Story Behind the Song: Terra Lightfoot, ‘Norma Gale’
On her album New Mistakes, released in October of 2017, Canadian-born folk singer-songwriter Terra Lightfoot includes "Norma Gale," a song with real-life country music inspiration. In Lightfoot's words, the song takes its name, and its story, from the life of a Canadian woman "who was a near-famous country star in the 1970s."
The real-life Gale -- born Norma Gallant -- was born in Moncton, New Brunswick, in 1945. She began singing at jamborees at the age of 12, working her way up to a featured performer role on the TV show The Bunkhouse Boys and earning spots in local bands. When she moved to Toronto, Ontario, Gale landed a place in the house band for the city's famous Horseshoe Tavern; there, she backed artists such as Conway Twitty, Waylon Jennings and more.
Gale -- who, for a publicity stunt, walked from Toronto to Nashville during the summer of 1985 -- also earned herself a reputation in Music City, and performed at the Grand Ole Opry a few times. As an artist herself, she released two albums; in 2005, she was inducted into the New Brunswick Country Music Hall of Fame. She died in 2016.
Below, Lightfoot explains how she learned Gale's story, and how it inspired her to write "Norma Gale."
I was playing a show in New Brunswick, and [Gale's] son Marc had come out with his wife. After the show, I met him, and we got chatting; I found out his mom was a pretty famous musician in the ’70s. He told me she was in the hospital and asked if I'd like to meet her the next day. I agreed with minimal trepidation.
Man, her story is unreal. Everything that happened to her was song-worthy; you could write a record about her life. Once, she was held up at gunpoint by a promoter who didn't want to pay her what she was owed at the end of the night; I guess she got saucy with him, and he pulled a gun on her. In those days, it wasn't such a big deal, but today, these are legendary stories most of us can't even imagine.
More than anything, I wanted to write the song because hearing her story inspired me. The places she had been were all the places I wanted to go. I met her long before I made it down to Nashville. She helped me to believe in what I was doing, to know that it was possible to get to these far-flung places and to be a successful woman that didn't take any s--t from anybody. She was hard, she was tough, and I needed to know that someone like her existed.
["Norma Gale" is] based on the stories she told me on the day I met with her, and some background from her son, who I've become friends with over the last couple of years. Their stories are very different: His side of the story is obviously seen through the eyes of a child. Where she was playing the Grand Ole Opry, he was missing his friends at school or hungry for a snack while she was soundchecking — that sort of thing. He remembered missing his mom when she was playing shows, whereas Norma would regale me with stories about all the parties and concerts, and [the] cool people she was meeting. When she was held up at gunpoint, Marc was the little boy in the corner covering his eyes and hoping nobody got killed.
The story is very much two-sided. Their relationship was so beautiful, and they were incredibly close — in many ways, they were lonely together.
I think the heaviest [line in the song] is about Marc crying on her shoulder “half the way to Graceland.” In real life, Marc was very young when they visited, and he thought they were moving to a place called Graceland. He had told all of his friends at school, and he really didn't want to leave them, so he cried the entire 13-hour drive to Memphis.
I also find the "I knew the bar was empty" line to be pretty sad. Every musician has played to or drank in an empty bar. You know it's time to leave, but you just can't bring yourself to do it. I think that one still gets me.
Marc was visiting some family near where I live just after we finished mixing the record, and he came over, I made tea and toast, and we listened to the song. We both cried the whole time. It was so intense to see him react to it. Before we listened, we were just chatting about his mom, and he said something along the lines of, "You know, no matter what happened to us or what stood in her way, she had such determination to succeed — she just kept on going!" and he had no idea that was the chorus of the tune.
He said he loved the "picking up the change" line because it was such a specific part of his childhood. He told me a story about how he used to gather up all the spare change he could see from back stages and dressing rooms, to save up to buy himself treats from the motel vending machines. It was a small thing for a kid to get into the habit of doing, but it really speaks to the way he was raised and the ways he found comfort in their life on the road together.
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