Wheel Club in Montreal

Terre des Cowboys

Hillbilly Night at the Wheel Club in Montreal.

It is easy to forget, with the constant discourse about working, remote working, hybrid working, and overworking, that humans need more than the house and the office. We need the fabled “third place,” neither work nor home, where people can socialize with no other obligations or ties. Ray Oldenburg formulated the idea of third places in his 1999 book The Great Good Place. He argued that their decline was a factor in the loss of community and increased isolation in society. With the course of world events since 1999, it is not hard to believe this theory. If you look closely, though, these third places are still there to be found.



Wheel Club, home of a 54-year-old country music open mic night, is not where you would expect. It is not a saloon in Wyoming or a dance hall in West Texas. It would probably not even be the third guess on your list. Wheel Club is a bar in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce area of Montreal, Canada’s second-largest city.

Almost every Monday, enthusiasts gather to sing, clap, and dance at Hillbilly Night which moved to the Wheel Club after starting life at another location. Chris MacArthur, who photographed one of these nights, lays down the law for the uninitiated:

“Hillbilly Night hasn’t changed since it began in 1966. The format and rules established by founder Bob Fuller remain simple and unbreakable: On Monday nights, as of 9 p.m., no drums or electric instruments are allowed, and playing songs written beyond 1965 is forbidden. Bob felt that 1965 was the year country music’s authenticity began to fade. The genre had become mainstream and country was turning pop. Hillbilly Night was his way of keeping real country music alive.”

What emerges from MacArthur’s photographs is a fascinating of one night in the history of many that have provided a haven for country music fans and performers in Montreal. At the tables or on the stage, the regulars radiate a sense of contentment, a familiar ease among likeminded people in a space they know well. Cowboy hats, western shirts, and boots look as if they have been worn here for decades, which in some instances they have. Regulars, for what it is worth, are one of the defining characteristics of a third place. What is also obvious is the warm welcome for newcomers, with regulars handing out licorice and teaching a dance move or two to those unfamiliar with the club’s ways.

Through MacArthur’s lens, we get to see a third place as it really exists. Country bars can be derided in the same way the music often is. How many times have you heard “I listen to anything but country”? No matter what your thoughts on the music or the clothes or the dancing, it is clear that the Wheel Club, and in particular Hillbilly Night, provides the cowboys of Quebec with a watering hole, if only for one night a week.

Photo captions by Chris MacArthur.


La Terre des Cowboys (Hillbilly Nights) in Montreal

Here, Bill Coveduck tunes his guitar before stepping onstage.


Mike Held was the first person I met at The Wheel. I walked in the door, and he greeted me like a friendly, long-lost grandpa. Mike’s responsible for carrying on two important Hillbilly Night traditions: Passing out free licorice and ringing the bell on the table to applaud an exceptional performance. “In the early days, Bob Fuller would ring the bell when someone played a song really well. If not, no bell. But that was a long time ago. Me, I ring the bell for everyone.”


Jeannie Arsenault discovered Hillbilly Night on Jan. 18, 1974, and has been coming ever since. She’s missed the Monday event only ten times in 45 years. Bill Anthony started coming with his dad, Bill Anthony Sr. when he was 17. He’s now 56. Jeannie and Bill are just two of many who’ve called The Wheel Club home for nearly their whole lives. Others have been coming, playing music and often sitting in the exact same chair for 17, 24 or even 31 years.



Hillbilly Nights in Montreal

Bill Bland’s been central to Hillbilly Night since day one. Every Monday night, he shows up with his fiddle in a backpack, takes his position in the right corner of the stage and plays from start to finish. No chit chatting, no taking breaks, just fiddlin’. Photos throughout the club show Bill at different eras of his life at The Wheel: Fiddlin’ with a lush head of hair in the ’70s, fiddlin’ in a stylish straw hat in the ‘80s and fiddlin’ at Bob Fuller’s birthday party in the ’90s.


Hillbilly Nights at the Wheel Club in Montreal

For those who associate country music with Shania Twain, Garth Brooks or Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, a trip to The Wheel Club can be an eye-opening experience. More than just a rustic music venue, The Wheel functions as an elite country music college where visitors are educated about the history, traditions and pioneers of the genre.


Hillbilly Nights at the Wheel Club

Jeannie correcting a brave newcomer who’d just stepped up to the mic. There’s a distinct “right” and “wrong” way to perform an old country tune at Hillbilly Night. For example, playing a song as Hank Williams recorded it in 1947: Right. Offering up a jazzy rendition of it: Wrong. Finger-picking a banjo like Earl Scruggs in 1953: Right. Finger-picking a banjo like Dolly Parton in 1977: Wrong. You’ll be asked to stop.



“If you want to play country, you have to dress country,” Bill Anthony says. On my first night at The Wheel, I was struck by the stylishness of 27-year-old Morgan Jones and his impeccable white Biltmore hat. Over the course of the night, I realized that Bill was dead serious. Every performer that took the stage was dressed like they’d stepped out of a Roy Rogers movie, with authentic cowboy hats, boots, bolo ties and embroidered shirts. Anybody wearing a hoodie or pair of Nikes was clearly an amateur.


With most of The Wheel Club’s patrons in their sixties, seventies and eighties, the atmosphere’s generally calm, civilized and there’s a lot of sitting around. But once the music starts and the fiddle kicks in it’s only a matter of time before the dance floor is packed with people spinning, twirling, clapping and tapping their feet.


Hillbilly Nights in Quebec

Eric Sandmark’s a prolific hillbilly rocker with the energy of someone more than half his age. He insisted I take his picture outside in the alley on the club’s icy rooftop. I was afraid he was going to slip and break his back but thankfully that didn’t happen. A relentless promoter of his band, Eric Sandmark & His Rumblers, he’s a fierce country music advocate bridging the old-time culture with the new.


Hillbilly Nights in Montreal

I talked with Molly and Karen, Concordia University students who were visiting The Wheel for the first time. They couldn’t stay long as they both had exams in the morning. The fact that Hillbilly Night is on Monday makes it a barrier for a lot of people to attend, and it became apparent that while The Wheel Club is a staple in so many people’s lives, it’s seen as a hokey novelty bar to others.



Around 10 p.m., Mike begins licorice distribution. The flavors are traditional red or black, none of that fancy new stuff. Snacks are a big deal at The Wheel Club. In the back corner there’s a table set up with popcorn, pretzels, Pringles and Cheetos. You can fill up a bowl for $2 and if you’re a musician, snacks are free.


Hillbilly Nights

Rob Scott’s the most gregarious of the club’s three owners. As a personal trainer he has the energy and the hustle to keep The Wheel rollin’, even in tough times. He sells raffle tickets, hosts fundraising events and is the club’s passionate social media hype man. With thin profit margins, staying in business is tricky, and attracting new people to the club, especially young folks who’ll spend money on drinks, is the biggest challenge.


Hillbilly Nights at the Wheel Club in Quebec

Former manager Dick Hearn worked as a firefighter in Newfoundland for 34 years before moving to Montréal and taking over the club from “some other guy who couldn’t pay the bills.” He no longer manages the club but comes in almost every night to bartend, visit with friends and enjoy the music. “I’ve made more friends here in 30 years that you would in five lifetimes.”