Fretmaster Don Ross exposes the Newt to the wonders of acoustic-guitar wizardry

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 29, 2001

By Steve Newton

Guitar gods—I can’t get enough of ’em. There’ve always been lots of slots in my CD stacks reserved for fret masters who balance boggling technique with high degrees of feel. Because I’m mostly a rock and blues fan, the vast majority of guitarists I’ve worshipped have been electric players, but thanks to the formidable talents of Toronto’s Don Ross, my ears were recently exposed to the wonders of acoustic-guitar wizardry.

Let’s just say I’m a late bloomer.

On his latest album, Huron Street, Ross delivers stunningly beautiful guitar music, bursting with sensitivity and compassion. There’s a real poignancy running through the CD, which is understandable considering the atmosphere it was recorded in. While Ross was making Huron Street a year ago, his wife, Kelly McGowan, mother of his two young daughters and teenage stepson, was in the midst of a losing battle with breast cancer.

“She was still able to get out for walks and do things,” explains Ross from his Hogtown home, “but I was quite sure at that point that I didn’t have much longer with her. And I needed to make this record—partially as a contractual obligation—but I felt at times like my heart just wasn’t there in the studio; like my heart was somewhere else. And the weird thing is that now I think my heart was there—the passion in the playing was certainly there. I was just in such an anxious state because every hour I spent away from home, I kept thinking, was another hour I didn’t have with Kelly.

“And so it was a hard album to make for that reason, and yet, probably, it was the most realized playing. Bruce Cockburn just happened to walk into the studio when I was in the middle of making the record, and I was sitting there with my eyes closed, listening to the music, when I just felt the presence of another human being enter the room. I looked over and there was Bruce—who I’ve known for a long time—and he just listened a bit and then said, ‘You know, I heard it from down the hallway, and I thought, “There’s only one person that plays with that kinda passion.” ’ That sorta made me feel better about the whole thing.”

Passion burns throughout Huron Street, which is something of a best-of album in that it’s a collection of some of Ross’s previously released songs, reworked in various ways. One of his favourites is “In From the Cold”, which he wrote for McGowan, who was an accomplished vocalist in her own right. According to Huron Street’s liner notes, Ross fell in love with her voice first.

“I’ve written probably three or four tunes over the years dedicated to Kelly,” he relates, “and that was the first one. I went to hear some music at a live venue in Toronto about 15 years ago, and that’s the first time I met her. I just thought she was a great singer, and we hit it off, and the rest is hysterical…uh, history.”

Although McGowan succumbed to her illness a few months ago, at the age of 43, the strength of spirit evident in Ross’s attitude and music hints that he has what it takes to carry on after the loss of his “one and only”. And the uplifting beauty of the music has proven infectious, with Huron Street quickly becoming his best-selling album ever. Ross will be delving into that album’s compelling material when—accompanied by standup bassist Jordan O’Connor—he plays the WISE Hall on Sunday (December 2). At that gig there are sure to be a fair number of guitar aficionados standing around in slack-jawed awe at the technical virtuosity that’s part and parcel of Ross’s intense, emotion-driven music. Before signing off, I have to ask the only two-time winner of the prestigious U.S. National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship how he got so damned good in the first place.

“Well, I’ve been playing the guitar since I was seven or eight years old,” he says by way of explanation. “It was a bit lucky because a guitar just happened to manifest itself in the house one day when my sister brought it home from boarding school, and I just really gravitated towards it. There’s a big debate raging about whether or not there’s any such thing as natural talent—if you’re into the Suzuki Method there is no such thing—and…I don’t know. I was able to grow up in a family where music was always a very vital part of everybody’s life, and then musical instruments ended up in the house. I was there for them, and they were there for me. And also, I was kind of a live-in-my-head kind of kid; I was maybe an ultra-geeky kinda kid. I wasn’t worried about being cool, I didn’t hang out at the mall, I didn’t watch TV—I just played the guitar. That’s what gave me more joy than anything else in my life, and I think that if you get that much joy out of doing something, you just keep coming back to it over and over and over again.”

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