Born in 1948 in St. Louis, Missouri, Jim Byrnes was a student of the Delta Blues at an early age. His mother was a homemaker and his father was an accountant, but felt it important their son was able to pursue his early musical interests, and by the age of 5 he was enrolled in piano lessons. By 13 he’d taught himself to play guitar, and more often than not playing the blues.
But even when he was a teenager, his budding music and acting interests intermingled, having already landed a couple of local commercials and done Shakespeare in the Park when he was 15. Once out of high school, he studied theatre at St Louis University, where he was often seen soaking in the vibes in some of the hottest clubs around. He moved to Boston where he continued studying acting, but dropped out to chase the dream in New York. But he drew the short straw on the Army draft lottery, and he served one tour of duty in Vietnam.
Following his discharge, he moved Toronto in 1969, got married a year later, and moved to Vancouver in ’71. But in 1972, while helping a friend move a stalled vehicle, he was struck by an oncoming car, where both his legs were amputated. He gave up acting and returned to his passion for music, assembled a backing group, and soon became a fixture on the west coast club circuit, with his marriage now over.
He was signed to the recently formed Blue Wave Records, also handling The Powder Blues Band, and with distribution from Polydor, released his debut album BURNING in the spring of 1981. The record was a mix of blues standards and a few of his own compositions, including the lead-off “You Don’t Know,” and featured cameos from Powder Blues‘ Tom Lavin and several other west coast artists. He wound up on the Junos list for ‘most promising male vocalist,’ tho he lost out to Eddie Schwartz.
His music life took a back seat after re-marrying, and he found himself working in television the next few years. But by 1986 he was back to playing 300 dates per year. He landed a starring role on the hit TV show “Wiseguy in ’87, the same year his next recording project found its way to vinyl. After switching over to Edmonton based Stony Plain Records (Long John Baldry, Ian Tyson, and dozens more), he released I TURNED MY NIGHTS INTO DAYS. “Hidden Charms,” “Fire On The Bayou,” and “Cold Sweat” were highlights of one of most critics’ top albums of the year.
He continued working in television, and along with writing the music for the NBC miniseries “Hands of a Stranger,” he stayed in front of the camera as well, including arguably his biggest role – Joe Dawson, ‘an Immortals watcher’ in the movies-turned TV show “The Highlander,” for which he won a Leo Award as ‘best supporting actor.’
Having returned to the stage a little more frequently in recents years, he was also spending time in the studio working on some material that accumulated into the THAT RIVER album in 1996. Solidly rooted in traditional blues, it was quickly heralded by the critics and fans across the country, and was picked up by an American label a year later. Self-penned tracks like the title song and “Every Waking Moment” found rotation on radio and he picked up his first Juno in ’97, for ‘best blues/gospel recording.’
Later that year, Stony Plain re-released his first two albums in a two-cd set, after he’d put his actor’s hat back on for awhile. But with the new decade came his most productive music period, beginning with LOVE IS A GAMBLE in 2001, which featured an ‘around the continent trip in one album or less’ theme, with “Walked All The Way From East St. Louis,” “East Virginia,” “Kansas City Blues” and “Postcard From Mexico.”
FRESH HORSES in ’04 marked his first collaberation with producer Steve Dawson. Dirty blues guitar predominated, and the result was a reworking of several tracks from the previous album, including the lead-off “B’s Blues,” “I Can’t Be Satisfied,” “East Virginia,” and “Just A Pilgrim.”
He signed with Black Hen Music in 2007, and released HOUSE OF REFUGE later that year. Gearing more to a traditional blues/gospel sound than before, it earned him his second Juno for ‘best blues album,’ on the backs of tracks like “Didn’t it Rain,” “Of Whom Shall I be Afraid,” “Lay Me Down Sweet Jesus,” and “Be Ready When He Comes,” as well as his cover of the traditional “Stardust.”
In between acting gigs, he released MY WALKING STICK in 2009, which featured the traditional “One Life” and “Walk On Boy,” the title track and a cover of The Band‘s “Ophelia.”
He returned in 2010 with EVERYWHERE WEST, his fourth album with Dawson. On the strength of intricate acoustic guitar and funky organ melodies in numbers like “Bootlegger’s Blues” and the banjo-driven “Yield Not To Temptation,” he picked up his third Juno. For the record he also called in some of the best studio musicians in Canada. Daniel Lapp brought his fiddle, Keith Bennett did some inspiring harmonica parts, and Jeanne Tolmie was featured on background vocals.
In 2011 he began a project with The Soul Stirres, the elgendary gospel group that Sam Cooke started with in the ’60s, and is also working on an acoustic album.
Aside from his music career, Byrnes has appeared in over two dozen television series, including “V,” “Davinci’s Inquest,” “Danger Bay,” “Cold Squad,” “Stargate Infitnity,” “Neon Rider,” and his own talk show. He’s also done nearly 40 made for TV movies beginning in 1980, playing a bar singer in “Out of the Blue,” a pair for “Inspector Gadget,” and 1993’s “Harmony Cats,” for which he was nominated for a ‘best supporting actor’ Genie Award. He’s also done voices on the animated series “X Men: Evolution,” “Beast Wars,” “GI Joe,” “The Highlander,” and several others, and has appeared on several Hallowe’en and Christmas specials.
But his presence hasn’t been limited to just the small screen. He’s appeared in several movies, including his 1995 role as a cop unhappy about being called back into active service to help solve a crime in “Under The Gun,” and in “Masterminds,” with Patrick Stewart a year later. Along with a Leo and three Junos, his other doorstops have included honours from the Maple Blues Awards, the Canadian Folk Music Awards, and was inducted into the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame in 1995.