The Evocative Smoky Voice & Personality of Jim Byrnes

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I didn’t know about the evocative sound of Jim Byrnes and his band before attending Winnipeg’s Barbeque BBQ and Blues Festival in August. He’s not a stranger to American TV screens or performing at blues festivals around the world, however he spends more of his time in Canada than anywhere else having been a regular to the Vancouver music scene since the early eighties.

An Irishman at heart, he has that twinkle in his eye that you wouldn’t expect for a man who lost both his legs at the age of 23 to a freak accident that changed his life forever.

Still devilishly handsome at 63, he’s a natural born storyteller, one of two gifts he was given, music being the other.

That seamless ability to tell an engaging story and be “on” in front of the camera at a moment’s notice led him to an acting career that included roles in Highlander and CBS Series Wiseguy, which is where most Americans will know his face and name.  

But his music is what wooed me into wanting to know more about his life, what makes him tick and “why blues?”

Jim was born in St. Louis Missouri at a time when Muddy Waters, Ike and Tina, Johnny Johnson, Albert Lewis and others played at local clubs.

He says with a chuckle when I interviewed him after his performance, “Ike and Tina were the house band at Club Imperial Lounge, where people jammed in those days. It was attached to a bowling alley at the time.”

He looks up in a sweet reflection as he recalls the first time he met Muddy Waters who was a key source of inspiration in his younger years. At age 15, he met Muddy at the Slicks Lakeside Club in Illinois, and again in September 1966 at Club 47 in Boston, MA, not knowing that he’d play with him on stage years later.

Jim doesn’t get back to the states that often, perhaps only two times a year, but visits always include a stop to see his 93 year old mom who still resides in St. Louis.

He does a number of charity events as well but says that the states just has too many issues for him to want to spend more time there. He talked about observations from his father’s funeral who spent 30 years working at the City Hall in St. Louis and how much political polarization and fragmentation has occurred over the years.

After he moved to Vancouver in his early twenties, he made Canada home and even though he returned to Missouri for a short time after his accident where family and friends supported him through his healing process, it was Vancouver he felt more connected to and why he eventually returned.

He met his wife not long after he moved back to Canada in 1977 and smiles when he refers to his forty-something year old daughter Kate who is a filmmaker living in New York City.

Earlier in the evening before they went on stage, I meandered into the ‘green room’ searching for a soda, which for blues festivals, is often a white trailer. I still didn’t know the man sitting on the couch was Jim at the time; he was making notes on an 8.5×11 piece of paper and I soon learned it was the song line-up which he then handed to his guitar player.

They were about to hit the Blues Festival stage as the next to the last act of the final day. His guitar player referenced a song on the list and asked “which one is that again?” and Jim started to hum and then sing a line from the song and subsequently so did he. It was one of those sweet “green room” moments.

One of the things I noticed on and off stage is how passionate Jim is about his music. I suppose you could say that about all musicians, but there’s something meloncholy, sweet and adoring about the look in his eyes as he talks about music and when he plays it. It extends beyond passion.

When we talked in that barren white trailer after his set, I asked him what he was more passionate about – his acting or his music? He laughed and said, “that’s like asking which child I prefer? It’s such a tough question.” Remember that he was a theatre major at Boston University in the 1960s, not a music major with English and History being his minors. He added, “Music has seen me through the hardest of times. Music is so special,” his raspy but alluring voice echoed. “It has seen me through in a way nothing else has.”

Jim has always loved the stage as long as he could remember although his handicap got in the way with some of his LA auditions who felt that it would deflect from the script rather than add to it. Really? I couldn’t imagine there wouldn’t be a hundred roles where a handicap would have added a boat load of authenticity to the storyline: cops, detectives, gangsters, a dad who has overcome obstacles and can inspire his family and friends, the list goes on.

He said of his Hollywood days, “it’s just not the same reward as performing on stage.”

Hear hear I thought as I marveled at his presence in front of thousand or so people sitting on the grass in front of the stage, snapping fingers, clapping hands and tapping their feet as they listed to his incredible sound.

As he limped off stage, fans were still roaring. Of course its more rewarding I thought, because he brings so much joy to so many people when he sings.

While I didn’t want to focus on his handicap and nor did he, I couldn’t help but be curious about how it has impacted his touring, since he said he still does 150 or so concerts a year.

Above his band jams on-stage…

Jim says that although his prosthesis has come a long way since his World War II version which he referred to as “a leather-strapped hack of sorts,” he also had 40 years of getting used to less technologically advanced ‘legs.’ The latest set is an advanced Plié, and he says he hasn’t had the time to use them properly yet. “It’s a lot of work,” he says. “I need to untrain muscles which got used to moving in a certain way with my old ‘legs’ and now, need to get retrained on how to use these.” When you’re on the road as much as Jim, I can only imagine finding time to undo years of muscle training must be a challenge.

Obstacles don’t seem to stop Jim from doing what he wants to do in his life on or off the stage as he spoke of a time he walked across the city of Paris.

When people think of Jim who know him, I wondered if they saw him as a former American TV star or a renowned Canadian blues musician. Which one is more dominant in their mind? I think Jim sees himself as both although his eyes didn’t seem to sparkle the same way when he talked about his acting career as they did when he talked about his time on stage performing.

It’s his passion for the art and his vocal talent that made me sad when the set ended. I wanted more. I wanted more of Jim’s smoky voice and his fun and electric band who had me at hello. And, I have to admit, the man is a charmer.

Below is the video I shot of our conversation that night.

Photo credit: first photo left from trialx/purebyte. All other photos: Renee Blodgett.

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