When Canadian country star George Canyon sat down for a morning phone interview ahead of the release of his memoir, My Country, he had already been up for hours doing ranch chores; there was a gate to open, horses to feed, a fence to fix.
Running a working ranch (over 160 head of cattle on a half section) near Nanton, Alberta with wife Jen isn't something Canyon says he ever imagined for his life, but then, the soft-spoken east coast native says there were many years early on when he didn't know what his path would be. It's journey he recounts in his chronology, a book that more than anything is about gratitude for how things have turned out.
"I’m still a big kid at heart, and probably always will be. But when I look back on my fifty-two years and counting, thirty-two of which have been spent in the music business, I’m more aware of time passing than I used to be. Jen always tells me to remember to enjoy the journey, but that’s something I’ve always struggled with. As a kid, my head was in the clouds, daydreaming about my future in the air force," he writes.
Growing up in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, Canyon says his was a typical young life filled with family, sports and the hope of a military career. But a diagnosis of juvenile (type 1) diabetes at age 14 derailed his dream of being an air force pilot, which influenced his heading out onto the road to follow a different dream. Before that could become a possibility, Canyon took on many jobs, including works as a slaughterhouse beef inspector and bylaw enforcement officer/special constable near Bonnyville, Alberta.
"There were rough times on the road; a decade playing 'dive bars' across the country, but it's how I met my wife, and how I grew as a musician," Canyon recalled, adding his diabetes kept him on the straight and narrow when many of his band mates turned to the bottle to deal with the loneliness of the road. "Diabetes is the only real struggle I've had: there are days I don't want to deal with it, but Jen has helped me overcome everything."
In 2004, fate came calling when Canyon competed in the music competition show, Nashville Star. Though he was the runner-up in the contest, the weekly t.v. exposure opened the door to a music career that has sustained him ever since. Country fans will know the rich-voiced baritone and his hits: I'll Never Do Better Than You, One Good Friend, Who Would You Be and My Name (his highest charting single).
But the book reveals Canyon's other accomplishments, including petitioning for his private pilot's licence (yes, he got it) and becoming Canada's first ever colonel commandant of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets. For a kid who had those dreams of earning his wings, it was especially meaningful, Canyon says.
Faith, family, gratitude and giving back: these are themes Canyon returns to over and again in his book. Describing his as a 'servant's heart', the singer says he wants to help those who've helped him, and that includes visiting his spry mom, now 75, and his sisters on the east coast (Canyon moved back to be near family when his dad was ill with cancer, who then passed away at age 57).
"It hits me that I'm getting near the age that my dad was when he died. But faith has been a big part of my life too, and though I have sorrow that I won't see him for a while, I have faith and trust all will be together again," he said.
Canyon has also been a long-time spokesperson for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and since 2014, the singing rancher has been the official anthem singer for the Calgary Flames at all home games.
Around 2014, Canyon recounts, he briefly ran for the Conservative Party of Canada in Bow River, and then again in 2019, when he became the Conservative candidate for Central Nova (Nova Scotia) in the federal election, losing to the Liberal incumbent. Why? It comes back to service, Canyon says.
"It's easy to criticize when I'm sitting in my armchair, but I don't believe in career politics; I worry about having a stable country where my grandkids will be ok--about health care, food, education," he said. "As a farm family in Alberta, we see it and feel it."
And during the pandemic, when performing was sidelined for all, the entertainer did a few free virtual concerts as well. "COVID taught me a valuable lesson. I took for granted I could go and play shows: I'm so appreciative of that now."
There's no danger of Canyon becoming unappreciative: the thoughtful musician says he wakes up every day grateful for what he's been given. "Jen and I say we want the last part of our life to be the best part. Most days I am at a loss for words when I look at the life I have been so blessed to live--my wife, my children, my career--too much for just one man to be grateful for."
Country fans don't have to worry that Canyon has put away the guitar in favour of the ranching life. To go with the release of My Country (which features 24 colour photos) there's an audiobook with bonus content, narrated by Canyon. "This memoir is a memory of experiences with all the highs and lows that go with them. I really hope the reader can hear my voice through the pages."
"My Country is full of what I call “cowboy songs,” because that’s who I am now. Jen and I are out there working the ranch, riding our horses, and living that life she always dreamed of. I’m still not very good at it, but I do love it. Whenever I’m out on the land I think back to watching John Wayne movies with my papa, as a kid in Pictou County. He’d been a Nova Scotia cowboy, and he told me that if I wanted to, one day I could be a cowboy, too," he said.
"If you ever need to find me, God willing, I’ll be at the ranch. For the rest of my life, that’s the plan: raising cattle, riding horses—and making music."
My Country is available Nov. 8, by Simon & Schuster Canada.