Culture Envy: Meet Blues musician Jim Byrnes

Brynes received an honorary degree at KPU for his impact in the community during the February convocation ceremony

Jim Brynes received an honorary degree from KPU during the February convocation ceremony for his work in the community. (Submitted)

Jim Brynes received an honorary degree from KPU during the February convocation ceremony for his work in the community. (Submitted)

From a young age, music surrounded Jim Byrnes. Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, musicians like Chuck Berry lived just a few blocks away from him while Tina Turner played at local bowling alley teen dances in his neighbourhood. 

Byrnes started taking piano lessons in kindergarten with his sisters through the nuns at his local church. He then started singing weekly in his church’s choir at 10, and by 12 he started playing guitar on his own. His first professional gig was in 1964, and in high school he was part of the Glee club. 

For nearly 50 years, the Vancouver-based Blues musician has been creating and performing his work in a way that’s different from the rest. Now at 74, Byrnes has cultivated numerous awards, including three Juno Awards for Blues Album of the Year for his albums “That River” in 1996, “House of Refuge” in 2007, and “Everywhere West” in 2011. 

“We really got quite a music education. My mother loved music and listened to really good stuff. I grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday, and I really fell in love with music,” Byrnes says. 

Byrnes has lived in Vancouver since the mid-1970s. Outside the music scene, he had a dream of becoming an actor. He studied theatre at Boston and St. Louis University before moving to British Columbia. 

In 1972, Byrnes’ life changed drastically when a truck hit him from behind on Vancouver Island when he was helping move a stalled truck. His injuries were so severe that his legs were amputated. 

“After I had this accident, when I was 23 years old, [I] couldn’t get [a job] as an actor for quite awhile and I just started playing music all the time,” he says. “I played with my bands when I was in school, but it really became serious when I changed careers and changed courses in the middle of extremes.” 

However in 1987, 15 years later, he got a role in drama TV series Wiseguy as Daniel Burroughs, also known as Lifeguard. He was also in the science-fantasy TV series Highlander, voiced cartoon characters in shows like Beast Wars: Transformers and Nick Fury in X-Men:Evolution, and starred in his own show called The Jim Byrnes Show

For Byrnes’ work in music, acting, and the community, he received an honorary degree from Kwantlen Polytechnic University during the Feb. 16 convocation ceremony. He says he was surprised that he received the degree. 

“I got an email saying that somebody had nominated me and went through the whole process. I then got an email from Dr. Alan Davis saying, ‘Would you accept?’ and I said, ‘It would be a great honour,’” he says. “It was very gratifying, an agreement of something you really don’t expect at all.” 

Looking back on that day, Byrne says it will always be a special day in his life. 

“I look back down and it was such an emotional [and] moving sort of thing. It was sort of overwhelming in a way.” 

Byrnes says one good memory of his music career that comes to mind is performing at the Vancouver Island Music Festival a few years ago. His band performed on a Sunday morning during the festival with a gospel trio and had the Del McCoury Band with them as well.  

“It was something I still [remember],” he says. “People that were there on the island for that show still say that was one of the greatest that they ever saw.” 

On March 30, Byrnes and his band will be opening for the Canadian Folk Music Awards (CFMA) in Vancouver, which is the first time the award show is being held in the city. His band is part of the BC Showcase, which is a collaboration between the CFMA and The Rogue Folk Club. People interested in attending can purchase tickets on their website

“The energy you get back from the crowd becomes bigger than some of its parts. It creates an energy that there’s an excitement and adrenaline that you live for,” he says.  

“It’s a part of who I am. I really can’t put it into words beyond that. It’s a part of me. Without it, I wouldn’t be me.”