Ask any Newfoundland songwriter who his or her role model is, and the answer comes without hesitation: Ron Hynes. Revered throughout his home province and across Canada, the prolific Hynes became known as the godfather of Newfoundland culture.
“The man of a thousand songs” was born Ronald Joseph Robert Hynes in 1950. As a child in the Newfoundland fishing town of Ferryland, he was steeped in the region’s Irish music-making and story-telling traditions as well as the country songs of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.
Hynes recorded his trail-blazing debut album “Discovery” in Halifax in 1972 — the first time a Newfoundlander made a recording entirely of his own original songs — bringing his roots-country music to audiences in the Atlantic region, Ontario and elsewhere. He also wrote music for The Mummer’s Troupe, toured with the folk-comedy outfit The Wonderful Grand Band from 1978 to 1983, made film and television appearances, and starred in the stage show “Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave.”
He became a larger-than-life figure on the East Coast circuit in his trademark broad-brimmed hat, singing stories rooted in Newfoundland life.
Listeners in the Atlantic provinces and beyond identified with powerful Hynes compositions such as Back Home on the Island, St. John’s Waltz, and the sorrowful Atlantic Blue honouring the Ocean Ranger disaster. Prince Edward Island songwriter Lennie Gallant explained Hynes’s impact to FYI Music News: “It may have been the first time I ever really heard someone sing about an East Coast fishing town in a totally original way, and that, in a three and a half minute song, managed to include anger, sadness, humour, passion, poetry and a great deal of Island pride.”
Hynes established a national reach with solo albums for EMI in the 1990s, then as an indie artist and with Borealis Records; the singles Cryer’s Paradise; No, Kathleen; Roy Orbison Came On; and Godspeed gave him Canadian country hits. As his reputation spread, Hynes performed at folk festivals, on Parliament Hill and at the Vancouver Olympics, and toured Ireland.
Hynes’s best-known composition was the evocative Sonny’s Dream, written in 1976, depicting the isolation of life on The Rock and the pull of the outside world. Now a folk classic, Sonny’s Dream has been recorded in Canada by such artists as Allison Crowe, Corey Hart, Ryan’s Fancy, Great Big Sea, Stan Rogers, Valdy, and John McDermott; by US Grammy-winner Emmylou Harris; by Ireland’s Mary Black, Phil Coulter, and Christy Moore; and New Zealand’s Hayley Westenra.
Hynes’s other successes included the 1992 Genie Award for best original song for The Final Breath, from the film “Secret Nation,” and three East Coast Music Awards in 1994: for male recording and country recording of the year for the album “Cryer’s Paradise,” and for song of the year for the laid-bare autobiographical Man of a Thousand Songs, which reveals Hynes’s substance abuse.
He earned two more ECMAs with the 2003 album “Get Back Change,” for country recording and album of the year. The album contained the heartfelt No Change in Me, written in 1995, about the stark economic reality of life in a fishing village after the fish stocks have vanished: “I don’t want to leave, but you can’t live for free; You can’t eat the air and you can’t drink the sea.”
As honours including SOCAN’s national achievement award, Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, and recognitions from his home city and province rolled in, so did the admiration of his peers.
Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle was an admirer, as was Gallant, who said, “Ron had so much truth, heart, and poetry in his music that it has inspired a plethora of songwriters in this part of the world.” Respected music journalist Larry LeBlanc called Hynes “Hands-down the best songwriter in Canada,” and the CBC’s Shelagh Rogers praised him as “One of our greatest storytellers.”
By the time of Hynes’s death from cancer in 2015, he had given back to Newfoundland’s cultural heritage a thousand-fold.