Influential Guitarist Don Ross at Heartwood Hall this Week

Saturday night in Owen Sound, Heartwood Hall presents the legendary guitar player Don Ross.

In essence Don Ross is a composer.  To present his compositions he learned to play guitar.  That was a long time ago and now after almost thirty years on the road, Don Ross is revered as a guitar hero.  He is considered one of the seminal players who helped to define a genre of guitar playing that is now known as Fingerstyle.  That’s not only because of his incessant touring and his score of album releases.  It’s also because he remains the only guitarist who has twice won the National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship (1988 and 1996). His guitar playing has become the model for a few generations of young players

As a composer and a performer the two disciplines merged so that his guitar technique became part of his compositional technique.  He experimented with new tunings he invented to better express his musical ideas.  The percussive techniques and fingerpicking approach he developed not only became the basis of his compositions but they established his unique style that has influenced other players.

Don Ross has been a full-time musician since the release of his first album in 1986, when he played in The Harbord Trio, with his late wife Kelly McGowan and legendary violinist Oliver Schroer.  He composed the music for several theatre productions and a CBC radio series, and he has had some of his compositions performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. After graduating from the music program at York University, he was inspired by the example of composer/players like Michael Hedges, Steve Reich and Keith Jarrett to concentrate on performing as the best way to put forward his compositions.

He comes by his musical talent honestly.  Growing up in Montreal as the son of a classically trained vocalist and taking an interest in the piano at an early age.  At the age of eight, he was given a cheap Stella guitar and found his true instrument.  By ten he was developing his fingerpicking style, fascinated by the possibility of playing several lines at once: melody, middle voices, bass line.  By fifteen he was performing in public.  Now after all these years he has graduated to high-quality custom guitars made by Marc Beneteau, a Canadian luthier from St. Thomas, Ontario.  He tours the world, including three tours he did with the Men of Steel guitar group, a mix of international members including bluegrass maestro Dan Crary, acoustic guitarist Beppe Gambetta, and Celtic folk guitarist Tony McManus.  One of his albums, Huron Street, reached the top ten on the Billboard New-age chart.  More recently he has toured as part of a duo with his second wife, Brooke Miller, a singer-songwriter from Prince Edward Island.

His songs are appreciated by audiences around the world.  As he told Rupert Cross of Acoustic Magazine in 2013, “I made my second trip to China recently and it was quite the experience to play in Shanghai to 600 people who all knew the tunes and called out requests. I had a similar experience to 1000 people last year in Moscow. Feels pretty exotic and humbling!”

He credits Bruce Cockburn as his major influence.  “It’s all Bruce’s fault,” he told Cross, “I heard his ‘Foxglove’ in C tuning and thought, ‘I just have to do that’”.  The admiration is mutual.  In the liner notes to Ross’ 2003 album Robot Monster, Bruce Cockburn wrote, “Nobody does what Don Ross does with an acoustic guitar. He takes the corners so fast you think he’s going to roll, but he never loses control.”

Making a living as a solo acoustic musician has enough challenges of its own but Ross has also overcome the challenges brought about by the collapse of the traditional music industry.  Although he was signed to Duke Street records at an early age, after winning a festival competition, and at one time was on the Sony label, he was the first to sign with Candyrat records in 2005, , a U.S.-based indie label focused on internet promotion and distribution.  The use of You Tube as a promotional medium has aligned his career with 21st century marketing techniques.  His You Tube cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” has garnered over one-and-a-half views.

Don is currently recording two new CDs, a collection of vocal material called “Black Chandelier,” and an all-instrumental album to be titled “A Million Brazilian Civilians.” At Heartwood on Saturday night, he’ll be playing new tunes from these soon-to-be-released albums as well as from his past 16 solo projects spanning his career.

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