Going Out

HIDDEN OTTAWA: Saturday night fever with Lucky Ron

Ottawa Magazine’s October issue uncovers “hidden Ottawa” with a hole-in-the-wall handbook that embraces the city’s undercover ambience, celebrating 39 overlooked nooks, hipster hideaways, secret foodie sources, and other mysterious locales. Get your copy at Britton’s magazine store and other newsstand locations around town.

By Patrick Langston

Lucky Ron performs his regular show at The Laff every Saturday at 4 p.m. Photo by Aaron McKenzie Fraser

Catch a few Lucky Ron shows, says Dale Flichel, and you start to notice something: “The more you go, the less it’s about him and more about the audience.”

It’s probably one of the greatest compliments Flichel — a punk-only fan until he heard Lucky Ron singing 11 years ago — could pay the unassuming local legend with the sprawling repertoire of 1950s and ’60s country tunes, the regular 4 p.m. Saturday slot at the venerable Chateau Lafayette in the ByWard Market, and the ardent fan base (Flichel, like many, would consider his Saturday a write-off if he missed Lucky Ron’s show at the Laff).

“People treat you so nice,” says Lucky Ron (Ron Burke) of his audience. “Nowadays, especially the past couple of years, there’s a lot of young people who bring their parents along. First-year university students, they just pack the bar. They don’t seem to see that it’s this friggin’ old guy up there singing.”

At 56, his age gives him the advantage of having grown up on the Johnny Cash, Faron Young, and Johnny Horton tunes that make up his repertoire. However, age has nothing to do with what, paradoxically, makes Lucky Ron’s show the irresistibly exciting draw that it is: its sameness from week to week. He opens with the same four tunes (“I’ve been starting with ‘Ole Slew Foot’ by Johnny Horton for 25 years,” he says. “It’s a pretty stompin’ song.”). He tells the same jokes. He does the same encore.

Between the opening and closing numbers, audience members at their beer-laden tables shout out requests, heckle, and generally carry on in a sort of a yelping, countrified version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  (Newbie alert: If you want to seem like a regular, you’re safe requesting tunes like Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” Be aware, though, that you won’t fool sharp-eyed Lucky Ron, who says he recognizes any new audience members.)  In other words, the performer gives us what we almost all seek: the excitement of variety and engagement — those requests and other interactions — wrapped up inside a reassuring blanket of familiarity.

Come to think of it, that’s not far from Lucky Ron’s own life. Born at the former Grace Hospital in Hintonburg, he now owns a home in the same neighbourhood. He did leave Ottawa for Toronto in the late ’70s, but that lasted all of three years. “My dad got sick back here, plus the fun wore off.” Heck, he even got married in a familiar spot: he and fellow musician Kathleen Muise tied the knot on stage at the Laff back in 2001.

Along with performing at countless spots around town and working routine day jobs like his current painting gig for a local housing developer (“You turn off your brain at seven in the morning.”), Lucky Ron has peppered his life with such unexpected forays as writing cookbooks and running for mayor in 2003 (he says he may challenge Kitchissippi Ward councillor Katherine Hobbs in the next election). He also wound up in a 2007 New York Times travel story about must-do things during a 36-hour visit to Ottawa.

But it always comes down to the audience. “He’s creating a community,” says Ottawa native Kimberly Cavanagh. She’s a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at the University of South Carolina and a devoted Lucky Ron fan — she even wrote a paper about him while she was an undergraduate at Carleton University. Calling Lucky Ron and his wife two of the most generous people around, Cavanagh says: “He creates a neutral ground where everyone’s equal. College kids sit with Laff regulars who they’d never have a conversation with normally. You go there, and you know you’ll have a good time.” Cavanagh says she never returns to Ottawa without catching a Lucky Ron show. “It’s a kind of anchor.”

42 York St., 613-241-4747, www.thelaff.ca.