Updated: Nov 27, 2020
Somewhere on the East Coast of Canada, a kid is sitting at a kitchen table surrounded by empty chairs, lately vacated under threat of Covid-19. Outside the window are red dirt fields and the wide Atlantic; next door, there’s an illegal moonshine still, but these days, the cops have other things on their minds. He’s drumming his fingers on Formica, echoes of happier days floating through his tousled head. The kid is restless, hungry for the music he almost – but not quite – took for granted.
In another lifetime, he was surrounded by relatives, neighbors, and travelling musicians, all packed elbow to elbow between the sink, the stove, and the fridge. Everybody had an instrument, all of them banging out songs – songs they wrote, songs they learned, and songs they hadn’t quite learned yet. So maybe the electrical was a little funky, the plumbing rusty, and somebody busted a window the night before. This kid had everything he needed – a guitar, three chords and a troupe of troubadours bound by love of the muse.
That was Jay Gavin – pre-pandemic, untested, and with a few years of hard-won grist for the mill before him. Since then he’s worked as a fisherman, a logger, a field worker and a carpenter. He’s lost jobs, found love, and once he nearly died. Lust for adventure has taken him from his hometown, across Canada, down to the southern US and up the California coast. By the sweat of his brow and the itch in his boots, he packed it all into songs that combine the elements of his past with the musical traditions that shaped it.
Jay grew up in Tignish, a tiny fishing village on the northern tip of PEI – steeped in the songs of his Scots-Irish pioneer forbears, as well as artists like Hank Williams, Waylon Jennings, and John Prine. Stompin’ Tom’s place was just down the road; but for all his celebrity, to the locals, he was just another guy with a guitar and a bunch of tunes who happened to hit it big. From the old folks on down to toddlers keeping time on spoons, music was as vital as air in a world where wisdom, joy and pain were distilled in song and translated into community.
Jay’s early influences in folk, bluegrass and country music got a rock’n roll injection the first time he heard thrash metal band Slayer; before long, he was on the road as a bass player for the Whistler-based skate-punk band Huskavarna. Next, he found himself in Texas playing with thrash legends Speedealer, who shared management with some of his seminal influences, including Motorhead and Slayer. When he walked off stage one night to find Jeff Hanneman handing out Jaegermeister shots in full approval, he knew he’d arrived. But when US border guards objected to his possession of a book by conspiracy theorist David Icke, Jay threw in his heavy metal towel and found himself in Vancouver looking for a project.
Grass City brought him back to his roots. Grounded in crunchy rock’n roll, the band featured three-part guitar harmonies drawing from the traditions he’d grown up with. With them, he got the chance to record with rock legend Mike Fraser and rediscovered his understanding that the heart of a song lies in the story – and has less to do with rage against the machine than it does with the journey of the human heart.
Now frontman of his own band, the Tired Sunday Choir, the only trace of metal that remains is in his voice – rusty with gravel and road dust, stripped of artifice and abandoned to the raw force of emotion. His 2019 release Boat on a Whale is well-steeped in traditional instrumentation such as fiddle, mandolin, banjo, and steel guitar, tracing a geographic range in lyrical approach. From the whimsical odyssey of Jesus in “The Carpenter,” to the vulnerable plea of “Eloise,” to the existential ruminations of “What if Eye” and “Hard Times Comin’” – the tunes are eminently listenable but supercharged with an undercurrent of unease. The thematic arc includes considerable tongue-in-cheek humour – but there’s almost a sense that Jay is whistling in the dark as mortality closes in. Boat on a Whale is a snapshot of a man who has been there, done that. What’s next?
Good question. Last April, somewhere on Canada’s west coast, Jay Gavin was sitting at his kitchen table, surrounded by empty chairs and bad news. Outside the window were empty streets and steel-grey skies. Echoes of happier days floated through his head as he pondered. Like most other musicians, his touring plans had evaporated on an invisible, and possibly infectious, mist. Time for Plan B.
If he can’t actually travel, well, he’ll sing about it. With much of his beloved live music scene now reduced to pixels and clips, Jay is releasing a series of singles and videos, beginning with “Lost in Austin” – a road story with a few left turns, celebrating a town that, for Jay, epitomizes the experience of sharing music.
“I love Austin – always have,” he said. “It’s one of the best places in the world to hear live music, which is the reason I do anything.” The tune was born of an infamous road trip to the fabled city in 2016, soundtrack provided courtesy of Red Simpson. The object was a chance to catch Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard together in concert. Fate had other things in store – as it so often does.
“Merle passed away the week before, and then a real Texas flood hit,” said Jay. “The streets turned to rivers, the venue was flooded out, and Willie’s show was cancelled.
We heard that maybe he was gonna put in a guest appearance at Austin City Limits, so we went there, but no Willie. I wound up meeting some amazing folks, though – we danced, smoked, drank and told stories all night. I’m still in touch with some of those people. It was morning when I got back to the Super 8 Motel – you know, that one with the bingo cantina beside it. I grabbed the guitar and a few Lone Stars and started writing. It was one of those nights when everything feels like it’s happening for a reason.”
This is the line of thinking that sustains a fella when he’s got a tour planned and a pandemic hits: suddenly, a left turn becomes right. The week of the video shoot, West Coast Swing Dance Champions Tessa and Miles Cunningham, usually on tour themselves, just happened to be available. Originally, the concept included a full band and a roomful of rowdy music lovers; the final result shows something more resonant of the current musical landscape. A lone troubadour shows up to a near-empty venue; the barkeep and waitress kicking up their heels turn out to be all the audience Jay needs.
The itch in his boots, however, is worse than ever. He’s past ready to hit the road again, and he doesn’t care where. Like the rest of us, he’s going to have to wait until the smoke clears. In the meantime, he’s not sitting around drumming his fingers on Formica. He’s busy writing the tunes that will take him “further on down the road,” following in the footsteps of his troubadour mentors, whenever this current left turn becomes right.
For Jay Gavin, it’s never been about the destination. The people, places, and unexpected roadblocks he encounters are what makes a tough life worth living, and worth writing about.
“I never know where the song will take me,” he said, “and that’s the whole attraction. I like not knowing. The minute I know what’s next – it’s over.”
As published on rootsmusic.ca