Life on the Open Road keeps speeding up for Ron Kitchener. He’s a crucial player on the Canadian country music scene in his joint roles as founder and head of a successful record label (Open Road Recordings) and a leading artist management company (RGK Entertainment Group).
The umbrella company of RGK Entertainment Group also includes publishing companies Roots Three Music and rogue 11, a touring events planning firm (DART Events), a country music news website (TopCountry.ca), a TV development company (RGK One Shot Productions), and a new label imprint (Neighbourhood Music).
As a busy summer for his clients approaches, the biz veteran sat down for coffee to update us on the activities of the artists on his label and management roster.
Topping that list at present is country star Dean Brody. “I caught his show in Oshawa two night ago,” says Kitchener. “It was sold-out and the place went wild.”
Brody is now in the midst of a 26 date cross-country Beautiful Freakshow tour. “Twenty are in arenas and many are sold-out,” informs Kitchener. “This is his largest headline tour in terms of the number of dates, plus he has cool things happening in the summer.”
That will include a show at Toronto’s Budweiser Stage (formerly Molson Amphitheatre) on August 24, with Tim Hicks, another RGK client. This reportedly makes Brody just the third Canadian star to headline the large outdoor venue, after Shania Twain and Terri Clark.
Kitchener terms Brody’s gradual emergence as a bona fide Cancountry star “a testament to Dean as an artist and the music he continues to take chances with in a format that does not take a lot of chances. I like to think we’re doing all the right things too.”
“We got involved with Dean when he was living in Nashville and was signed to Broken Bow Records there. One of our companies was doing his radio work in Canada and that is how we got to know and love Dean.”
When that deal didn’t work out, Brody returned to Canada and signed to Open Road, who released his second album, Trail In Life in 2010. Subsequent albums Dirt, Crop Circles, Gypsy Road, and Beautiful Freakshow have all spawned high charting singles and helped bring Brody multiple Juno and CCMA Awards.
Next up for Open Road Recordings is the May 12 release of The Squeeze, a new album from country-rock favourites The Road Hammers. “It features some of their greatest work, and they’re out of the gate with one of the strongest singles in years, ‘Crazy About You,’” Kitchener reports.
“We’ve determined that the time when they are on radio consistently may have passed, but we strategise plans to accommodate other things in their lives. There is no greater live band and they have such a loyal audience.”
Kitchener’s working relationship with Road Hammers frontman and solo artist Jason McCoy goes back nearly a quarter-century, as McCoy was Kitchener’s first management client at RGK back in 1994.
A more recent success for Open Road is Niagara Falls country-rock singer/songwriter Tim Hicks. His first two albums, Throw Down and 5:01 came out via RGK Entertainment Group, while last year’s Shake These Walls came out on Open Road.
Hicks has scored one platinum single (“Get By”) and three gold singles, and is a popular live draw.
“I’m proud of what we’ve done with Tim Hicks,” says Kitchener. “It is very country-rock and AM radio won’t touch him, so we may not get the luxury of a Top 3 song. He is doing hard ticket biz though, selling 13,000 tickets in four arena shows in Ontario. The fan loyalty is unbelievable.”
Kitchener notes that “with Tim, 70% of his audience has been and still is college age kids, but the good news is that it is widening to an older audience too.”
Another Open Road artist making a mark is Madeline Merlo. She signed with RGK Entertainment Group and Open Road Recordings at 18, and was named 2015’s Rising Star at the Canadian Country Music Association Awards. Her 2016 full-length debut Free Soul includes three Top 20 singles, and she recently made her acting debut in a lead role in country musical film Country Crush.
“We feel good about Madeline’s brand,” says Kitchener. “She is a multi-level talent and quite a social media star in own right. I feel that with Madeline, as with all our artists, we are ready to take chances at the right time.”
He stresses that “every artist on the roster has their own distinct business plan. They compete inside the country landscape but they are all individually marketed and managed. There is no template of a plan."
“The strategies for Tim and Dean couldn’t be much more different but we put them together on the Bud stage at the end of August and hopefully will that will elevate both, drawing in new fans.”
One artist on the RGK Entertainment Group roster that presents a strategic challenge is acclaimed singer/songwriter Jessica Mitchell. “She has a great voice and is an incredible songwriter who came to me through Slaight Music,” says Kitchener.
“Some songs are in the pop world, some are country. I think she is better served to be right in the middle. We call her the perfect hybrid artist, and we’ll have her in both worlds. She has two new songs we’ll get out there and have people rallying around her-with excitement. Her time is now, but I want to be strategic about it.”
Another group on the Open Road roster is River Town Saints, who have a planned debut EP release in June. “They’re a fun band out of Ottawa,” says Kitchener. “They’re on their third single and we finally got a top 10. We’re building them song by song.”
A recent signing is The Hunter Brothers, described by Kitchener as “a faith based family group out of Saskatchewan with a fresh harmony-based sound They’re great guys too.”
“I did that deal on the tractor seat out on their huge farm. They were all driving combines and we talked through the deal over CB radio.”
On the management side, RGK Entertainment Group has, since 2004, handled roots troubadour Corb Lund, who is signed to New West in the US. Kitchener reports that Lund “has just started a solo Atlantic Canada tour that is off to a great start.”
“For the first time in many years he is not working towards an album, but he has international plans in the works. We will be more focused on those US markets where he has a good foundation, and we’ll do some stuff in the rodeo world.
“In Canada you can expect more solo shows. He has the material for that and is a great storyteller in that setting. Corb is still recording and writing, but with no actual album timetable at the moment.”
One leading Canadian country band that has long been on the rosters of both Open Road Recordings and RGK Entertainment Group is Doc Walker. In fact, that group’s 2003 release, Everyone Aboard, was the first album to come out on Open Road.
The label has released eight Doc Walker albums, including last year’s Best Of collection, Echo Road and the just-released (March 31) Weathervane. The trio will be playing some major country fests over the summer.
A Canadian superstar whose early career was boosted by Open Road was Johnny Reid. The label released Reid’s third studio album, Born to Roll in 2005, and it achieved gold sales. A couple of other Reid albums came out on Open Road before he was signed to EMI Canada in 2010.
Ron Kitchener also has some US artists on his management and publishing roster. “We’ve had a Nashville office for years, to support our publishing ventures down there. We’ve managed some US artists, including The Mavericks for a while, and we got record deals for the Road Hammers and Steven Lee Olsen there.”
Kitchener’s Music City connections sure paid off when he became aware of a then-unknown 16-year old artist called Taylor Swift. A deal Open Road had cut with Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine label meant the label got to release Swift’s self-titled debut album in 2007, one that went gold.
One US act Kitchener works with that is now proving popular in Canada and Australia is Blackjack Billy, signed to US label Reviver Records, and with a US platinum single (their 2013 track “Booze Cruise”) under their belt.
“They are on Open Road for Canada and I manage them worldwide,” he explains. “I signed Jeff Coplan to my publishing company, Roots Three Music/ole, and he is a member of and producer for Blackjack Billy.” Coplan has also collaborated on songwriting with Tim Hicks and Madeline Merlo.
25 years in at RGK Entertainment Group, Ron Kitchener is facing the future with optimism and energy. “We have built a really good team here, with 11 people running the two offices.. We know how to develop and to manage, but sometimes managing the arc of a business has its highs and lows.
"I have come back into the fold to oversee things, rather than having a GM in place, and I think we’re really well-positioned for the future.”
“That doesn’t mean we’re ultimately going to stay in country music. We do want to dabble in some other areas and expand everything we have done.” Stay tuned.