August 2017 | Profile by Jane Ledwell
"Listening to (Don Messer and his Islanders as a kid, I was just a kid dreaming,” says Gary Chipman. They were “the best band of its kind in the world at the time,” he remembers. And with an ear to CFCY radio, from the age of five (“about a hundred years ago,” he jokes), Gary learned traditional fiddle tunes in Don Messer’s distinctive style. Soon, he was invited to perform in some of Don Messer’s live shows at the Charlottetown Forum and even on a local production TV show from Strathgartney, before the band moved to Halifax for its top-rated CBC TV program. He went on to have fast friendships with members of the band and their families, but his lifelong relationship is with the music they played.
“It has always been a dream of mine to play that kind of music,” he says, and this summer, almost fifty years since Don Messer’s TV show was cancelled, he will bring that era and that music to life with a special Tribute to Don Messer at the Harbourfront Theatre, following the format of the beloved CBC show, with a full stage of performers working to truly “recreate the sound.”
In September, the show will play in Bright, Ontario, at Walters Dinner Theatre, a 150-person venue. “That’s going to be a real treat for me,” Gary says, looking forward to “new faces, new venues, and new people.” They were originally booked for six nights and now have sold out nine. “I don’t even know where Bright is, but we’ll find it,” he laughs.
“I always wished I could get into that kind of lifestyle, where you could make a living as a musician. But it is almost impossible,” he says. “It’s like being a fisherman, I guess. I’m in the same boat. I work hard in the summer and look for work all winter.”
When Gary started out, he recalls, “I was making more in one night than my father was making in a week. Then,” he smiles, “you find out that doesn’t go on forever.” Gary added guitar-playing to fiddling when “Elvis Presley and the boys came along, and the fiddle was ‘out.’” He played rock-and-roll for crowds of 800 with the Tremtones at The Rollaway and fiddle tunes at country dances. When the venues were full and plenty, and he was easily playing live music four nights a week with “modern and old-time” dances. “That faded away,” he says.
“I worked construction, I drove a taxi, but in the back of my mind, I always wanted to play music, and I couldn’t come to terms with it that I couldn’t make a living. I should have taken the advice I gave my son, to get the heck out of here,” he muses. But other than studying and touring, Gary never left.
Gary got a degree at Lakehead University in clinical psychology and later studied counselling psychology through distance education, “but,” he says with a rueful shake of his head, “it only made me a smarter fiddle player.”
“When you’re young, everything seems easy,” he reflects. “If I worked at 25 the same number of hours on the fiddle I do now, I’d be a lot further ahead. But I didn’t start to appreciate the gift I had until I was older. Not everyone has that gift. And I thought, ‘I’d better start watering this plant.’” Most days, he practices several hours a day.
Gary says. “These are the good old days, today.”
And yet, with music providing “no pension, no health benefits, no vacation,” Gary says, “I’m going to keep playing until I can’t play anymore.” Playing ceilidhs or pig-and-whistles Monday nights at Stanley Bridge and Thursdays at New London, he says, “The dream is still there for me. You gotta have a dream. Every night, you never know who’ll be in the audience, and maybe they’ll like it, and maybe they won’t—but maybe they’ll get you to play another time.”