Much has changed for Winnipeg country singer Don Amero since last March, when he was first supposed to perform with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.
CONCERT PREVIEWClick to Expand
Don Amero with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra
• Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.
• Centennial Concert Hall
• Tickets: $25-$89 at wso.ca or 204-949-3999. Livestream tickets: $10 at wso.ca.
No longer is he limited to being a part of a WSO community celebration, as he was scheduled to be 19 months ago. Rising fame in country music and a moving appearance on national television has meant he gets a three-night stand all on his own with the WSO, starting Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Centennial Concert Hall.
"They just said, ‘Hey, we think it’s maybe time for a Don Amero show,’ the three-time Juno Award nominee recalls. "I never said ‘Yes’ so fast in my life. Sign me up, that sounds like a dream come true."
Amero has been busy on his musical dreams since the original postponement. He has been prolific during the pandemic, releasing a steady stream of singles, including his latest, My Poor Mama, which came out Sept. 24 along with his new EP, Nothing Is Meaningless.
Amero released an EP last fall as well, The Next Chapter, and it earned him a Western Canadian Music Award nomination as well as five nominations for the upcoming Manitoba Country Music Association, which hands out its hardware Nov. 6.
His rising profile also comes from a moving interpretation of one particular song — O Canada.
It wasn’t just any version of Canada’s national anthem though. Amero, who is of Cree and Métis heritage, sang his rendition of O Canada prior to the Winnipeg Jets-Montreal Canadiens NHL playoff game on June 3, just days after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves outside a former Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
Singing the national anthem at sporting events has grown beyond the love of one’s country. In some stadiums and arenas, the performance of an anthem gets the crowd pumped up for the puck drop or the opening pitch.
That day though, following a moment of silence, Amero appeared with elder Wally Swain and his wife, Karen, two residential-school survivors, and sang the anthem with a sombre tone, a musical way of lowering the flag to half-mast.
In so doing he shared his grief with the country, and let viewers remember there’s more to Canada than a hockey game. There are past and present tragedies that must be reckoned with.
"It was a really incredible moment, one that I really put a lot of effort into," he says. "The real strength in that image was Wally and Karen Swain... who sat on either side of me and I think that really hit home what this moment was all about.
"Even if everybody doesn’t agree with what I say or what I do, opening up the door to conversation is really the key and that’s what it did for those few who struggled with that version of the anthem." – Don Amero
"My hope was I just wanted every Canadian who tuned in to digest the lyrics and understand exactly what we sing when we sing the anthem.
"It was definitely a moment I’ll cherish the rest of my life because it opened up a floodgate of response."
Amero says the vast majority of the reaction to the anthem was positive, but he says he found value in conversations he had with the few who didn’t like it.
"Even if everybody doesn’t agree with what I say or what I do, opening up the door to conversation is really the key and that’s what it did for those few who struggled with that version of the anthem," he says.
Amero and his band — John Baron, Daniel Roy and Dylan MacDonald — will join a growing list of performers from outside the classical-music world to collaborate with the WSO. Manitobans such as pop star Chantal Kreviazuk and singer-songwriter Steve Bell have shared the concert hall stage with the orchestra as well as such stars as Jann Arden, k.d. lang and Rufus Wainwright.
Amero has performed with the WSO for a couple of songs in the past, but never as a featured performer. He says he writes and performs his country and roots songs with his band to reach listeners’ hearts. Playing in front of an orchestra creates a mystical moment, he says.
"Majestic is the best word I can come up with in terms of how that feels," Amero says. "To have a full night with them — we have seven songs scored, they’ll play a couple on their own and we’ll play a couple on our own — and I think it’ll be a fantastic night of a variety of music."
Amero returns to the road in November, with several concerts with fellow country artists Jess Moskaluke, David James, Tyler Joe Miller and Five Roses in Ontario prior to the Canadian Country Music Awards in London, Ont., Nov. 30.
It’ll be a sign his music career is returning to normal and that, perhaps, the challenges the pandemic presented him and his family are in the rear-view mirror.
"I’ve got three kids, and they’re 2, 6 and 9, so in the throes of crazy years," he says. "It’s mostly good, but when the challenges arise, sometimes they’re pretty epic, and you feel like, ‘How are we going to get through this one?’ But we always do and I think that’s the silver lining.
"This isn’t forever, what we’re going through... We’ve got to keep pushing forward because the good times are coming."
Despite Amero’s country career, memories of his O Canada moment linger. He was asked to sing the anthem in Calgary this summer, in the same manner he had done at the hockey game, and he did.
"I said that’s great because that’s the only way the anthem for now resides within me, " Amero says. "I kind of made a personal commitment that I wouldn’t sing the anthem (in a celebratory way) until every person in Canada has clean drinking water. I thought that would be a real positive step towards real reconciliation and equality in this country."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.