British Columbia

Jim Byrnes' story about authenticity, family and friends say

Byrnes is performing at CBC's Vancouver studios on Oct. 30 as part of the Inspiration Series, which profiles the people who inspire Vancouverites.

A car accident on the Malahat Highway in 1972 changed his life forever

Caitlin Byrnes talks about what's inspiring about her father, Jim Byrnes. 7:21

On a cold, dark night on the Malahat Highway in 1972, lying in his own blood under a stranger's car, bluesman Jim Byrnes probably couldn't have guessed everything would turn out so well.

But 43 years later, with a marriage, a daughter, three Juno awards and successful music and acting careers all to his name, it really has.

"I've had some success," Byrnes said. "But I do love the fact that people can look at me and see that I took a heavy hit, I got dealt a really bad hand, and I made something of it."

Byrnes is performing at CBC's Vancouver studios on Oct. 30 as part of the Inspiration Series, which profiles the people who inspire Vancouverites.

And in the week leading up to the concert, the people who are closest to the consummate storyteller are telling stories of their own — about who Jim Byrnes really is, and why he continues to inspire.

All about authenticity

Jim Byrnes will perform music and share stories about his life at CBC Vancouver on Oct. 30. ( jamestbyrnes.com)
Byrnes was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He spent his youth there, getting involved both in the Civil Rights Movement (as much as his parents would allow) and falling in love with the city's blues scene.

"I think what he appreciates most in life is authenticity, be it in people, be it in a song, be it in a place," his daughter Caitlin Byrnes said. "That was his earliest search for authenticity, I guess, delving into this music."

Byrnes became an accomplished player, but was drafted during the height of the Vietnam War, and spent 13 months deployed overseas. Despite being vehemently anti-war, the army tapped him to work at an army recruitment centre afterwards.

"That was really not a good idea, because Jim was not about encouraging other young men to go off to war," his wife, Robyn Post said. "If Jim was anti-war before, and he was, before going to Vietnam, he sure as heck was anti-war when he got back."

With a potential second stint overseas looming over him, Byrnes left the U.S. for Canada, eventually settling down on Vancouver Island.

"He had a dog, he was living off clams and brown rice in a shack. And that's where he had his accident," Post said.

The accident

Jim Byrne's life changed forever when, at 23, he got out onto the Malahat Highway to help a friend whose car had broken down.

While moving the car, a truck hit him.

A young Jim Byrnes in 1961 (jamestbyrnes.com)
"It's very vague memories," Jim Byrnes said of that night. "The thing I remember most is waking up in the hospital, Nanaimo Regional General Hospital … and having Dr. Gavin Brown, ... tell me, 'You've been in a very serious accident, and we had to amputate both your legs.'"

"What do you do with that? You lie down, go back to sleep, and hope that when you wake up, it was a dream and it's all over. But here we are."

His recovery was a difficult one.

"He told himself that he was going to get these artificial legs, and it was going to get better," Post said. "One of the lowest points in his life was when he did get them and he found out how hard it was to walk."

"Technology has improved, and prostheses are better now, but in the early days, they weren't. And I know that a few times he thought, 'Why should I bother going on?'"

But things started to turn around in the coming years. He married, had his daughter, and his music career began to take off — although it was actually his acting work on shows like Wiseguy and Highlander that really paid the bills.

Jim Byrnes (right) and Colin Linden play at the CBC Vancouver Plaza.
"One day he said to me, 'I'm so glad I didn't kill myself,'" Post said.

An inspiration?

Since his career has taken off, friends and family know Jim Byrnes best for a few things. One of those things is his storytelling.

Steve Dawson is a Vancouver-born, Nashville-based musician, composer and producer who's known him since the mid-'80s.

"The funny thing about him and his stories is he'll tell you about hanging out with some legend back in 1968 or something," Dawson said. "And then you'll meet somebody on tour or something who'll verify the story, backs it up, and then it kind of sinks in, these are really true. He really did have Albert King play at a birthday party he was at, and met Ray Charles."

His daughter Caitlin says it's his authenticity that defines him.

"He wears his heart on his sleeve, for better or for worse. I think it's the Irish way," she said. "You can see it after he did his short stint in Vietnam, after that he was so disillusioned and came to Ucluelet, I think, to find something authentic in life."

But does Jim Byrnes consider himself an inspiration?

"I've never tried to be. I've always thought the best way to do that is to just live your life, so someone can say, 'Hey, look at what this guy's doing,'" he said. "And if that inspires them, then that makes me very happy."

Friends and family say that Byrnes is best known for his storytelling and his authenticity. (jamestbyrnes.com)

Jim Byrnes will be performing a sold-out show at CBC Vancouver tonight at 8 p.m. If you don't have tickets, you can still see the complete show's livestream here at cbc.ca/bc. The livestream will be active just before 8 p.m.

To hear the interview with Caitlin Byrnes, click on the audio labeled: Caitlin Byrnes on her father, Jim Byrnes

To hear the interview with Robyn Post, click on the audio labeled: Robyn Post on Jim Byrnes

To hear the interview with Steve Dawson, click on the audio labeled: Steve Dawson on Jim Byrnes

About the Author

Jodie Martinson

Story Producer

Jodie Martinson is a story producer with CBC Radio On The Coast. She's covered the TED Talks for CBC twice now. She also makes documentaries and some of them have won awards.

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