They are not big rock singers. They haven't golden fingers. And they are not, as the song goes, loved everywhere they go. Call them something glamorous, and they will look, well, sheepish.
"Ever since we've been in a band, people and friends have been calling us rock stars," says Ewan Currie. "Oh yeah? Then why am I still crashing in my mom's basement? Why do I have no money?"
Currie is a singer and guitarist with the Sheepdogs, the shaggy Saskatooners who are a whisker-length away from infamy, if not true rock stardom. The band is one of the two finalists in an ongoing battle-of-the-bands contest Do You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star?, playing out at rollingstone.com. The grand prize: a contract with Atlantic Records and a picture on the magazine's cover - an honour immortalized by the Shel Silverstein-written novelty hit The Cover of the Rolling Stone.
The New York-based pop-culture periodical is not the magazine it was in 1973, when that song (recorded by Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show) was released. In 2008, in a bid to bolster sagging newsstand sales, Rolling Stone scaled down its signature large-format pages. Years before that, it had broadened its content beyond music-dominated coverage: The iconic magazine, which featured John Lennon, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin on its earliest covers in 1967, went splashy with Snooki in a recent edition.
"It's still pretty huge as a cultural touchstone," says Currie, looking barber-free and back-in-the-day, rocking a buckskin vest. "It still has tremendous cachet."
It absolutely does, agrees Bob Merlis, for 29 years a U.S.-based publicist with Warner Music, who now works with Alice Cooper and John Mellencamp. "It's still the Holy Grail," says Merlis. "It's a very quantifiable achievement. It makes your brand resonate, and it's something you can take home and stick on the wall."
The Sheepdogs, if not yet rock stars, at least look the part. If you've seen the 2000 film Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe's fictional account of his days as a boy-wonder rock 'n' roll writer for Rolling Stone, you would remember Stillwater, the almost-famous Southern rockers played by Billy Crudup and Jason Lee. Stillwater is Sheepdogs, modern-day. Walking through the Globe and Mail newsroom, the band - all beards, boots and blue jeans - drew stares. "Who were those guys?" I was asked after they left.
With three albums under their belt, the Sheepdogs are known to more people now than ever. Just by reaching the final stage of the competition (which pits them against California singer-songwriter Lelia Broussard), the chooglin' rock quartet scored a slot at last week's mammoth, Woodstock-fashioned Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee. As well, both finalists scored a spot together on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, an appearance not without peril.
"It can be a nerve-wracking thing," says Currie, an easygoing fellow. "It's national television, and then when we get there, they tell us that we'll be making up a song in 20 minutes about an audience member. It was like, 'What the hell?' "
The Sheepdogs, a bar band literally wrapped in a Canadian flag in their photo at rollingstone.com, represented their country well on Fallon, performing their furiously penned tune without a flub.
Hurtling toward a weird destiny unforeseeable a year ago, the young men seem remarkably unflustered. "We've been striving for this," says bassist Ryan Gullen, referring to the onrush of exposure. "We're excited, as opposed to nervous. We've been working at this for seven years, and we want to make the most of it."
Says Currie, "It's not like we've gone from nothing to rock stardom in one day. We played a show in Ottawa in front of a couple of thousand, including the Prime Minister. There have been these steps where we've been moving up. Things keep getting better."
Voting at rollingstone.com/choosethecover ends on July 1, with the winner announced on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon on Aug. 2. The winner will be featured in the Aug. 18 issue of Rolling Stone.