Gordon Pinsent makes musical debut at age 81 with help from Keelor, Good
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Gordon Pinsent makes musical debut at age 81 with help from Keelor, Good

TORONTO – Eighty-one years old and with more than a half-century of entertainment-industry experience behind him, Gordon Pinsent is finally making his songwriting debut.

The Grand Falls, N.L., native’s poems served as the springboard for an unlikely collaboration with Blue Rodeo co-frontman Greg Keelor and the Sadies guitarist Travis Good. The resultant two-disc package — “Down and Out in Upalong” — hit stores this week, giving Pinsent the chance to scratch another item off his career to-do list.

Or, if you believe the playful Pinsent, the last item on said list.

“That’s it now. That’s it. I got this,” said Pinsent earlier this week, slouching in a royal-blue tracksuit and running shoes.

“He wants the Juno,” interjected Keelor, seated next to him.

Pinsent, quick on his feet, replied quickly: “I can sit there next to Anne Murray and say, ‘See? It’s not like it used to be.'”

If it wasn’t clear already, the trio became fast friends over the course of their first musical experiment. In fact, everything happened fast.

Good and Pinsent met through mutual friend Mike Bolland, a filmmaker who worked on the Pinsent-focused TV biography “Still Rowdy After All These Years.” Over beers, Pinsent showed Good some of the poetry he had been dutifully jotting down over the years, often during long plane rides to or from his hometown in Newfoundland.

Good liked what he heard, and he and Keelor met up to try to set the words to music — though it didn’t take much effort. In one wine-soaked evening, the two quickly conjured four songs and the rest came easily over the next couple weeks.

“It was sort of magical,” said Keelor, before recalling the first time he and Good travelled to Pinsent’s Toronto penthouse apartment, guitars in hand, to showcase their new creations.

“It sort of felt like little orphans coming home, somehow trying to win favour.”

Pinsent was thrilled with what he heard, hand-stitched roots music with echoes of folk, bluegrass and country. He calls the tunes “splendid,” a perfect representation of the words he crafted over a period of years (the first disc features Good and Pinsent’s interpretations, while the second has Pinsent reciting his poems over minimal instrumentation).

With titles like “Peter Easton” and “Upalong,” it’s probably not a surprise that much of the material on the record takes its inspiration from Pinsent’s home province.

Even “Shadows in the Sun” — which Keelor and Good initially took as an ode to fallen soldiers — actually reflects Pinsent’s fear that the town in which he grew up would be reduced to a ghostly shell due to fleeing industry.

“Newfoundland does that,” Pinsent said of the creative inspiration he felt during his visits. “You’re surrounded by water, all of these little gems are sitting there and waiting for you to dig them out of your own past and bring them out and make something happen with them.”

Other poems were inspired by difficult periods in Pinsent’s life. He penned the jaunty “Easy Ridge” following the death of his friend, TV character actor Wally Cox. The words find Pinsent reminiscing on their shared hikes around California (only with some prodding from Good does Pinsent reveal that Marlon Brando was also around for these walks).

More stirring still is Pinsent’s ode to his wife, the actress Charmion King, who died in 2007. On “Charm” — featured among the second disc of spoken-word recordings — Pinsent speaks softly over tinkling piano keys: “I hear her through the morning/ Riding waves of music’s ocean/ Breakfasting with my emotion/ Mindful of the tune she plays upon my heart.”

While Good and Keelor weren’t always sure of the inspiration behind Pinsent’s words, their own interpretations resonated. Keelor points to “Let Go” — which opens with the line “let go of music so I can sleep” — as particularly meaningful.

“Too many years of too loud guitar, too loud listening back to monitors, too loud everything — my ears are pretty baked,” said Keelor, who says his hearing woes will prevent him from being able to play electric guitar loudly on stage.

“I’d been wondering, it’d be so weird not to play music anymore because so much of who I am is defined by music … so it was a little scary at times, thinking about that. It was quite vivid, when that was the first line in that poem.”

For all the contemplative intimacy of Pinsent’s poems, the trio actually struggled to remain serious over the course of the interview, constantly cracking up and poking fun at one another.

After one of Pinsent’s sharp jabs, Keelor marvelled: “That was sort of a Don Rickles delivery.” Good, meanwhile, was sly when asked if he had been familiar with Pinsent’s work — a stunning career that includes notable turns in “Away From Her” and his current gig on the CBC hit “Republic of Doyle” — prior to meeting the actor.

“Never heard of him,” said Good. “I went to his house and I was expecting to see Christopher Plummer, and it turned out to be this guy.”

So given the fun they’ve had, would this unlikely group consider doing it all over again for another project?

“Sure, I’ll find (more poems),” Pinsent said. “Just have to lock myself up and start drinking again.”

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