vanity Fair with k.d. Lang posing with model Ciny Crawford | Vanity Fair
The August 1993 cover of Vanity Fair with k.d. Lang posing with model Ciny Crawford | Vanity Fair

The popular album featured her biggest pop hit to date, Constant Craving, which earned her a second Grammy.

From there, she continued to play with different sounds. Her “cigarette” themed album Drag had a vibe of its own.

Hymns of the 49th Parallel was an ode to many of the best Canadian artists, like Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Ron Sexsmith. 

Meanwhile Watershed garnered genuinely stunned responses, such as The Times of London declaring:

“It’s a quirk of the music industry that one of the sexiest, most sensual voices in all of pop music comes not from some raven-tressed siren in a glitter dress but a middle-aged woman with a utility haircut and a penchant for male tailoring.”

In addition to her Grammy awards, Lang has amassed a collection of accolades, including eight JUNO Awards, 10 Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) Awards (including three consecutive wins for Album of the Year and two consecutive Entertainer of the Year Awards,) a BRIT Award, an American Music Award (AMA), a Video Music Award (VMA) and four GLAAD Media Awards

She was recognized in 1996 with Canada’s highest civilian honour, the Order of Canada, was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2013 and received the Alberta Order of Excellence Award in 2021 and the Governor General’s Performing Arts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2023.

And this September, she’ll return to Edmonton to accept her induction into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, an honour she says she couldn’t be more thankful for.

“My love for the Prairies, the people and our culture underscore every ounce of my inspiration. Not without its complexities, I might add. Such is life,” she told CBC News.

“I am so stoked to be coming to Edmonton to bask in this celebration … with deepest gratitude.”

As an icon who, above all else, has repeatedly shown that you can’t tidily fit Albertans into a box, we couldn’t be more excited to have her back.

K.d lang promo shot
kdlang.com

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