At the National Restaurant & Bar in Hanna, Alta., nothing much has changed since the mid-nineties, when a local band called the Village Idiots regularly rocked the house. Back then, this smoky strip joint in the east end of town was the only place worth frequenting on a Saturday night.
These days, the Village Idiots are better known as Nickelback, the grunge-metal rockers who are up for three Grammy Awards tomorrow night. But back in Hanna, population 3,000, things move at a slightly slower pace. And the good ol' Nash is still the only place for restless youngsters, cattle farmers and oilpatch "rig-pigs" to go.
The bar is easy to find. Just cruise down Main Street (it takes two minutes to drive from one end to the other) and look for the cloud of exhaust spewing from the pickup trucks out front, which the owners have left idling to prevent the engines from freezing up.
Don't be scared off by the battered furniture piled in the front window, or the thought of Badlands-style adult entertainment. Once inside, the low-ceilinged room with white walls and tidy blue wainscoting feels relatively respectable. And the strippers don't work on weekends.
Up on stage, the members of Huxley's Breed are squeezed around the silver dance pole, grinding out angst-ridden cover tunes (just as the Idiots once did). Out of respect for the hometown heroes, the band has decided not to include any Nickelback songs in tonight's set.
It's been several years since the Idiots played the Nash. But you only have to take a quick glance around at the large number of Nickelback concert shirts proudly being worn to realize the band's memory lives on. In the words of a young woman who salutes the band with a shooter: "Nickelback kicks ass!"
Hanna is a place where strangers stand out. But as with everyone else in town, the owner of the Nash is more than happy to help any reporter here to write a story about Nickelback. As far as anyone can figure, only one other reporter has ever made the 2½-hour trek from Calgary before.
"The DJ plays their music all the time," boasts Bill Menard, who scoots around the bar in socks and sandals. "Everyone here is a huge fan. I've asked them to come back and play." Menard takes a haul off his cigarette and chuckles. "But they're way out of my price league now."
Whoever thought Hanna's Idiots would make it this far? Nickelback's fourth CD, a long-shot contender for album of the year at tomorrow's Grammy Awards and winner of three Junos last spring, blasted into North America on Sept. 11, 2001. Despite its inauspicious release date, Silver Side Up has sold eight million copies.
The album's major strength was a catchy power ballad called How You Remind Me. The song made Nickelback the first Canadian band since the Guess Who to have a No. 1 single in the United States and Canada simultaneously. It went on to become the most-played song in North America last year, clocking in with a staggering 421,770 spins.
The band's huge success blows the minds of most folk in Hanna. Until now, the Home of the Canada Grey Goose, the town's official logo, was best known for hunting. At least four species of geese and two varieties of duck migrate through Hanna each fall.
Considering the lyrics of some of their songs, you wouldn't think the guys from Nickelback are very fond of their hometown. As the lyrics to One Last Run can be read, for instance: "[A small town]makes you want to stay, but who the hell would want to anyway? I'm leaving."
Chad Kroeger, the band's lead singer and main songwriter, says the song is in no way a bitter tribute to Hanna. "Not at all," he says, speaking on the phone from his bedroom in Vancouver, where he has just woken up at 1 p.m. "If you go to any small town in between L.A. and New York, or Vancouver and Toronto, none of those kids want to be where they're at. They all want to move to the big city, and I think it's kind of funny, because once you move to the city, all you think about was the great times you had in that little town."
Now 28, Kroeger fondly recalls the bush parties of his youth out at Fox Lake. "I mean, I've never been to a bush party in the city. They don't exist. If you lit something on fire, you'd have 16 cop cars and a fire truck and two ambulances and everybody would want to know what the hell is going on. But in Hanna, you could drive out to the back 40 with a truck full of railroad ties, dump diesel all over them and light it on fire. You'd tell everybody you know to grab a case of beer and head out to such-and-such a location after the bar. And everybody you know who's got a great stereo has got the thing cranked up around this fire. That's a lot of fun."
It was a lot of trouble too. By the time he was 14, Kroeger had racked up 11 counts of break and enter, and earned himself a two-month stint in a juvenile-detention centre.
"I was a bad kid," he says now. "It was nothing to be proud of."
In a previous interview, Kroeger once said that if he hadn't started a band, he probably would have been a drug dealer. He still sees it much the same way. "If I hadn't made it to this point in my life, I'd probably be in jail. I'm the type of guy who always wants to cheat the system somehow. The music business is perfect for that," he says with a laugh. "It really satiates that side of me."
Most of the folks in Hanna just laugh about their memories of the town rebel. "He was a just a kid," they say. "All kids get in trouble."
Still, there won't be any parties -- in the bush or elsewhere -- to celebrate Nickelback's arrival at the Grammys this weekend. Hanna has yet to honour the band in any way.
"It's sad," says Sami Kemaldean, the owner of Hanna Pizza & Steak House. "Nickelback put Hanna on the map, but you can't even buy one of their T-shirts here."
About a year ago, Kemaldean wrote a letter to The Hanna Herald, suggesting the town council erect a sign on the side of the highway to recognize the hometown band. In its wisdom, the council has instead decided to erect a camping area for cross-country cyclists as a means of promoting tourist development.
"I can't say enough how proud we are of Nickelback," Mayor Pat Burns explains. "I myself have watched them on TV. But the town of Hanna is not just one rock-'n'-roll band. There are a number of celebrities who have come from here," he adds, citing triple Stanley Cup-winner Lanny McDonald and Jim Nill, assistant general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, as examples.
"If we're going to acknowledge one, we have to acknowledge them all," Burns says. A town-council committee was recently created to discuss a potential Wall of Fame for the downtown area, which would recognize all of Hanna's illustrious citizens.
As Mayor Burns points out, the lack of celebrity signage is no reason "to come down hard" on the little town of Hanna. "Remember, this is rural Alberta. We just go merrily around and try to survive."
The townsfolk in Hanna aren't in any hurry to change their ways. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Seymour Hotel. On Saturday night, there are two customers drinking draft at the small round tables with terry cloth to sop up any spillage stretched over top. The manager who has run this place for 26 years is sleeping out back. A friendly bartender named Tara David keeps an eye on the video-lottery terminals, sells pickled eggs and ensures that no one turns up the music up too loud.
David remembers the Kroegers well, and is thrilled to sit down and reminisce. Kroeger and his older brother Mike, the band's bass player, grew up two doors down from David when they lived on Fourth Avenue in a little green bungalow with the big pine tree out front.
"I remember the time their stepdad bought them a trampoline. They came running over, first thing in the morning, yelling 'Come on, Come on. You gotta come play.' "
In her later teens, David spent a summer rooming with "Chang" (as Chad Kroeger was then nicknamed). As she recalls, it was a crazy summer filled with beer and perogies (Chang's favourite) and visits from the cops. "But that was just because of the music. The band used to jam pretty loud. But we just took some old mattresses and put them up against the wall next to the neighbours."
Kroeger's mother is now remarried and has since moved away. But she and the boys still keep in touch with David and her family.
The Kroegers came from a prominent Alberta family, which also happened to be musical. The boys' maternal grandfather, Henry Kroeger, was a Conservative MLA, who represented the riding of Chinook (which includes Hanna) from 1975 until his death in 1987. The Kroegers had a band called the Tory Blue Notes: Henry played bass; his wife, Cleona, was on drums.
Kroeger says his mother, an amateur pianist who taught dance lessons in town, was a large influence on him and his brother. "I can't remember what I did, but I was 13, and I had done something well, and she was going to buy me a little present, a little game system like a Nintendo or something. But then I watched my cousin jamming in a band and these four guys were actually making music. So I said to my mom, 'Hey, you know how you were going to buy me a game system. Would it be all right if I got a guitar instead?' She was just elated. She said, 'Absolutely, sweetheart. I'd love to get you a guitar, but you have to promise you're going to stick with it.' "
And stick with it he did. After the Grammy ceremony, Nickelback heads back to the studio to work on its new album. He says being nominated for the Grammys "is cool."
"It's a nice big event to go to. It's nice to be invited." Up against such heavyweight contenders as Eminem and Bruce Springsteen, he's probably wise to play the poker face. Still a small-town boy at heart, he seems to know his place.
"We don't really appeal to the alternative, inner-city kid with 14 piercings. They're more interested in Avril Lavigne or the Vines. But when we're in the Prairies, it's madness and mayhem. That's what we are -- heartland rock 'n' roll."