Updated: Sep 2, 2022
By Elizabeth Gracen:
I recently Zoomed with my great friend Jim Byrnes to talk about his latest honor of being selected for the Order of Canada. We discussed his life, career, passions, and, of course, music. It was so good to see his handsome face and infectious smile. I adore this man, and I think he knows it. We worked together on Highlander: The Series and Highlander: The Raven in the 90s and enjoyed many a great moment on and off set. I can't tell you how many times I've hit the dance floor when he starts to play. I'm his perfect audience . . . and I think he knows that, too. Please enjoy the interview and be sure to check out his amazing music!
Congratulations, James T. Byrnes!
EG: First of all, a big congratulations on your latest award: The Order of Canada. Did you have any idea that you were being nominated for this?
JB: I knew that I'd been nominated, but like three years ago. Your nomination lasts for five years. I had sponsors like Gloria Macarenko, who is a radio host, a good friend, and a member of the Order of Canada, and my friend Michael Boucher, who's the artistic director at Simon Fraser University, who I worked with when we did "Bah Humbug"—our interpretation of A Christmas Carol set in Vancouver's downtown East Side. I got this phone call and, honestly, there was one point in the phone call when I was gonna say, “C’mon. Who is this really?” He finally convinced me that he was legit and that it was all on the up and up. This was in May, and they tell you to not tell anyone else until Canada Day. I told my wife and daughter, but that was it.
EG: What does the award mean to you?
JB: My friend Christopher Gaze, who runs a Shakespeare project called Bard on the Beach, told me that if we were England, I’d be known as “sir” or “lord.” I like “lord.” Honestly, I'm still digesting it all. They are honoring me for my contribution to arts, culture, and charity. I do a lot of charity work that I don't talk about, you know, because if you're talking about it, it's not charity work! It’s work I do with disabled people and with children's hospitals—so it means a tremendous amount to me. But like I said, I'm still sort of processing exactly what it means. They have an investiture, which takes place in Ottawa, but they haven't had one in two years because of the pandemic. They may stagger the ceremonies at some point, because we're talking about three years' of people. There were 85 of us this year. There are three levels: Companion, which is like the top, and then Order of, and then Member. I'm a member. There are people like the Olympic athlete Donovan Bailey, the actress Sandra Oh . . . so, it’s pretty great to be in that kind of company.
EG: Well, even though you don't wanna talk about your charity work, I’d love for you to tell me about the Face the World Foundation.
JB: It was started about 25–30 years ago by a woman named Jacqui Cohen, who wanted me along because I knew people who lived down on the street—and honestly could have been me at one point. We actually just had an event where I played at a music festival, and we raised approximately $800,000. The organization has raised millions and millions of dollars over the years. One of the reasons I'm on the board is that we have lots of people who come to us wanting grants, and I like to sit on the board and help sift them out, because some of them come in with really screwball ideas. We always try to support single women, abused women, children who are kind of lost. We’re very proud of the work that’s done.
I’m also on the board of Odd Squad Productions. It started about 25 years ago by a group of beat cops down on the downtown east side where all the drugs are. There was a film made down in that area called Through a Blue Lens to try and find out the why and how it all went down there. None of these guys would arrest people for possession. They all knew that that was the wrong way to go. It has evolved, and a lot of it now is working with kids to try to keep them out of drugs and gangs. They try to give them other stuff to do and point them in other directions. There is actually a legacy fund in my name that is targeted to kids who were in trouble, went to rehab. You know, when they turn nineteen, the government sort of cuts them loose, so this fund addresses their needs for another six months after rehab so that they don’t end up back in the same world. That’s one of the things that I’m very proud of.
There's a lot of anti-police sentiment these days. I understand that there's a lot of problems and there's some really bad cops, but these are great guys. And the fact that they have pulled me in to help . . . I'm very proud of that. We're trying to do something really positive. It's not so positive all the time.
EG: When I worked at lot in Vancouver, there were a lot of young people on the street. A lot of heroin use. Has it gotten worse?
JB: Much worse. It’s Fentanyl now. I’m not going get into the numbers, but there’s about six people a day who overdose at all sorts of ages. Something has to be done.
EG: So, we’re connected from our Highlander experience. So many things have changed in our personal lives and in the world, but you just keep making music and experimenting and performing this wonderful music. You’re a man of many talents—you’re a real wordsmith—but I think more than anything, music defines you. I know that it's hard to describe why music is so important to you, but I'd like you to try.
JB: You remember on Highlander where MacLeod would get in trouble, and he’d have a katana and a martial arts practice? Well, when I would get in trouble, I'd pick up my guitar and play. Well, that’s still in my life. It's been the thing that I can trace back to the day of my accident. When I was first recovering in the hospital, I was in a lot of pain. So, at night, they’d let me go to a part of the hospital and take my guitar and just wail away. And when I was wailing away, it didn't hurt. You know, it really didn’t. That’s the truth. A chemical in the brain that’s released. So, it's been just the way that I get through the worst of things and the way I celebrate the best of things.
Early Days: (1) Mary Frances, Jim, and Tom Byrnes, 1950; (2) Fran & Tom Byrnes, 1940
My mom had a very distinctive voice. Not a professional, but she would sing. She talked about her mother, who I never really knew because she died when I was three. She used to call me “Sunny Jim.” Her nickname was “Sorrowful Mary.” She'd had a tough time. Her life was something else. Her great joy in life was on Saturday afternoon listening to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on the radio. That and Cardinals baseball on the radio. She had 10 kids. This was back in the days when there was no welfare. It was hard times all around. But there was music. I think that's part of what's in my DNA, finding the great solace and the great celebration that music brings to life.
EG: You are back performing now. Are you contemplating recording a new record?
JB: I’d like to do a new recording, but I just haven’t gotten the spark yet. I’m waiting for it. I need to write a few things, but I want it to be beyond great. I don't mean it to be morose or anything, but it may well be the last recording I do.
EG: Don’t say that, please!
JB: Well, I mean, I like playing live. Recording is a different beast. It's like the difference between working in theater and working on film, you know? I get more out of it doing it live. I know that some guys love going into the studio and recording, but for me, the energy’s just not there. So, when I do sit and record again, I want it to be so special. It's not easily done. Some guys go one and boom, boom, boom. One song after another. For me, it’s almost like pulling teeth.
EG: This is a bit of an odd segue, but have you heard the soundtrack or seen the new Baz Luhrman film Elvis? I thought of you when I saw it.
JB: Oh yeah, I want to see it. I saw an interview with Lisa Marie Presley and Austin Butler. She loved him so much, so I thought it's worth a look. I don't know if I ever told you, but the first concert that I ever went to—
EG: It was a fair in Arkansas right? And you saw Elvis?
JB: The Big South Fair in Batesville, Arkansas. My sister and I went to Little Rock. She was thirteen, I was eight or nine. My mom was pregnant but not in the hospital yet. We took the train down to Little Rock to visit these friends on Memorial Day weekend. We went to the Big South Fair—you know, with the two-headed cows and the whole bit. At the end of the day, there was a free show for everybody on a flatbed truck. The headliner was Webb Pierce. The opening acts were Wanda Jackson and the Hillbilly Cats—Elvis with Scotty and Bill. They did like four songs, and it was like, wow. A couple years or three years ago, Wanda put out a new album that Jack White produced, and she was on a tour. She was here in town, and my friend was the opening act. So I made my way to talk to Wanda. I told her that story. She said, "Well, you know, I was dating Elvis at that time."
EG: How exciting! I’m a huge Elvis fan.
JB: It was mind-blowing for me. The whole thing. To be there was transforming. I was with about five 13-year-old girls. . . .
EG: Were they screaming?
JB: Oh yeah. This was when he was just starting, before he signed with Colonel Tom. This was May of 55, and it was October of 55 that he signed with Colonel Parker, and things went into a whole other gear.
EG: You’re an amazing storyteller, and you pretty much have a story to go with every piece of music I've ever heard you play. Everything connects to a memory in such a vivid way—a moment in time. Your fantastic radio show truly showcased the depth of your music-history knowledge. Do you write these stories down? If you don’t, you need to.
JB: Everybody tries to pigeonhole music, but down south, as you know, on the radio you’d have Howling Wolf trying to imitate Jimmy Rogers. He couldn’t yodel, but he did his own thing—Muddy Waters once told this to me in a conversation. I mean, I loved Sun House, and I loved Robert Johnson, and I knew these bands that I grew up with, but the reason I really wanted to be an entertainer and get into music was the "Singing Cowboy," Gene Autry. People hear country music or blues and this and that, but it’s all coming out of the same place. Going back into the twenties when they first started really recording music, there was classical music, there was popular music, and then there was folk music, which was country blues. It was all the Carter Family and Robert Johnson—they where in the same bag. It really remains that way. In my heart, in my mind, it all comes together that way.
EG: My grandmother had one of those old console stereos that you slid open. I was listening to all kinds of music when I was a little girl—especially Elvis.
JB: It kind of started at furniture stores that sold those big-old console record players. They’d be part of a furniture store. They’d get records to play to sell the stereos. They went down into Virginia or wherever to find the Carter Family and to find these blues guys and bring 'em in to record so they could sell records. When people came to buy furniture, there was this “newest thing” to buy; you gotta have this. There was also the Enrico Caruso records that were played too.
EG: Did musicians perform in these places? Furniture stores?
JB: Oh, yeah. In Galax, Virginia, the Carter Family would do lots of shows in these big furniture stores. They would set up and play, and the salesmen would say, “You can take this home with you!”
EG: Selling the merch!
JB: It’s still the same . . . when we play a festival, we’re basically pointing them to our CDs and saying, “You can take it home with you!”
EG: I’m going to shift gears here. I recently read one of your Facebook posts where you were talking about Disability Pride Month. You said:
“Talking about disability and the disability experience is important—because in the ongoing battle to build a better world, I have to expect and understand that for people who don’t have a personal experience with disability, hearing and seeing the stories, experiences, and feelings [of] those of us who do helps to build the empathy and understanding necessary to drive societal change and inclusion.”
I’d like to talk a little about this “ongoing battle to build a better world.” You have a unique perspective, and I guess I want to know what you think about the future. Are you pessimistic? Are you optimistic?
JB: You know, there's the glass half empty/glass half full saying. Well, I look at it more realistically. It’s a glass with some water in it. By nature, I’m not pessimistic. I can become somewhat cynical about certain things, but only because a cynic is a wounded optimist, you know what I'm saying?
EG: Wow! Who said that?
JB: Me! I just did! <laugh>
EG: Clever bastard. That's great.
JB: But you know what I'm saying? You have to have believed in something to become cynical. You have to find your way back in. For example, it’s hard for me travel. I've always kind of avoided using a wheelchair, but now I sort of have to sometimes, and you're treated differently when you're in a wheelchair than any other time. Now this—this is going back—but my family was on a trip. We were going to St. Louis, and my wife, Robyn, had gone off somewhere and my daughter, who was about eight years old, was with me in my wheelchair as we were going through security. The security guy walks up and doesn’t even make eye-contact with me but asks my eight-year-old daughter if I can walk! That kind of thing really hasn’t changed that much. When you’re disabled, you’re somewhat invisible. There have been great changes, and I’m able to get around much easier with mobility scooters and curb cuts. They even have a big mat down on the beach where you can take a wheelchair out so that I can actually go to the beach instead of sitting on the sidewalk; but there are places in the world that are hard to travel to because it is not a priority. Going way back when I was doing Wiseguy and the Americans with Disabilities Act was in the works, I did some lobbying for them. I happened to see an internal memo for one of the major airlines that said something to the effect of, “We tried this and we've tried that, but how can we just get 'em to stay home?”
EG: How awful. How cold.
JB: So, except for the fact that there [are] certain things you just can't do, we can do it, and we're gonna keep trying. That's the constant battle that is still going on. The battle for people to get accessibility in places. There are places that you can't go because there's just too many stairs or there's this or there's that, and it's just not gonna work. But I think even more than that is getting into people's minds that we're all on this boat, rocking in the same old boat. Although actually not really in the same boat, we're in the same storm! Some people are in big, nicer boats, but we're all out to sea together. That's the struggle. To get acceptance into people’s minds and, “Help me.” Don’t show me pity. Don’t feel sorry for me. Just help me when I need it. Try to understand, not just me, but everybody with social disabilities. Not all of them are even visible. It's just a matter of trying to open people's minds up.
EG: So for my last question, I read in one of your interviews that one of your goals is to play King Lear on stage. Do you still want to do that? How do we make it happen, because I would love to see it.
JB: Well, you know, I've spoken to Christopher Gaze who runs the Bard on the Beach. It’s been off for two years, but they're back on this year. I'd have to do it in a wheelchair, but you know, it's an old man going crazy, so . . . <laughs>
EG: Why is Lear the play you want to do?
JB: I mean, Hamlet is great and deep, but that’s like a 21-year-old college student. Lear—just in terms of the human spirit, of love and hate, the relationships to the daughters, the madness, delirium . . . Back then they didn’t have names and diagnosis and everything that he is experiencing, this trip into the deep, dark abyss of the human mind and spirit. It would be a lot of work.
EG: You could also film it, or at least the big scenes.
JB: That’s a good idea. Another great pipe dream of mind is that scene at the end of Zorba the Greek where it says, “I want to dance,” and Anthony Quinn throws off his jacket and he does that first dip with his leg. God, that’s . . . In my dreams . . . I can do that. Just that beginning . . . that first dip where he comes back up, and oh man, I can watch it over and over again.