Former Vancouver Canucks prospect Chad Brownlee has spent most of his life in hockey arenas, but the Kelowna-born Canadian County Music Award artist of the year nominee says he feels most at home on stage with his guitar.
“We like to engage the audience and have them sing along, and just feed off each other’s energy. It’s a two-way street. It’s just finding that connection and making sure everybody is having a good time,” said Brownlee, a relative newcomer to the country music scene who has parlayed his 2010 debut album and several hit singles into the CCMA 2011 rising star award and tour gigs with Dierks Bentley.
The 28-year-old Brownlee, who will perform with Deric Ruttan this Friday night at the Paris Fair, took an unconventional path to country stardom. He achieved every hockey-loving kid’s dream when the Canucks made the defenceman their sixth-round draft choice in 2003. But injuries and two shoulder surgeries marred Brownlee’s progress through the minor leagues.
The injuries took their toll emotionally, too. When he found himself counting down the minutes of the game he once loved, he knew it was time for a change.
“It was one of those decisions where it was almost so glaringly obvious that I had to make it, but at the same time, it was hard to form the words to tell your coach you weren’t coming back, to tell your parents that you quit the game you’ve been playing since you were five years old. That was the most difficult part,” Brownlee said.
He had always loved playing guitar and often entertained his teammates at parties, but for the first time Brownlee thought seriously about making music his new career.
“It took me a while to really find myself again. There was a transition period. I asked myself, who am I now? Am I a retired hockey player, or am I an artist? It really did take me a year before I found that. But now, I’ve never been more comfortable in my own skin,” he said.
“It was a little bit reckless, but I figure life’s too short, and you’ve got to do something you love to do.”
Being a touring musician has a physical cost, but the former hockey player is glad to trade separated shoulders for callouses on his fingers.
“It’s very therapeutic to be able to put your emotions and your experiences into lyrics and music. It’s quite a special thing, especially when other people latch onto that and say ‘your song really hit home for me, because I’ve lived that experience,’” Brownlee said.
“As a songwriter, that’s what you really want to do. You want to really reach out to the people listening. For me, it’s so rewarding to feel that connection.”
Things are looking up for Brownlee with the release of his new album Love Me Or Leave Me in February and his nomination for artist of the year.
“That’s just lightning speed to be recognized in that category alongside all the names that are in it,” he said. “These are guys that I can learn from and are experienced in this industry. It’s great to just be mentioned with them.”
Paris Fairgrounds general manager Russell Press is thrilled to welcome high-profile country acts like Brownlee and Ruttan – who will share the stage Friday night at 7 p.m. – and Sunday evening headliner Emerson Drive.
“That one-two punch, if you listen to any of the local country stations, they’re on all the time with hit after hit,” Press said of Brownlee and Ruttan. “We’ve got two of the best.”
For a taste of Canadian country music royalty, grab a lawn chair and come out on Sunday, Press said.
“Emerson Drive is a supergroup. They’re the top of the top,” he said of the veteran Alberta band, now based in Nashville, Tennessee. “They’re going to be a hall of fame group in Canada, for sure. Every tune they put out is a hit.”
Concerts are free with admission to the fair, but the Paris Fair is offering music fans a “VIP Front of Stage” concert package that includes front stage area access, in-seat food and beverage service, and preferred access to merchandise and autograph lanes.
VIP tickets cost $15 per show. To purchase fair tickets or VIP concert seats call 519-442-2823 or visit www.parisfairgrounds.com.