Days in the sun

Brad Mates, best known for the song Moments, has had his share. But through the highs and lows of the music business, he has always stayed connected to home

Omar Mouallem - 21 February 2017

Country music star Brad Mates hasn't lived in Canada for close to 20 years, but whenever someone asks him "Where's home?" he responds without fail: Grande Prairie, Alta.

The rapidly growing northern city hardly resembles the one in which he cut his teeth during the 1990s. The radio stations are more partial to Bieber than Brooks these days, and the dance halls that once hosted nightly bands have replaced them with playlists. But Mates, front man of chart-toppers Emerson Drive, can't help but feel like "G.P." still owns a piece of him.

That's true, in a way: two years ago, the city renamed the park beside his childhood home in his honour. But long before that, Mates had been finding ways to reconnect with home from Leeds, Maine, where he lives with his American-born wife, Jana, and two children. He organized a series of golf tournaments in Grande Prairie that raised money for Parkinson's disease research at the University of Alberta's Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. Mates's support has made a big difference to the many Albertans each year who come to the university hospital to have their movement disorders assessed and treated. People like his father, Don Mates, who lives with Parkinson's.

"He taught me my first few chords," says Brad, 38, who cherished their time together at the family cabin in Sturgeon Lake, Alta. His father - sheet metal mechanic by day, amateur musician by night - would follow a day of hunting and fishing with campfire songs, sometimes playing the guitar for three hours straight.

At the time, young Mates was a hockey player. He showed little interest in music - until high school. That's when five of his buddies coerced him into singing lead vocals in a high school talent show. "Everybody was amazed at how good these teenagers sounded," recalls his mother, Shirley, who works for the City of Grande Prairie and helps organize the annual golf tournament. "He had a God-given talent."

With that, the band was born. And the entire community was behind them. Teachers even excused the boys from Friday classes so they could play three consecutive nights in a seedy saloon three hours away. Back then, every town in the Peace Country region wanted to book them. When a country music festival invited them to do a set the day after high school graduation, Mates and the group chose to leave grad celebrations early so they were well-rested and prepped for 5,000 concertgoers the next day. "My parents told me, 'If you're determined to do something, do it,' " says Mates.

And they did - with one-way tickets to Nashville, Tenn. "We found out within minutes that it was going to be a grind." First off, the band's name, 12 Gauge, infringed on a rap group's copyright, so the band renamed itself Emerson Drive as a tribute to a road back home. More jarringly, the stars of Peace Country felt like grains of sand in Music City, where everyone they met was there for one reason - to get signed. Record label executives said the band was far from ready. "I'm glad it happened the way it did," says Mates. "That's when we started getting on the road 300 days a year, when we were becoming a band that was very tight and very good live."

In 2001, after five years of toiling on stages, the group signed with DreamWorks Records, becoming label mates with Toby Keith and Randy Travis, but was soon dropped, shortly before the label folded. The band bounced around record companies and struggled to find a major following in the U.S. The support and success they had found at home seemed ever-farther away. But then, in 2007, as Mates was starting to wonder if the window of opportunity was closing, Emerson Drive had its biggest success to that point when it became the first Canadian country band to have a song reach No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. Moments was a milestone achievement in Mates's career (it went on to be nominated for a Grammy award) but also a source of bittersweet memories. The release of the song, which is about a man contemplating suicide, was followed by the suicide of the band's former bassist Patrick Bourque. "Every time I sing that song, my mind slips back to a moment when we had Patrick," he says.

Mates remains the only original member of Emerson Drive. Over the years, he has dedicated so much of himself to music and the road that he didn't see his father's declining health - until it was impossible to ignore. "My sister and mother were able to notice it on a week-to-week basis," he says, "but because I was gone longer, I would see the bigger changes."

After being diagnosed with Parkinson's at 50, Don Mates retired early. A neurodegenerative brain disorder - the second most common after Alzheimer's - Parkinson's limits the ability to regulate one's body, resulting in hand tremors, muscle stiffness and balance problems. It was often hard for Don to physically get out of bed. "He is a lean, strong man, a blue-collar worker," Brad says. "I know it bothers him when he needs help." Once, while the family was on vacation, side-effects from Don's new medication kept him bedridden. With the help of UAlberta doctors, he has found the right dosage, and the last four years have been some of the most stable since his diagnosis 15 years ago. And he can once again pick up a guitar.

The younger Mates's donation will help further Parkinson's research at UAlberta's Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. The faculty's Movement Disorders Program, the only one of its kind in northern Alberta, researches deep-brain stimulation, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) biomarkers, gait and balance changes, and palliative care models for Parkinson's patients, 800 of whom are diagnosed in the province each year.

Mates, whose band released its ninth album last year - exactly two decades since its high school debut - is grateful to have a career and a name that can help raise money and awareness for Parkinson's research. Connecting with his father through music has been an even bigger reward. "It makes me want to strive to do this for another five or 10 years," he says.

When he's not on the road touring, Mates spends time on his acreage in Maine with his six-year-old son and three-year-old daughter. They fish, skate, play hockey and do a lot of the stuff he left behind for a whirlwind musical career. "This place reminds me a lot of home."

The Movement Disorders Program, a joint initiative of UAlberta's Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and Alberta Health Services, provides expert medical care and undertakes clinical research in Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.

To learn more, contact the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry