Legendary Canadian folk singer coming to Prince Albert

Jodi Schellenberg
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Although he has been in the business for 20 years, John McDermott never forgot where he came from.

John McDermott will be playing at the E.A. Rawlinson Centre on March 25. Tickets are available at the Rawlinson box office.

Looking back, McDermott remembers his family being very musical, with his parents hosting weekend shindigs in the community.

“I always remember music in the house,” McDermott said. “My father was an amazing singer and my mother had a beautiful voice too.”

His family immigrated to Canada in 1965, McDermott being one of 12 children and folk music was always a staple of their home on Saturday nights.

“Everybody in the family had their own song,” McDermott said. “It was really kind of funny because when people would come over, my dad would talk about the song before he sang it and he would try to get other people to do the same thing.”

He said, for example, if someone tried to sing his brother Anthony’s song his father would stop them and say, ‘Sing something else -- that’s Tony’s song. If Tony comes here tonight, he won’t have anything to sing.’”

McDermott never set out to be an entertainer. It all started when he recorded a album for his parent’s 50th wedding anniversary.

“A friend who was a concert promoter said, ‘I’ll take that and give it to a friend at EMI,’” McDermott said. “EMI liked it and released it and thought they would sell a couple thousand copies.”

He was signed on the Angel label, EMI’s classical label. When his album was released, he was surprised at the reaction.

“Peter Gzowski played three tracks from it the day it was released on Nov. 10, 1992. On Nov. 11, he played three songs for Remembrance Day and you couldn’t get a copy,” McDermott laughed. “It sold out overnight. EMI started pressing more copies.”

Soon after on of McDermott’s friends, Paul McGrath, a producer at CBC, asked to do a 10-minute piece about McDermott and his album.

After McDermott agreed, McGrath interviewed him, as well as his family and friends.

“Then I am watching the news one night and Peter Mansbridge closes the National with a 10-minute segment on me,” McDermott said.

His record started to sell “unbelievable well” and McDermott was asked to go on tour to promote it.

“I said, ‘Are you out of your mind? I don’t have a band. I can’t go on tour,’” McDermott remembered. “They said, ‘You have to go promote it.’”

He took a leave of absence from his job at a newspaper after his friend who owned Concert Productions International called him and said he needed to put together on band because he was going to be the opening act for The Chieftains.

“The first show I ever did, I was the opening act for the No. 1 Celtic band in the world,” McDermott said. “I won over the audience … at the end of that tour, I started my own tour and went right back out again. It was one of those strange things that you go from working at the newspaper to going to opening for the Chieftains.”  

Not only did the tour help jumpstart his performing career, McDermott helped start a few other musicians’ careers in the business.

The first fiddler player he hired, who was 17 at the time, was Ashley MacIssac, who played with McDermott for a few years.

“When he left I hired another fiddler that I liked,” McDermott said. “This fiddler insisted on bringing a piano player along with (her).”

Although he said he already had a piano player, she insisted so McDermott hired them both.

“It was Natalie MacMaster,” McDermott said. “It really was strange the way things went … All through this it has been a fantastic journey.”

McDermott describes his music as traditional folk, although it does have a slight Celtic flavour.

“They are wonderful ballads and stories and storytelling is the way I project it,” McDermott said. “I like (folk music) because 99 per cent of the stuff I sing is based on truth.

“I think that makes a difference. It definitely makes an impact on the audience because (what) they are hearing -- they know the song, they are familiar with the song and now they are hearing the history behind it,” he added. “It gives a whole new dimension to the beast.”

A lot of his inspiration comes from his father, who was a great role model.

“He pretty much taught me the traditional pieces and told me the history behind each one,” McDermott said. “I love to read up on them. If I read or hear something traditional, I like to know where it comes from.”

He said some other role models are Irish folk singer Christy Moore, American folk and country singers John Prine and Steve Goodman, Scottish folk singer Andy Stewart and Irish poet Thomas Moore.

“Without Thomas Moore I don’t think there’s any tenor in the world that would have anything decent to sing,” McDermott said. “He wrote so many amazing pieces.”

He may be able to list many role models, but McDermott said he wouldn’t be able to chose a favourite song.

“I think favourite songs are ones you never get tired of singing or hearing,” McDermott said. “That would be a determining factor.”

One song he enjoys is The Last Rose of Summer because it was his dad’s favourite and is a great Thomas Moore piece.

“There are so many great pieces I could list,” McDermott said. “Could list 10, 20, 30 favourites.”

McDermott has released 24 albums since he started singing in the 1990s and can’t believe he has been in the business that long.

“All of a sudden you blink and you are 20 years down the road and it is crazy,” McDermott said. “You never believe it when you get into it first of all. You are getting paid to do this and all of a sudden you blink and the memories are there and you are coming up on a 20-year anniversary.”

“For the show, I have gone back to the very beginning and we do songs that have happened all through the 20 years and talk about those times,” McDermott said. “I talk about my parents,  talk about my siblings, so fun stories and memorable stories about Uncle Michael. It is a real looking back piece is what it is. We do songs that everyone is familiar with. There is no mystery. I’m not going to come out and do a bunch of new songs. We are going to do fan favourites.”

He has a lot of experience from his long career and encouraged young artists to take “it by the horns.”

“No one is going to do it for you, but we are in a position nowadays to record our own things, to write, to manufacture and distribute,” McDermott said. “Do it. Don’t wait for someone else to get it done for you.”

He said it is a tough business that takes a lot of hard work and a little luck.

“It really is a lot is being at the right place at the right time but it is a lot of hard work too. Just believe in yourself and do it.”

As well as touring, McDermott is involved in some humanitarian work -- he has transition houses and care units in the United States for veterans, as well as the McDermott House Foundation in Canada.

“I am one of 12 children that immigrated here in 1965 with parents both in their 50s who obviously didn’t do it for themselves -- they did it for us,” McDermott said. “My father was a terribly hardworking guy. Everybody seemed to achieve a good successful and bright future in this country due to the efforts of my parents.”

Before McDermott’s father died, he asked his son to consider focusing on veterans and giving back to Canada when he decided to start doing charity work.

Keeping in with the veterans’ theme, McDermott is holding a contest during his 20th anniversary tour.

At each show, he will draw 10 tickets and put them into a big draw that will take place at the end of the tour -- the draw is for a trip for two to Vimy in France, since it is the 70th anniversary of the battle there. They will visit the battlefields and memorials with Canadian historians.

McDermott noted many people may think that is not fair, so he set up a second draw for the trip on his website mcdermotthousecanada.org, for anyone else who would like to enter. The draw will be made on April 12.

Tickets for McDermott’s show at the E.A. Rawlinson on March 25 are available at the Rawlinson box office.

Organizations: Prince Albert, CBC, McDermott House Foundation

Geographic location: Canada, United States, Vimy France

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