Who does not love a child prodigy?
I remember my first glimpse of a kid that set us back on our heels as he lit up small town community halls across the fine province of Saskatchewan. It was time when we still had leaders who loved the culture in agriculture, notes and oats if you will …
It was in the late seventies, a time when there were still arts grants available and a promising young group of musicians and actors took to the road and hit probably every small town in Sask. Colin Munn was a long way down on the bill but he became the big hit on the stage. The precocious youngster (maybe fourteen) played the penny whistle like a Chieftain and mandolin like a gypsy. He kicked our collective assets and became the hometown music hero we all were looking for.
In 1984 he had that “origin” story moment. In his words cribbed from an interview with Ross Muir,
“I was playing in a blues bar in Vancouver and I was the youngest guy in the band but when it came time for a record company to check us out my band leader kind of let me go…come back when you are a bit older sort of thing. So I go home telling everyone I had been fired from my band. Next thing you know, I get a call…”can you open for Stevie Ray Vaughn tomorrow night?” I lie and tell the guy yes and to make matters worse, anyone who could have played with me were out of town or booked. I had to pick people I didn’t even know as my band. We drive to the gig in a truck filled with drums and gear. The boys ask me if we are playing for a wedding or something. I say, “No we are opening for Stevie Ray Vaughn in the main hall.”
About an hour later Stevie comes busting into our dressing room and asks…”Is it true, you guys have never met one another before?’ I have to tell him…yeah it’s true.
We get on stage and immediately I break a string … I am lost, I have no tech support or help and I spot one of Stevie’s guys. He sees me and comes over and fixes it up, but he has tuned it to E flat and the band is in E!! It was just terrible!
But thankfully Stevie got a kick out of it and called me up for the encore and then the next night as well and it was the start of a great friendship. A year later he came back and I ended up on the tour bus with him for a couple of weeks.
Changed my life, he says, and my name as well, as it was Stevie who convinced me that I should be Colin James not Coil Munn!
I met him a few years later in the basement of the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. It was a time when Canadians bands such as the Hip, the Cowboy Junkies and Blue Rodeo were launching big careers out of the little joint on Queen West. I was freelance writing and set to do a cover story for a Sask. based magazine. We agreed to meet and do the interview at the ‘Shoe. Colin was setting Toronto on fire that night and the sold out crowd loved him. When he came down those old shaky stairs for the interview I was struck by how calm and cool he was considering what had just passed upstairs.
We of course connected on our mutual love of the Promised Land, Saskatchewan and the interview was one of the warmest ones ever for me. A couple of things stand out in my fading memory. I asked him about his obvious love of roots music and where it might have come from. He said it came from the crib. Even as a little guy, he said he would lie awake at night listening intently as his folks cranked up the record player and spun tunes from the likes of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. Colin says he truly believes he was “imbued with the blues.”
I also recall asking him about his view on celebrity and how he perceived it creeping up on him even faster after that great night I suggested that an hour ago, he had the Toronto music community at his feet adoring the kid with a Fender set on fire. This level of adoration and success, we agreed, had led more than one musician down a crooked path of narcissism, excess and self-destruction. Did he see any of that as a possibility down the road? He looked me straight in the eye and said, “not a chance.”
“Why?” I ask.
Again he went back to his raising. “My folks were Quakers, he said and I was raised with some pretty solid values and responsibilities. I have no desire to throw all that away for some bad spotlight life choices.”
As if that were not impressive enough, he then invites me to join him and his family for breakfast the next morning. Turns out his stepfather is a Cree Indian and that breakfast conversation turned into an amazing dialogue ranging from the roots of the blues and black history to the role of the drum in indigenous culture and music.
I met him again a few years later. He had just married his Quaker summer camp love and was very happy with the way his life was going. “Here’s my phone number he says and writes it on a piece of paper for me.
Are you kidding? I remember thinking, but I knew he was not. It was such a sincere offering and even today I cannot imagine any other big time, emerging rock star doing the same.
I carried that piece of paper around for many years.
A good kid …