Picture this: It’s the late ‘70s, perhaps the early ‘80s — the story varies depending on who’s recounting it. You’re at the Red Barn, just 40 minutes north of Edmonton, sitting at one of its tables constructed out of sand-blasted barrels and covered by bright gingham cloths. Light from lanterns and fixtures mounted on wagon wheels bounces off the red broadloom carpet, bathing the whole space in a warm light.
You’re enjoying a drink with some friends when suddenly all the lights turn off. A few moments later, they’re flipped back on. A voice mutters a single line.
“I’m Johnny Cash.”
The Red Barn, now part of a much larger establishment known as Lily Lake Resort, has a rich musical history. Cash played it twice, and other country legends such as Waylon Jennings and Charley Pride have also performed at the vacation getaway near Legal.
It’s not just country artists, either. The Red Barn, which in fact has been painted green since the resort reopened in 2017 after lying dormant for eight years, boasts of once hosting Canadian icon Anne Murray.
Originally opened in 1975, the Red Barn was the brainchild of Sturgeon County resident Walter Jerram, who along with business partner Bill Cochrane wanted to do more with the 960 acres of land the two had been farming since they bought it in 1963. After securing a loan for $300,000, the 27,780 square foot Red Barn was built at a cost of $750,000 — or the equivalent of about $4 million in 2022, based on inflation.
Jerram first got the idea for the Red Barn after visiting Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. “It wasn’t that I wanted to build one exactly like it, but the place struck me because it was so different from any other,” he told the St. Albert Gazette in 1979. “I wanted to make [the Red Barn] the place in Canada by building it as different as possible.”
In that time, Jerram, originally from Wainwright, also served as the councillor for Division 7 for over a decade. The Red Barn wasn’t the only establishment that Jerram ran either — he and Cochrane opened and operated a private zoo called the Alberta Wildlife Park from 1975 until 1988.
The Red Barn was an immediate success. People were turned away at the door the first night it opened, and in its first year it sold more than 5,000 memberships.
“It’s such a stunning building,” says Greg Switner, who now runs Lily Lake Resort. “The architecture is so unique. The acoustics are wonderful. It’s a real gem. Unfortunately, all the memorabilia was lost before I came on the scene. Which is a shame, because we lost so much history along with it and now have to rely on stories from people who actually attended those shows.”
In its heyday, the Red Barn would serve over 1,000 patrons a night. It was famous for its regular Saturday night dances, which would typically see artists from the prairies take its stage to entertain the usually sold-out crowds.
One of those acts was Edmonton’s own the Emeralds Show and Dance Band, who were the house band at the Red Barn for 17 years. The local group, which has been nominated for five Junos in its 50-year career and is responsible for the international polka hit, “The Bird Dance,” which helped popularize the “chicken dance” across the world, took the stage at the venue once a month from 1978 until 1995.
“We didn’t even have a contract,” laughs Allan Broder, the manager and founding member of the Emeralds. “I just had a handshake agreement with Walter Jerram and Bill Cochrane where we would play there once a month. They wanted us to play two or three times a month because we packed that place every single time we played there for 17 years. But I was smart enough to make sure we didn’t overexpose ourselves there, so we just gave them one night a month. It wouldn’t have been as lucrative for us as it was if we didn’t limit how often we played.”
Broder fondly remembers his group’s residency at the Red Barn, recalling nights where “40 busloads of people would arrive from all across Alberta to see us play.”
“Any night that we would play there, there were 20 to 30 RVs parked there so people could party all night and stay overnight,” continues Broder. “It was a unique experience for us. I remember one year we were playing on New Year’s Eve and Walter [Jerram] wouldn’t let us start when we were supposed to because there was a lineup out the door for the food service. And this was a well-run place!”
Switner, along with former business partner Brian Blue, took over and reopened the resort — which also features a lounge, banquet hall, 20-room hotel, and campground — in 2017.
“We saw the potential,” says Switner. “We host all sorts of events now, from weddings to corporate retreats and camping in the summer, but we still focus on the music side of things.”
Since taking the reins in 2017, Lily Lake Resort has experienced its fair share of ups and downs. As with most musical venues across the world, the Red Barn shut down when the COVID-19 pandemic started in March of 2020. It remained closed for two years, during which the resort kept its campsite and doors open. This past January, the Red Barn started hosting musical acts again, this time for good, Switner hopes.
“The Red Barn has such an amazing musical legacy, and we want to honour that.”
Do a concert search on websites like Setlist or Songkick and you get pages and pages of hits for venues all sharing the “Red Barn” name. Heck, there’s even an Old Red Barn, near Leduc.
The Old Red Barn (the one near Leduc, not the one near Legal), is teaming with Pitt County BBQ to feature a series of Farm to Flame cookouts, Thursdays from June to October. Meals will be cooked on a series of Argentine “live fire” devices.
“We want to show off the great products Alberta has to offer and showcase live-fire cooking techniques that can be learned and replicated, while bringing an elevated dining experience to the heart of the prairies,” said Peter Zukiwski, owner of Pitt County BBQ, in a statement.