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Born in Toronto, Bennett was part of the 1970s folk music scene in Canada, alongside such figures as Bruce Cockburn, Stan Rogers and David Wiffen. He released his first single (“White Lines”) in 1969, and his final solo album (the Juno Award-winning Heartstrings) in 1998.
While commonly regarded as a major talent, Bennett did not become as famous as his contemporaries until 1996 when Stephen Fearing, Colin Linden and Tom Wilson formed Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, a supergroup named for Bennett’s 1978 album, and recorded a tribute album featuring Bennett’s songs. Bennett’s first subsequent album of new material, Heartstrings, won a 1999 Juno Award for Best Roots & Traditional Album – Solo. On 10 September 2010 in Edmonton Alberta, Willie was officially inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame during the Canadian Country Music Awards (CCMAs). The award was accepted by his mother, sister and nephew.
While Bennett was highly regarded as a songwriter and solo performer, early in his career he formed and fronted the newgrass group Bone China Band, touring through Ontario. Throughout his career, he kept busy as a sideman in bands fronted by other artists. From 1974 to 1979 he toured and recorded with the Dixie Flyers, playing harmonica. Bennett also played harmonica live and on recordings with Joe Hall, Doug McArthur, Sneezy Waters and several other pop and country artists. In the early 1990s, Bennett was a member of Toronto-based Pat Temple and the High Lonesome Players, playing live and appearing on their 1991 album Connecting Lines. In 1991 he joined Fred Eaglesmith’s band (“The Flying Squirrels”), with whom he toured and recorded, playing chiefly mandolin and harmonica and singing backup vocals, also serving as road manager, until shortly before his death. During a 2007 Victoria Day weekend concert in Midland, Ontario, he suffered an on-stage heart attack – which he played through but which forced him to stop touring.
He died of a heart attack on 15 February 2008, at his home in Peterborough, Ontario. At the time of his death, he had resumed performing live solo, and was planning on re-joining Fred Eaglesmith on tour.
Willie P. Bennett – vocals, harmonica, acoustic and electric guitars
Mike Gardner – electric bass
Mike Holder – pedal steel
Denis LePage – banjo
Steve Taylor – drums
Chris Whiteley – harmonica, acoustic guitar, trumpet
Ken Whiteley – piano, organ, electric guitar
David Zdriluk – acoustic bass
David Essig – mandolin, slide guitar