2016 JUNO Awards nominee, Don Amero, is not a musician.
Allow me to explain. Let’s start with the chance meeting part. The scene was the Calgary Hyatt Regency lobby bar during last weekend’s JUNO Awards celebration in Southern Alberta. That’s where I met Don, his drummer Steve, and his marketing whiz Amanda. More on them later.
I wish that I could relive some days
Make all the right moves, all the right plays
But we’re all stuck on this one-way track
This rollercoaster don’t ever let you go back
Slow down this ride, I want to take my time
(“Twilight Hour” Refined, Don Amero 2015)
Unsurprisingly, there was a thrilling lineup of celebrity sightings and meetings during the JUNOS weekend. My colleagues got pictures with Francesco Yates, Alessia Cara, and Alex Cuba to name a few. I got to meet Régine Chassagne from Arcade Fire and eavesdrop on a conversation between Burton Cummings and a fan. Sorry BC, if I invaded your privacy.
We all met a bunch of neat people including Kataklysm, who not only won their first JUNO Award for Heavy Metal Album of the Year, but, had the best acceptance speech at the awards. After 25 years as a band, Kataklysm was finally recognized with a major award, proudly thanking the fans for carrying them through and their label for believing in them. What got them a standing ovation, though, was challenging the industry to pay attention to and fuel the bands and artists that aren’t necessarily accepted by the masses yet.
Plus we all met Don. No he’s not The Weeknd, Bieber, or his idol Buffy Sainte-Marie. But he is something special. He’s humble, yet proud of his heritage. He’s striking, yet not a poser. He’s smart, yet he’s eager for direction. I loved his story.
Winnipeg is my hometown
Been living here my whole life and I’ll be sticking around
If you can feel me, if you know what I mean
Then sing it loudly, sing with me
I know life ain’t perfect here in this place
We got to deal with the problems, every day with faith
But still I feel this is, this is as good as it gets
So sing it loudly and raise your heads
(“Hometown” Change Your Life, Don Amero 2006)
Don is Métis. His mother is Métis. His father is of European descent. He grew up in the North End of Winnipeg where high school graduation rates hover around 25%, compared with over 95% in the suburbs. It’s a community surrounded by gangs, despair, drugs, and suicide. But that movie has already been written.
Don went to King Edward and Isaac Newton elementary and junior high schools, graduating from Sister High School. He was one of the 25%. At 26 years of age his career laying hardwood floors was a steady ride to nowhere. So he quit. He packed up his tools for good. Loaded up his car and hit the beaten path of many musicians before him. This movie too has been written.
You can’t blame the past
What you missed, you couldn’t have
Life, it can be hard
Though we fall, it’s worth fighting for
I want to say I tried; I didn’t let life pass me by
I jumped in with both feet
I lived my life, didn’t let my life lead me
(“Life” Deepening, Don Amero 2009)
For days, weeks, and seemingly endless months, Don played and played and played. He would play in bars, street corners and festivals, if they would have him. He would take fifty dollars to play someone’s house party. Thirty if that’s all they had. Weddings and fundraisers, company events and churches. For eight years.
Along the metaphorical road to riches or ruin, some good notes in his life started to get heard. He began to get noticed. He began to write. He composed five albums. He met a girl. He made a family. He bucked the odds. He shed the stereotypes. He started to get paid. He began to support Aboriginal causes and a Family Centre in his native north Winnipeg. This movie too has been written.
Run away with me, that’s what she said
She took my breath away then she took my hand
She brings the better man from the inside out
But it’s her everything I can’t live without
(“She” Deepening, Don Amero 2009)
Don’s journey was one he conducted largely alone, but he was never lonely. He’s the sort of man you meet that you instantly want to help, support, and admire. He has a drummer from the ‘Peg, the aforementioned charismatic to a fault Steve, that he relies on when the gig pays enough for a band. He met a marketing whiz that specialized in working with hard-nosed brands in Northern Alberta, who soon put her magic mind to work on promoting Don. He met high profile supporters like former Dragon’s Den icon, Brett Wilson.
All the while things were shaping up just as Don dreamed of them. His only wish had always been to do what he loved. His love would be contagious. His fans would become lovers of him, one by one, by one. He would never quit no matter the challenge or the hurdle. This movie too has been written.
I ain’t scared to fight but I’ve been wearing down
It’s hard to throw a punch when you’re on the ground
You might think that the fight is over
It might look like I’m down for the count
But I’m a rolling stone; I’m wild and free
If no one is by my side, I won’t give up on me
(“Won’t Give Up” Refined, Don Amero 2015)
Now let me tell you about the groupie part. By the time we met Don he knew that he hadn’t won a JUNO in either of his nominated categories, Aboriginal Album of the Year and Adult Contemporary Album of the Year. But he was upbeat and honoured. It had been a thrilling weekend for him. He got to bring his family out thanks to FACTOR and Radio Starmaker Fund. He was surrounded by adoring industry colleagues. He was slated to play at the official JUNOS after-party at Cowboys Bar, Nightclub & Casino.
I too was thrilled. After-party and Cowboys are two of my favourite food groups. There were twenty acts performing at the party. Candidly, Don wasn’t given a prime spot. By the time he came on stage, most of the cool people had left to go to label parties. (None invited me, so they don’t get an MH3 shout-out!). But when Don was introduced we cheered for him like extras in Almost Famous. That movie too has literally been written, produced, and enthusiastically watched by me about fifteen times.
Standing alone, just you on this road
The bag on your back, is all that you own
I’ve kicked these stones, I’ve sang the Blues
And I’ve walked those painted lines too
On down the road
Just keep on moving, on down the road
(“On Down The Road” Refined, Don Amero 2015)
I have been thinking about Don a bit. How could I support him? Would he really follow-up with me when he comes to Toronto? Or was I just another old corporate guy in a bar he begrudgingly understands he has to be nice to? How will he feel that I said he’s not a musician? It’s time to explain that.
Don is more than a musician; he’s an entrepreneur, a disruptor, a visionary, and a change agent. It struck me just this morning when I was breakfasting with a young friend in Montreal, who is leading a startup. We talked about seeing each other at IEG in Chicago and he took me through the planes, trains, automobiles, frequent flyer points, staying in an off-site hotel – all the travel preparation that a young business owner on a budget must do. That’s what Don is. This is a movie that hasn’t been written yet.
I want to fix the world and make it better for the boys and girls
How much more can it take
We got to heal this land, while the power is in our hands
Make it a better place
Help this world from falling all apart from drifting on a wave
Help this world while we still can, while the healing’s in our hands
(“Help This World” Change Your Life, Don Amero 2006)
Don Amero is the only JUNO nominee in his categories who is an independent. He’s doing everything he can to breakthrough. He’s hired a marketing whiz. He has a cool looking website and business cards, which are finished smoothly…like his voice. He threw a JUNOS party for his supporters.
Don told me he doesn’t care how large or small the crowds are at his performances. He gives every show everything he has. He knows that his next big break could be in that crowd. He knows that he needs to deliver for his fans, because they are paying customers. He understands the game and he’s going to outwork it, outlast it, and outright beat it. Don Amero is emphatically much more than a musician. Look him up; there is a role for you in his movie.
When this old car breaks down, it will not start no more
I know she has travelled the world, and she’s seen so many great days
She’ll be ready to go, when this old car breaks down
It’s just like you, it’s just like me
All that we are and all that we see
The lines on our faces tell our story
Life’s been pretty sweet
(“Life’s Been Pretty Sweet” The Long Way Home, Don Amero 2010)