Burning the blues

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Jim Byrnes
Jim Byrnes

The legendary Jim Byrnes describes himself as a “callow bohemian” who has become a “weary pilgrim,” and who essentially lives the life of a drifter. He’s about to drift into the Okanagan for a one-night-only concert at ArtWalk 2014.

In his words, “Here’s a little of the journey so far:  The city streets of my boyhood; steam heat rising off the Mississippi; the railroad; grits and gravy; summers in Kentucky and the Ozarks; Jimmy Reed at The London House East; Bobby Blue Bland at the Cosmo Hall; the High Plains of east Colorado on a winter morning; The Charlie Company Boogie; all those nights in all those rented rooms; the wind off the ocean; the tough break and the heartache; the dust of Mexico; twilight on the Seine; the distant thunder; the light and the laughter in my children’s eyes; the constant struggle and infinite joy of love.”

By age 13, the direction of Byrnes’ journey was clear to him when he began singing and playing blues guitar.

No surprise, since Byrnes was born in blues country, St. Louis, Mo., playing his first professional gig in 1964.

He and a buddy haunted the music clubs as teens, often the only white people there.

“We never had any problems. We were too naive, and had too much respect for the music and culture — they knew it, they could tell,” he explained.

Drifting became an essential part of the journey, working odd jobs, playing music here and there. In the mid-’70s, he landed in what would become his home base — Vancouver. In 1981, he put together a band and Byrnes’ hallmark smoky vocals became a staple on the local scene. That year, he also released his first album, Burnin’

A busy man, the Jim Byrnes Band was heard playing the blues an incredible 300 nights in 1986.

He’s been travelling the blues highway for at least 45 years, but yes, you remember his name from television as well.

After starting with Shakespeare in the Park at age 15, and continuing at Boston University and St. Louis University, he broke into the TV market in 1987 with a song for the NBC miniseries, Hands of a Stranger.

 Wiseguy was filmed in Vancouver later that year, followed by the Highlander series and The Jim Byrnes Show, a variety show running across Canada in 1998-99.

He co-starred in many TV movies, from The Red Spider in 1988 to the memorable war veteran in the award-winning Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story, in 1995.

Add to that his work doing voices for various series, feature films and multiple albums. Two Highlander movies were produced, Endgame in 2000 and Highlander: The Source in 2007, where he played a blues bar owner.

Byrnes was nominated for a Genie for Harmony Cats in 1993, and under his belt is the 1996 Leo for best actor in a TV drama for his work in Highlander.

He continues with TV movies and series, voice work for commercials and animations and more albums.

Even a serious car accident in 1972 didn’t slow Byrnes down. He’s racked up two swipes with death and a series of hard knocks, but the journey continues.

For the last few years, Steve Dawson has been producing his work. Byrnes calls his 2006 Juno-winning House of Refuge album “gospel tinged,” and it raised the bar in its genre.

His journey explores gospel, blues, rockabilly and country genres, then he puts it all together in a bluesy way.

Awards are almost cluttering the journey now, topped off by this year’s Maple Blues Award for best male vocalist, for his song, I Hear The Wind in the Wires.

This year Byrnes and Dawson celebrated a decade of collaborations and the 250th anniversary of St. Louis. The album St. Louis Times reminisces about his childhood home and you can hear his joy coming through the music.

The journey still finds Byrnes playing 150 dates a year throughout North America and Europe, still burnin’ the blues.

The blues was his first love, and it’s still his foremost love.


WHO: Jim Byrnes

WHAT: ArtWalk 2014 Concert

WHERE: Creekside Theatre, 10241 Bottom Wood Lake Rd., Lake Country

WHEN: Sept. 6, at 7:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $25, phone 250-766-9309 or CreeksideTheatre.com