Alberta Order of Excellence member Holger Petersen

Holger Petersen CM, DLitt (Hon)

“Music, as they say, is the universal language. It connects cultures. It connects people. It is endlessly fascinating. There’s no end to the regional styles around the world. When I travel, I love going to used record stores to see what they have. In any city, that’s my priority. It’s enriching to listen to music, whether it’s live, on vinyl, or digital. It brings people together.”

Holger Petersen of Edmonton is a legend in the music world. As co-founder of Stony Plain Records and the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, and broadcaster on CKUA and CBC Radio, he introduces Alberta musicians to the world and brings world music home to Alberta.

Holger Petersen was born on Pellworm Island, West Germany, on November 23, 1949, the oldest of three boys. When he was five, his family emigrated to Canada, living in Manitoba before settling in Edmonton, Alberta, when he was seven.

As a child, Holger loved the British Invasion bands. In his early teens, he was a regular at the jukebox supply shops around Jasper Avenue and 97 Street, digging through bins of used 45s that sold five for a dollar. Meanwhile, he read every book he could find on the blues and subscribed to blues magazines, ordering back copies to learn as much as he could about the genre.

As a teen, he was playing drums with local bands Spiny Norman’s Whoopee Band and Hot Cottage when he heard about the new Radio and Television Arts Program at NAIT. Holger instantly knew it was for him. During his first year in the program, Holger made another important life-changing discovery: Alberta’s public broadcaster CKUA Radio. He immediately appreciated the station’s eclectic musical programming. “At CKUA, I found two things that have always remained crucial for me: a community and an opportunity to collaborate,” says Holger.

Welcomed by the station’s community of fellow music lovers, 18-year-old Holger started volunteering at CKUA. At the same time, he was writing about music, reviewing albums and interviewing musicians for the NAIT Nugget, the school’s student newspaper. Given his growing knowledge of and respect for musicians and their craft, Holger was a natural interviewer, landing conversations with some of the biggest names in the world of music.

In 1969, Holger started broadcasting Natch’l Blues, his weekly radio program on CKUA. Focusing solely on the music in the early days, Holger’s program grew to feature the in-depth interviews he would become known for. His calm nature, backed up by thorough research, put those he interviewed at ease, making for engaging conversations. By the time he graduated from NAIT in 1970, he was already a seasoned radio veteran, going on to produce and host other CKUA programs like Acme Sausage Company and HP Sauce. But his signature program Natch’l Blues stands out. It is Canada’s longest running blues program, celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2019. Since 1987, he has also hosted Saturday Night Blues – the first national radio network blues show in Canada – on CBC Radio.

As Holger built his radio programs, he became aware that many of the old school blues artists were still alive, but unrecorded and all but forgotten. So he set out to change that. Right from the start, Holger tapped their creative energy to fashion fresh, memorable sessions.

“I would bring them up to Edmonton, get some gigs for them, and then go in the studio and record solo records. But every time I did that, I would be investing my own money. Eventually, I was doing the photography, the packaging and liner notes, and delivering the record. It was one step away from starting your own label.”

In the fall of 1975, Holger was in a garage band called The Glass Prism with good friend Alvin Jahns, who had a business accounting background. Holger proposed that the two start their own record label. Stony Plain Records issued its first record in 1976. The partners could have launched their label in a larger centre with more opportunities, but they chose to remain in Edmonton. Holger travels the world seeking new stories and new music, always with a focus of bringing the world back to Alberta.

Holger’s abiding respect for musicians, along with dealing fair and square in business, helped build Stony Plain’s name. He focused on building a solid stable of Canadian blues and roots musicians. He also worked with international artists who sought a niche label, giving them a professional place to work.

Given the musical network that Holger was building in these days, it’s no surprise that he helped develop another cultural legacy in Alberta. Being around like-minded people at CKUA led him to become a founding member of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival in 1979 and its artistic director from 1985-1988, giving a solid foundation to an event that would become by all accounts the best folk music festival in Canada.

“I loved it. It was the best job I had,” recalls Holger. But Stony Plain Records started to take off, and Holger was also invited to broadcast nationally on CBC. Something had to give. After his three-year contract was up, Holger passed along the festival’s reins. Holger can still be found at the festival each year, broadcasting from the CKUA tent, or quietly appearing at the side of a stage, confirming the reputation of the musicians about to perform.

A big break came in 1985, when Ian Tyson asked Holger to help him put out an independent album. Cowboyography became a huge hit, going gold, then platinum. “I thank Ian every day for opening that door for me. I'm happy to be still working with him all these years.”

With Holger’s steady hand, Stony Plain Records has built a deep, award-winning blues and roots catalogue, becoming the leading roots music label in Canada. The label has not only survived several decades in the harsh climate of the music industry, it has also achieved global success and acclaim. In-depth stories about musicians he interviewed over the years fill his books Talking Music: Blues Radio and Roots Music (2011) and Talking Music 2: Blues and Roots Music Mavericks (2017).

Stony Plain Records has won 15 Juno Awards, has been nominated for six Grammy Awards, and more from the Maple Blues and Canadian Country Music Association. In 2014, the Blues Foundation in Memphis named Stony Plain Records the Label of the Year. Most of the label’s blues releases make the Top 5 in radio charts. So far, Stony Plain Records has released over 400 albums (and counting), including gold and platinum albums for fellow Albertans Ian Tyson and Corb Lund.

As the record label grew, so did Holger’s commitment to help Canadian musicians achieve the respect and exposure they deserve. He helped found the Alberta Recording Industries Association (now Alberta Music) to guide musicians as they build their careers. He championed musicians as a board member of the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) for 16 years, standing up for songwriters, supporting them politically, actively representing them, and supporting non-profit applications for funding. He still serves with the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which showcases and promotes Canadian artists and music through the Juno Awards. Over the years, he has also represented the business side of the music industry on the boards of the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency and the Canadian Independent Record Production Association.

So far, Holger’s work has led to more than 20 regional, provincial, national and international awards and recognitions, including three lifetime achievement awards. In 2020, he was inducted into the Folk DJ Hall of Fame by the Folk Alliance International in New Orleans and was the first non-American citizen to be named Best Public Broadcaster by the Blues Foundation in Memphis. He was named to the Order of Canada in 2003 and received Honorary Doctorates from the University of Alberta (2012) and Athabasca University (2004). He received Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012), the Alberta Centennial Medal (2005), and Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2002).

These days, Holger has refocused his work at Stony Plain, selling its catalogue to True North Records in 2018, but remaining as Executive Producer for the label. As always, his radio programs continue to sustain his love of sharing and celebrating music. Holger says he would love to follow in the footsteps of his broadcasting hero Jack Hagerman, (a.k.a. John Worthington, the Old Disc Jockey on CKUA), who died in 2019 at the age of 92, only weeks after creating his last show. “Radio is something I want to continue as long as they'll have me,” smiles Holger.

When he is not broadcasting, working with recording artists, or hunting for used records, Holger and partner Anne Green enjoy visiting good friends in many cities, as well as attending concerts, music festivals and music conferences around the world. Holger is proud dad of son, Matthew, and grandfather of two granddaughters.