The travellin’ man says farewell
He’s spent most of his life as a travellin’ man, but these days, Tommy Hunter could be considered more of a snowbird.
The term is not a direct reference to the famed song by fellow Canadian country music legend Anne Murray, who appeared on Hunter’s variety TV show numerous times, but to the fact that the now 74- year-old Southern Ontario-raised country gentleman spends most of the winter months in Florida.
This year has been a little different, though, as while he’s been enjoying a little sunshine in the Sunshine State, Hunter has also been busy preparing for his farewell tour – and that includes calls from journalists from across the country, some of whom remember him from when he hosted his longtime show, which aired both in Canada and the U.S.
“Years ago, I used to be nervous (talking to reporters) but now I like doing interviews,” said Hunter, in that familiar warm baritone voice. “It’s funny when people look back at your career. They have a bio in front of them, but wonder where to start. ‘Do I start from the beginning of the TV era and then through 27 years.’ I’ve also had so many say to me that they remember watching the show as a little girl or boy. There’s so many angles.”
Let me first start at what will be the end of a distinguished career on stage as Hunter prepares for the two legs of his farewell tour: one that starts this month in western Canada, and the other, out east, in early-2012.
“This will be the last time, definitely, that I will perform in Vernon, although I may visit the Okanagan in the future... B.C. is so beautiful,” said Hunter who takes the stage at the Performing Arts Centre Friday.
The consummate entertainer has decided to hang up his hat, while the going’s good.
“I will be 75 when I say goodbye, God willing, …. There will be no second annual reunion tour like Cher, where the first one sells out, so I think I will do it again,” he laughed. “When I relax, I relax. When I work, I work.”
In fact, even as Hunter is relaxing in Florida, or at his Canadian home near Guelph, Ont., he always has a project on the go. Take his car:
“I get up everyday to do this and that, and I am always throwing a coat of polish on my car for nothing to do. I think I have about 12 coats now.”
And he is truly a travellin’ man (an ode to one of his signature songs), and it doesn’t hurt that two of his sons are pilots, each of whom works for Canada’s two major airlines.
“When I was in radio, I interviewed some of the pilots from the Snowbirds, so it’s funny that two of my own became pilots,” said Hunter, whose middle son is the more musically inclined member of the family.
“He plays guitar. I’ve been with him travelling in the car, and he’ll switch the radio to a station with this really good music. We totally agree to open our ears and listen to a wide range of music.”
Although country will always be in his blood, it’s classical and opera that Hunter often tunes into on radio; shows such as CBC’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera.
“I once spoke to Bill Richardson (who hosts the program), and he said ‘I’m surprised you listen to this,’” said Hunter, recalling a funny story from his youth growing up in London, Ont.
“My mom played classical, and I wondered why it always sounded so funny. It was so high. It turned out she was playing a 33 and a third (RPM) record at 45 speed. I think I learned to appreciate it more once it was played at the correct speed.”
Hunter has seen how the music industry, and specifically recording, has changed over the years.
With a career that started on stage and in radio, Hunter merged into television in the early ‘60s as a musician on CBC’s Country Hoedown, before he was offered a hosting gig to his own Tommy Hunter Show, which ran from 1965 to 1992. When not in Canada, he spent the rest of his time in Music City, recording and performing in Nashville, including at the Grand Ole Opry.
“People used to get mad at me for staying in Canada. They’d say ‘come down here’ and they wanted to keep promoting me down there, but I was married with kids and I didn’t want to move to the U.S., so I stayed in Canada. I always thought we had a better education system, so it was better for my boys.”
And staying in this country didn’t hurt his career or those who were featured on his show.
Take one performer, for instance.
Those who caught last Sunday’s Juno Awards may have seen the clip about Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Shania Twain, shown as a gangly teenager appearing on the Tommy Hunter Show.
The show launched numerous careers, including Hunter’s, but according to the host, it was not a precursor to what stands in today as variety TV, that being reality shows.
“I am not a fan of the Idol shows,” said Hunter. “I once said to a big fan of American Idol, as soon as (the contestant) starts to sing, close your eyes til the end, and don’t think of it as television. At the end she realized it was not as good as she thought it was.
“They are using one media to fulfill the role of other media, and it’s all based on success, They are groomed to be recording artists, they are not live artists. They may be good for television, smiling and moving around, but can they really sing? That’s what threw everyone.”
There’s a reason why even after his show stopped airing, Hunter continued to tour.
Long backed by his band, The Travellin’ Men, he performed approximately 70 concerts annually as of 2003.
“For me, going into a theatre to perform is instantaneous, in that you get an instant reaction. On TV, you are performing to a studio audience, but are always working to the camera. The audience is behind the camera.,” he said. “There’s a reason many actors say they want to do live theatre …There’s not one thing between you and the audience. You can look straight at them. It’s the best form of communication, eyeball to eyeball.”
Now into his 64th year as an entertainer, Hunter will be staring in to the admiring faces of all he’s entertained, whether face to face, or through a lens, performing those ageless songs such as You Are My Sunshine, I’ll Fly Away, Amazing Grace, Man of 87, King of The Road, Daisy A Day and of course his signature song, Travelin’ Man.
“That’s the nice thing about performing live in the theatre, the performer feels what the audience feels, and I expect there will be some emotion this time around on both our parts.”
Tommy Hunter brings his farewell tour to the Performing Arts Centre Friday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $54.50, available at the Ticket Seller, 250-549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca.