And Ron Hynes Came On


Ron Hynes

For a time, a Ron Hynes gig in downtown St. John’s was as regular an occurrence as crowded street parking.  Take any Friday night – the month, the day or year doesn’t matter – take any Friday night at the Rose and Thistle, the Water Street hole-in-the-wall with holes in the wall. Sometimes the bandstand would be up front by the street level window. Other times it’s along the south wall, adjacent to the bar. Ron would start playing and warming himself up as the patrons slowly assemble, paying an obscenely low cover fee to get in.

Most musicians in the bar scene play what they call sets. Forty-five minutes to an hour, 10-12 songs, three times a night. As he finishes a stretch of 45 minutes, before the last song, Ron will say “Thanks everybody for coming out tonight. We’ve got one more song for you and we’ll take a break. We’ve got two more shows for you after this.”

Not sets… Shows. Here’s a guy playing in a small club in small city in a small province in a small country, yet has the respect for the edifice and the people to not use showbiz terminology.

A former colleague of mine, the radio producer, Glen Tilley (not to be confused with the former TV news anchor of similar spelling), was the first to point this out to me, that Ron doesn’t consider his night composed of sets.

At the Rose, folks got a show.

During the break between shows, Ron would go to the bar and take the farthest spot from the stage and order a drink. At some point while he waited, a doctor (“It was usually a doctor,” he once confided) comes up and with all the intimidated confidence he can summon, says to Ron, “You know, I wrote a song once.”

Ron has heard this phrase as many times as this doctor has likely heard, “You know, I’ve got this ache…” So, turning with a flair encompassing amusement, incredulity and regard, Ron responds with “Oh yeah?” Obviously dismissing this come-on would be easy.

“Is it as good as any of the songs you heard here tonight?” he challenges.

If the doctor is possessed enough to say “Yes,” then Ron says, “Alright, send it to me.” (“Because,” he later tells me, “you never know.”)

Ron Hynes was a show.  On stage and off.

Stories about him equally number as legend and legendary. Those in the know knew the “Good Ron” and the “Bad Ron,” yet hardly anyone had enough foresight to gauge which one you might encounter.

As definition of his originality, most of his musical friends can do a passable impersonation. One night in the dressing room of the LSPU Hall, I witnessed Larry Foley and Chris LeDrew having a “Stand Like Ron Hynes” contest.

Like so many of my generation, I grew up with Ron Hynes on TV.  He sang songs we knew and songs we didn’t. He was the first Newfoundlander to release an indigenous recording featuring entirely original songs, and all written by him.  Countless tunesmiths would follow his example. I first met him at CHMR, Memorial’s student radio station, in 1989 when I was a shade of green so deep, no Irishman would recognize it. I was amazed he agreed to be interviewed for the local music show I was doing and even brought along a cassette of demos. (I still have it.) He later called me and asked if I’d like to help with a TV venture he was trying to start. Then, as now, I never understood why he wanted me along for this. Maybe he had an instinct about me. “You never know.” His motto in effect even then. Soon, I’d be driving, with Ron Hynes(!) out to Torbay, in my parents’ 1984 Ford Tempo, to have a look at the old Commodore Club, the place he fancied as a good setting to base this TV show idea of his.

Over the next couple of decades, I interviewed him several times. On a radio show I had in Calgary, he told me the story of writing “Sonny’s Dream” on Alberta’s Highway 2, the 3-hour stretch of road between Cowtown and Edmonton. It’s equally ironic and fitting that the most iconic of Newfoundland songs should be composed in Alberta. It shares that sort of justice with that most quintessential of Canadian songs, “Four Strong Winds,” which Ian Tyson wrote in New York City.

In 2003, Ron was asked to take part in a couple of benefit shows in the wake of the Badger River freeze-up of that. He sung “The Badger Drive” at a CBC Radio event in Grand Falls-Windsor, adding a verse he composed himself. I was part of the nationally televised charity concert at Mile One and I asked Ron to reprise the verse. We opened the show with an All-Star version of “The Badger Drive” with greats like Pamela Morgan, Fergus O’Byrne, Jim Payne, Con & Arthur O’Brien, Crush, Barry Canning and Colleen Power. Ron closed the song with these words.

“And now to conclude and to finish, I’m sure that we all do agree / in wishing success to all Badger in returning to where they should be / And may they continue to flourish with all of their family and friends / And if you wake up again under water, please feel free to call us again.”

Ron Hynes explored eternal themes of Newfoundland music – dreams for a better tomorrow, mother and home by the sea, great characters, romanticized geography. In lesser hands, these often rise no higher than cliche or stereotype. Yet with the songs he wrote and co-wrote, took wing on the nearest seagull.  Certainly like any self-respecting artist, he also wrote in tribute of others, he borrowed and he stole. He gave credit and withheld it.

Many people in the public never knew Ron Hynes closely. If we’re fair, some who got close wish they hadn’t. And while this is by no means a complete biography of the man, nor a summary of career highlights. But I do know he was a genius, and a flawed one. Immensely giving but covetous over claim. As many times as one might curse his confounding nature, you’d listen to him sing and all was forgiven. How could grudge stand fast against the weight of words like this….

“I don’t want to leave but you can’t for free. You can’t eat the air and you can’t drink the sea. No change in the weather, no change in me.”

“Here’s to Roy and Dick and Harry because they help to ease to worry that you naturally feel so far from home.”

“Let your young man say goodbye before your boy begins to cry.”

“In a world of romance, don’t miss out on your chance to be dancing the St. John’s Waltz.”

“What colour is a heartache?”

A lot of music is made where sun rays crown these pine-clad hills.  We don’t make many Ron Hynes.  We likely won’t make another.

Ron Hynes

 

POST SCRIPT:

In 2005, CBC Radio hosted 50 Tracks, a search for the fifty essential Canadian songs of all time. I wrote an email to friends to campaign for “Sonny’s Dream” to be a write suggestion, as most of the song nominated were cool Toronto tracks.
Damhnait Doyle was one of the people who got my email and she called me to tell me she was appearing on 50 Tracks the next day!
By the way… Sonny finished at #41, just behind Paul Anka’s “Diana” and just ahead of #43 Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song.”

Here’s the audio… please notice the disdain that some felt about its presence.

 


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