Musician Jim Byrnes is a seeker. In a career marked by performances that range from gospel to blues to country and R&B, Byrnes has one common thread: he’s after the truth.
One way to find that is to simplify and that’s exactly what he’ll be doing when he performs in the New Calgary International Jazz Festival this month.
"It’ll be actually just Steve (Dawson) and I, a real stripped-down version," says Byrnes. "I love doing that. I mean more and more, you gotta find the truth, there’s nothing to hide behind. When it’s stripped down, you can’t hide behind the rhythm section, you can’t hide behind the great solos and these other guys – you gotta find where the truth is."
Byrnes has been in the business for more than 40 years and in that time he’s covered the tunes of the greats, even emulated their styles, but he has always searched for his own voice. Combined with a steady supply of his original songs, this actor and musician has found that voice.
"I really strived over all these years that I’ve been doing this, to find my own voice. For years I did imitations of people. I can imitate Muddy (Waters) and I can imitate Howlin Wolf and I can imitate Bobby Bland and Otis Redding and Jimmy Reed – I can do all those. I mean, this is something I really consciously did and in doing so I think I finally, after all these years, found my own voice and they indeed are a part of it."
Other things are part of it, too, in particular the strong gospel thread that runs through Byrnes’s music and inspiration. Growing up in St. Louis, Byrnes was deeply affected by the African American churches, in the north end of that city. The gospel sound, even the names of the churches left an indelible mark on his career. His newest CD, House of Refuge, is named after one of them.Byrnes’s career as an actor, including his role as Dawson in the television series Highlander, has been almost as long as his career as a musician. Rather than splitting his energy, these two careers feed the same purpose – truth.
"It’s an attempt to find that commonality that we all have," Byrnes says. "To have something that can touch us all and we can all share a moment of knowledge or grief or ease or whatever it might be. It’s looking for that truth.
"I think it’s what I attempt to do musically and it’s what you do as an actor as well – you try to find the truth in some words on a piece of paper."