A lifelong passion

Rudy Norman
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Jim Payne’s musicals journey began as a young child in Pilley’s Island

Some may say the musical drive was there all along. But even if Jim Payne wasn’t born with it, the yearning for tunes most definitely started at a very young age.
Born in Springdale and growing up in Pilley’s Island and Robert’s Arm, Payne learned early that in order to succeed in the arts, you have to give people what they want.

Jim Payne (right) and Fergus O’Byrne will play some shows in Jim’s home region of the province this summer, as they visit Shoe Cove, King’s Point and Burlington. For Jim, it’s a chance to get home and give back to the region that started his musical career all those years ago.

“I used to sing a bit, you know, out by the fence, on the side of the road, and people would pass by, but no one really paid attention,” he said, recalling the days of his youth in area, which is also paid tribute in his song “West Side of Notre Dame Bay.”

“Then they started asking me to sing hymns, so I did, and suddenly I realized that people weren’t only willing to listen, but when it came to hymns they were willing to pay too.”

There, standing on the side of the road in Pilley’s Island, Payne would belt out a hymn and graciously accept the few coins that were tossed to him afterwards.

It was perhaps that new-found fortune that gave him the music bug, and turned him into one of the staples of Newfoundland music that he is today.

Payne has become known as one of the most well-known and respected singer/songwriters in the province over the past number of years.

These days he devotes most of his time to travelling and performing with Fergus O’Byrne, formerly of Ryan’s Fancy, and managing his record label, SingSong Inc. that he started in 1989, in an effort to promote traditional Newfoundland music.

But for the young boy in Pilley’s Island, music had been a staple in his life since before he could remember.

“My mother was a singer, and my grandmother as well,” he said. “Dad played the guitar, but he’d never let you see him do it. He was a wonderful singer as well, though.”

At the age of 11, Payne asked for a guitar for his birthday. That was in August. He got it, and thus began the musical journey.

“I had a band started by Christmas,” he said. “My uncle taught me how to play a few chords and most of what I knew on the guitar, and we’d beat around and play a few tunes with some of the boys from back home.”

The band was made up of Payne, and the Anthony brothers from Robert’s Arm, Kevin, Keith and Charles. They called themselves the Rat Trio plus One.

The passion for performing proceeded into high school, he says, where his musical acts consisted of playing in front of the congregation at the old Salvation Army Church in Robert’s Arm, and the community concerts around the holidays.

Soon it became time to move on with his life, though, and Payne found himself setting out into the vast unknown – the land of musical intrigue and artful ambiance: St. John’s.

“I left for university in 1972, and went after a degree in social work,” he said. “A teacher suggested it to me at the time, but really I just saw it as a chance to get out of Robert’s Arm.”

After a couple years in university, as if St. John’s wasn’t diverse enough for him, Payne really leaped into the deep unknown and set off for the mainland. Though the miles separated him more now than ever, it was there, he says, that home found him the most.

“When I went to the mainland I realized that the way things were back home isn’t like it is everywhere,” he said. “I mean, we had music all around us, and everywhere we went we had that culture and influence. It wasn’t like that up there. There wasn’t any of it, and suddenly I realized how important what we have really is.”

Payne came home and went back to school, but never lost sight of his musical track. The time was the late 1970s; closeby Green Bay boy Brian Peckford had just been elected premier of the province, and according to the young budding musician, a new pride in “home” was starting to blossom among many.

“We were always told that only the stuff that came from away was any good,” he said. “But around that time, when people like Peckford started talking about taking pride in what we had, we saw this shift, and suddenly people started supporting local folks more and more.”

A few pubs in St. John’s started having open-mic nights, and paying local musicians to play. One night, a pub called Bridges offered the winner of the open mic a chance at a weekend gig. Payne went and played, and returned the next weekend following the win, and says that was the start of what’s turned out to be a career.

“I realized then, ‘Wow, I can do this and get paid for it,’” he said with a chuckle.

Since then he’s toured the world singing songs – some that he’s written and others that have been passed down through the decades. In fact, Payne has played every continent besides Africa – including a show for the penguins in Antarctica, and representing North America at a Traditional music festival in Japan. He’s also been throughout Europe, South America, Australia and  every major festival in Canada.

This summer, though, his journey will bring him back home, where it all started.

He and his musical companion Fergus O’Byrne will be playing the Shoe Cove Come Home Year on July 23, and a benefit concert for the King’s Point Heritage Society the next night on July 24.

Later in August, they’ll also join an all-star lineup in Burlington for The Gathering.

“It’s great to get back home every now and then and play,” said Payne.

Despite where his career has taken him, and no matter how many shows he plays, it’s obvious that the guy who sang hymns for pennies in Pilley’s Island never strays far from the west of Notre Dame Bay.

Organizations: SingSong, Salvation Army Church, Point Heritage Society The Gathering

Geographic location: Pilley, Notre Dame Bay, Newfoundland Green Bay Africa Antarctica North America Japan Europe South America Australia Canada Burlington

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