Like any good Canadian origin story, it started around a campfire. One in a backyard in Pemberton in June 2002, to be more specific.
Barbara Brooks and her neighbour were strumming their guitars and singing a few campfire songs when they got to chatting with Sue Stearns. Brooks was taking group guitar lessons, but wasn’t exactly progressing at the rate she’d hoped to. Stearns knew a few chords. Could she teach her?
Arrangements were made to launch a series of women-only guitar classes out of Pemberton’s high school that fall.
And that was how Chicks With Picks started.
Well, kind of. Also like any good origin story, it took a little longer than expected for the wheels to start turning. The fall session was cancelled when only one student signed up, before a second attempt in February 2003 proved more successful.
“It was just beginner guitar lessons for women,” remembered Chicks With Picks founder Stearns.
In the two decades since, Chicks With Picks has welcomed about 800 students ranging in age from 11 to 82 to its classes in Pemberton (and Whistler from 2013 to 2019), through the eight-week group sessions Stearns continues to teach each spring and fall.
“You can always learn something from playing with other people no matter what level you are,” said Stearns. “And I think that the camaraderie is also something that was a bit of a bonus.”
Those lessons expanded into the Chicks With Picks Performing Ensemble, an all-women group of guitar players (ranging from six to 12, depending who’s available) that rehearses most Sundays. It’s not just acoustic guitars onstage anymore, either, with some group members expanding their musical horizons to include everything from the bass and the ukulele to, in one case, the banjo.
Though the group has more than 150 shows under its belt to date, its first performance—a school fundraising event at the restaurant that’s now home to The Pony—is a particularly fond memory for Stearns. “That was the first thing that sort of sparked the opportunity that maybe we could perform outside of class,” she recalled.
Looking back, “we’ve really come a long way from just being a group of girls that jam together to actually performing the songs. Not just playing them but adding our little shtick to it and adding our own flavour,” she added.
“There’s always nerves before you perform and there’s always little mistakes and things that we have to deal with, but overall, you look at the expression on the faces and it’s just magic.”
Their next performance will see the Chicks celebrate both their 20th anniversary and International Women’s Day (IWD) with a performance at Grimm’s Gourmet & Deli in Pemberton on Sunday afternoon, March 5 from 2 to 4 p.m.
With a carefully curated setlist filled with hits from every decade from the 1910s to the 2000s, there’s sure to be something for everyone. It might be IWD, but the setlist doesn’t discriminate, with songs by the Beatles mixed in with ABBA and Zac Brown Band, Blue Rodeo, Green Day and Willie Nelson.
The show will be by donation, with all funds raised going towards Sea to Sky Community Services’ Pemberton-based programs.
Can’t make it to Sunday’s performances? Stay tuned for more appearances from Chicks With Picks across Spud Valley in the coming months. The group plans to host a 20th-anniversary party later this summer (specifics to come), and is also scheduled to play at venues like the Pemberton Women’s Institute Annual Plant Sale, a pre-Mother’s Day event at Happi Life Farm, the Pemberton Farmers’ Market and the Copper Cayuse Outfitters Women’s Retreat, to name just a few.
“It’s just really been a special thing that’s just kind of grown, and it still amazes me to this day, the dedication of everyone, no matter the venue, no matter what the occasion is—everyone rises up and just gives it their best and it’s just a wonderful, special feeling to be at 20 years and still doing it,” said Stearns.