If hard work builds character, then George Canyon must be chock-full of moral fibre by now.
Before Canyon became an award-winning country singer, he was, among other things, a medical orderly, guitar instructor, law enforcement officer, slaughter-house beef inspector and shipper/receiver for Kraft Canada.
He laughs when asked about the “other life” he had, before turning to music full-time and ultimately rising to fame as a runner-up on the 2004 Nashville Star. “I did all those other things to put food on the table.”
The Alberta-based singer, who performs during Westerner Days on Thursday, July 16, believes his pre-country music jobs have helped him appreciate success all the more.
They’ve also influenced his music, in a roundabout way. Canyon said whenever he sings about weariness and hardship, he’s probably reflecting on his early days.
“There are some jobs I’ve done where I think, I wouldn’t do that again . . .” he admitted, with a chuckle. But Canyon isn’t one to disparage any lines of work, saying, “they’re all important pieces of the puzzle.”
And anyway it’s his wife, Jennifer, who held down three jobs to allow Canyon to pursue his music career. “I have an amazing wife and I am so grateful,” said the performer, who dedicated his album One True Friend to her. The hit single I’ll Never Do Better than You and “any of the love songs I sing are to her . . . she’s the reason I’m here.”
Canyon won a Juno Award for that album and a Canadian Country Music Award for the title-track from his next album, Somebody Wrote Love.
His latest 2008 release, What I Do, recently produced the single Let it Out, written by Canyon and Johnny Reid. “It’s about a woman needing to have a man’s shoulder to cry on,” said Canyon.
The singer, originally named Fred George Lays, grew up in Nova Scotia. His parents built him a three-quarter-sized acoustic guitar when he was five and taught him some chords. By Grade 5, he was singing in school variety shows.
At 12, he joined the air cadets to pursue his dream of learning to fly planes. But Canyon was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes two years later and Canadian law prevented diabetics from obtaining a pilot’s license.
He recalled feeling crushed but not defeated. “I’ve never allowed by diabetes to hold me back. I’ve always been very determined to go forward,” said Canyon, who has performed concerts to benefit diabetes research. (Thanks to legal changes that came in a couple years ago, he is now a pilot.)
Canyon was a pre-med student at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., when a music career came calling.
After auditioning for a minor chorus role in a college production of Camelot, he was instead given the role of King Arthur. Members of a country rock band heard him sing and offered him a job, and he spent the next six years touring with them.
When the band broke up, Canyon tried to return to a more “normal” life.
By this time, he was a married dad, torn between love for his family and his musical ambitions. For nine years he worked around the clock, sometimes holding down multiple jobs. He performed gigs at night, sometimes played Mr. Mom during the day, and produced and engineered for other artists in his home studio.
It wasn’t until his life-changing Nashville Star experience that Canyon was signed by Universal South Records.
The musician has often said he feels “blessed” by his success. “But my life is about 20 times harder,” he admitted — “which is really a shocker.
“I have more responsibilities: I play in both countries (Canada and the U.S.), the shows are bigger, . . . You have more people counting on you.”
Canyon still does whatever he can to balance his professional life on the road with his family life in High River. Unlike many East Coasters who move west for work, Canyon said he and his Manitoba-born wife became smitten with Alberta’s “fantastic” Rocky Mountains and wouldn’t live anywhere else.
The George Canyon concert with Gord Bamford, starts in the Centrium at 8:30 p.m. (doors open at 7:30). It’s free with Westerner Days admission, which is $9 for adults, $7 for youths (age 13 to 18), $5 for seniors, $4 for children (age six to 12). Children five and under are free. Onsite parking is $6.