Don Messer

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The parents of this Canadian country music icon had musical talent, but it took 11 tries to produce an offspring interested in carrying on in that tradition. Don Messer's interest in music was so great…
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The parents of this Canadian country music icon had musical talent, but it took 11 tries to produce an offspring interested in carrying on in that tradition. Don Messer's interest in music was so great as a child that by the age of seven he was already playing his fiddle for square dances, although part of the incentive might have been to get out of such a crowded family house. Some biographies of this artist claim he was already performing professionally at five. By the time he got to be a young man he had amassed a repertoire of literally hundreds of reels, jigs, breakdowns, and other pieces for fiddle, old and new, from playing endless square dances, country dances, weddings, and other parties. At the age of 16 he headed to the U.S.A., specifically Boston, but only stayed a few years. He was back in New Brunswick in March of 1929 in what is acknowledged to be the first of what would turn out to be a multitude of radio broadcasts for Messer and his groups. By 1934, he had formed his first band under his own leadership, named the New Brunswick Lumberjacks. This group toured not only in the Maritime provinces but south of the border in the states of New York and Maine. Personnel were added as the group's success grew until Messer felt things had gotten out of hand. He started all over with a smaller group in 1938, dubbing the new combo Don Messer and the Backwoods Breakdown. This new band and all their families relocated to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, which became their base for the next 27 years. Another name change came along with the change in locale; since they were on an island, it was natural that the group became Don Messer and His Islanders, the name under which most fans of old-time country music in Canada know his band by. Messer recalls that as leader of this outfit he received the highest salary, at first 12 dollars and 50 cents per week. The members of the band included Rae Simmons (clarinet and saxophone), Cecil McEachern (fiddle, bass, and guitar), drummer Warren MacCrae, and of course the original rhythm section nucleus of Duke Nielson and Charlie Chamberlain. In 1947 they added vocalist Marg Osborne, adding a female touch to the proceedings that soon became known as a feature of the Islanders' sound. The group grew in size, with another addition in the form of the versatile Waldo Munro covering trombone and piano. By 1958 a regular production entitled the Don Messer Jubilee Show was broadcast nationally on the CBC. This had a huge impact on his audience, and he developed into something of a phenomenon, receiving bags of fan mail daily. Many recordings of the band have been released and later re-released on CD through the CBC transcription series as well as labels such as MCA and Rodeo. His releases and broadcasts were so popular that he easily achieved status as the nation's most well-known fiddler, but his position as a folk music artist is controversial. On one hand, he certainly deserves credit for popularizing many forms of folk fiddle music. But in the process some critics felt he helped erode quite a few varieties of local folk fiddling, as the widespread distribution of his in-demand records led to many copycats. Fiddlers were determined to sound like Messer rather than taking the time to pick up the traditions of the areas they originated from. Following his death from a heart attack in 1973 Messer's music band became even more of a Canadian institution. His violin was passed along by his family to fiddler Frank Leahy, who mounted the stage show Don Messer's Violin to pay tribute. At least a dozen other fiddlers perfected the Messer repertoire and presented touring shows based around a recreation of the Islanders' sound. Messer also became the subject of a large-scale dramatic portrait. His Land and Music was a documentary film created under the auspices of the National Film Board. In 1998 he posthumously received the Dr. Helen Creighton Lifetime Achievement Award for Canadian performing artists. In 2001 the Messer band, which carries on in his memory, was chosen as a special Ambassador of Canadian culture by the Centennial Commission's Performing Arts program, involving the mounting of a special tour encompassing more than 70 performances all the way from Labrador to British Columbia.