Saturday, December 9, 2023

Lorne Daley hasn’t missed a Saint Patrick’s Day in 75 years

On a Saturday afternoon in February, Lorne Daley poured himself a tall glass of water. He asked his Alexa speaker to shut off the country music playlist that had been playing all morning, slung his acoustic guitar over his shoulder and made his way to his home office on his second floor. At his computer, he logged himself into his Skype account, positioned himself roughly in front of where he knew the camera to be, and waited for his vocal coach to join the call.
Daley is a musician and an entertainer. He has spent almost 75 years either sitting at a piano, or with a guitar under his arm, singing covers of all the crowd pleasers to adoring crowds. He’s released four CDs and was even invited to play a show for the Ottawa Valley Country Music Hall of Fame, where he one day hopes to be inducted. His goal, he says, is to be a “good time, down to earth rock ‘n country” band. He wants his audiences to feel at home, and also to be moved to get out of their seats.
March is his busiest time of year. For a few precious weeks, when most are patiently, begrudgingly, bearing the last legs of winter, Daley gets to do what he loves most – belting out classic Irish jigs and country tunes in bars, legions, church basements, and Lions Clubs across the city of Ottawa, and sometimes beyond.
When Mackenzie Salhany logged onto the Skype call, she got Daley to shake out his neck and loosen his jaw. For Daley, this meant sticking out his tongue (think Gene Simmons), waggling his head frantically and, after catching his breath, saying with a laugh and a holler, “Sh-sh-shake it out baby!” He was ready.
After working through some warm-up exercises, Daley moved to some of his favourite traditional Irish songs, like Whiskey in the Jar and Danny Boy. Salhany complimented the ease with which he pronounced the Irish words. “That’s my ancestors coming to help me, I guess!”
Daley has been meeting with Salhany for 12 years. Their lessons started in person when he decided, heading into retirement, that after a lifetime of intuitively feeling his way through lyrics, he was ready for some professional guidance. When Salhany moved to Toronto, Daley, who’d grown to calling her his second daughter, insisted they continue their lessons over Skype.
“I believe I can always get better,” he told me on a separate afternoon. We were sitting at his kitchen table at his home in Kanata. He said since starting vocal lessons, he’s learned how to express a feeling in a song. He thinks this is important for his audiences, “so they can feel too.”
Daley is turning 75 in May, and has partaken in some version of this Saint Patrick’s Day musical tradition for most of these 75 years. From his early days chording along to his father’s fiddle tunes at his family home in Quyon, to decades later on the stages of Nashville, Tennessee, Daley has turned to music as a means of connecting with other people, and with himself.
He is a self-described joker. His voice, and words, are often carried by a wink, and punctuated by a laugh. He is committed to approaching the world with lightness. This is how he cares for it. Music, for him, is lightness embodied. He’s written many of his own songs, which can be found scattered across his four CDs. Most are odes to his childhood home in the Pontiac, or to his parents whom he credits with having gifted him the musical bug, and many of the other values that have moved him through his life.
But the songs he most loves to perform are not his originals. They are the classic rock and roll tunes, or Irish jigs, or country ballads that for decades have made themselves available for revisiting. Daley enjoys this work of interpreting and representing relatable experience – songs about love, loss, heartache, and missing home. It’s these songs, he finds, that allow the greatest connection with his audience – an audience he never gets to see.
At the age of 19, Daley was blinded in an industrial accident. But this is not his story, and he is quick to say so. “Who I am is who I am. The sight impairment is just a physical limitation. Everybody has various limitations, whether emotional, physical, or social, or mental,” Daley said.
“Mine’s maybe a little more obvious. I have specific needs. I don’t pretend I don’t have them. I accept my blindness. I’m a happy guy. Music has contributed to that.”
What is his story is how he learned to play guitar as a way of building a path back into a world he had suddenly, unfairly, lost; how he continued to write and share his music as a way of connecting with every new community in which he found himself; and how he did all of this with a smile and a joke. Beyond all of this, his is a story of a boy from a small town who grew up, moved away to the big city, and later returned to show gratitude for what he realized his community had given to him, something that had become integral to who he was.
Daley was born into a large Irish family in 1948. They lived in a brick house atop a hill in Quyon. His father, Francis Daley, worked on the railroad and his mother, Ada Muldoon, was a schoolteacher and raised their 11 children. As Daley remembered it, they were surviving, but only because his parents worked hard.
Their day-by-day getting by was not without joy. At the time, a handful of families, including the McCanns, the Gavans, the Forans and the Curleys, would rotate through each other’s kitchens and the stage at Gavan’s Hotel with fiddles, guitars, spoons and step dancers in tow.
“There was a heck of a lot of good musicians, and caring people too. Whether that’s the water, or the people or the music…” Daley trailed off. These people were bound by music. The traditional Irish folk songs they played connected them to their pasts, and offered themselves as tools in connecting with each other in building a shared present.
“There’d be all their family, kids, grandkids, boyfriends, girlfriends, husbands, wives. And a whole whack of people from around the village that played music or just wanted to go listen to it,” Gail Gavan remembered. She was best friends with Daley’s sister as a child so spent a lot of time in the Daley household.
“There’d be just lawn chairs and people chatting and they’d put out a couple of pieces of plywood for anybody that wanted to step dance or square dance. And Francis would play the fiddle. And Ada would just smile and laugh.”
Gavan credits the warmth and generosity of the family with having drawn her out from the shyness that trapped her as a child. “It was an opportunity to enjoy music and also to try out the music and to try to play spoons and to try playing guitar and try step dancing without an audience.” Gavan went on to become very comfortable with an audience, singing country music on stages across the valley. She said the Daleys’ home was what first gave her the space to perform without fear of being judged.
It was in this context that Daley learned to play the piano so he could chord along to his father’s fiddle. Eventually he began singing, and would piece together the lyrics of his favourite songs whenever he was lucky enough to catch them on the radio.
After his accident, Daley’s appreciation and need for music became more profound.
“When I came home from the hospital, the very first thing I did is I went in the house, and I went to the piano, and I sat down, and I played a tune, and sang a song and I said, ‘Good, I can do that.’”
One month later, Daley had learned the G-chord on the guitar and was quickly on his way to Ottawa to buy his own six-string Yamaha. From there he moved to the D-chord, and then the C-chord, and practiced switching between them. Because he could no longer read music, he traced his hand over the neck of his guitar, over and over again, between destinations, trodding pathways he hoped his hand would later remember intuitively.
Daley credits his friend Jack McRae with showing him how to strum on stage, and play with a band. “You have to get to a point where you can just feel the beats,” Daley said. He had stood up to make me a coffee, and was talking to me from inside his fridge, where he was fishing out one of several 250-milliliter cartons of milk he keeps for guests. He doesn’t take milk in his coffee.
Daley wore dark blue jeans and a buttoned plaid shirt in light greys and blues, with a twisted brown paisley design that crawled over his shoulders and down towards his chest in a declarative but not traditional Western style. On his head he wore his signature waxed cotton Australian outback hat.
A handwritten note taped to his fridge door requested visitors (most often family) not to touch anything inside, with the kind explanation that this would make it impossible for him ever to find anything back. Every item had its place, and if removed, was always returned to that place. Music, like his well-organized fridge, has offered his life a structure through which it could flow. It has set the beat in every new place he’s lived, and brought him back to the community where he was born.
In his first years away from home, Daley enrolled to finish his high school diploma at a Brantford school for children with visual and auditory impairments. There, he met “some awesome musicians,” with skill and creativity he hadn’t seen before. “I decided to hang around.” He listened for sounds and notes he had not yet made on his guitar, and then asked to be shown how to make them.
It was around this time he met his wife, Patricia Farnden, who was studying to become a nurse. He was at a party in Scarborough when some people convinced him to play a couple of tunes on the guitar. After a few songs most people turned their attention to a euchre game, but Pat, as he called her, stuck around to request a Gordon Lightfoot song. When he ran out of songs to play, he and Pat left the party together, found a spot for a late-night bite to eat, and shared a cab ride back to downtown Toronto. The next weekend, he invited her to an Everly Brothers show, and two years later, they were married.
After completing his degree in kinesiology and leisure studies in Kitchener, Daley moved his family, which had grown to include his eldest, Chris, and the twins Jason and Lisa, to Sudbury, where his youngest, Matthew, was born. Here he began his work in change management, training people in various governments on how to be more inclusive of people living with disabilities.
“How to perceive people as people,” Daley explained. “Not just what the book looks like, but what’s inside the book. So you know, judging people for individuals and not labeling them. I used to say labels were for jars, or a Coors Lite or something.” Daley continued this kind of work for the House of Commons and the National Capital Commission, until his retirement in 2003.
Daley’s musical contributions to the community extended far beyond the individual songs he shared with his audiences throughout the decades. In 1990, Daley organized the inaugural Pontiac Pride, a two-day festival in Quyon that showcased musical talent from across the Pontiac region. He worked with a group of people, including Gail Gavan, to keep the festival going for another five years, raising a total of $60,000 for the Pontiac Community Hospital.
Daley has also organized many other jamborees in Ottawa, with proceeds going to the Ottawa Heart Institute, CHEO, and the Quyon Community Centre. “Organizing and doing all the work to make it a success is my contribution,” Daley said. “I was raised that way. That’s the sort of value system we learned growing up in a small town.”
Five years ago, when Daley turned 70, his kids organized a family trip to Nashville, Tennessee, the world’s country music headquarters.
“We always kind of kicked the idea around,” said Jason Daley, one of the twins. “We thought it would be amazing to see my father, who loved country music growing up and introduced us to country music, and take him to the epicenter? It just had to be.”
So at Daley’s 70th birthday party, they surprised him with a pair of tickets. On the plane ride there they met a man by the name of Craig Curtis. He was also from the Ottawa Valley but had been living in Nashville for many years. Curtis invited the Daley family to join him for a drink when the plane landed.
“He sees the infectious personality my father is and they just get to chatting,” Jason said. It wasn’t long before Curtis had invited Daley to play a couple of songs later that week at the Nashville Palace, a famous country venue whose stage has hosted Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson and Daley’s king, Waylon Jennings.
Daley agreed, but was unsure about stage etiquette in Nashville.
“Up in the Ottawa Valley, you do three songs and then you get off the stage,” he explained to Curtis before going up on stage. “Oh no,” Curtis said. “Here, you do one. If they like you, you do two.”
Daley started with a George Jones tune. “… An empty bottle, a broken heart, and you’re still on my mind,” he crooned to the small crowd, closing the song. But as he took his guitar off, he was urged to keep going. “It was incredible,” Daley said. “It was beautiful.”
This wasn’t the end of his Nashville tour. The next evening, his family was at Tootsie’s, another well known Nashville bar, where the walls are covered in autographs from country stars who’d performed at the venue through the decades, including Dolly Parton, and of course, Waylon Jennings.
Daley’s kids slipped his business card to the man coordinating the stage for the evening, and before long he heard his name being called up.
“I took him out on stage and I could just feel nerves turned into an energy, a projection of love,” Jason remembered. “Music is a projection of love for my dad, that’s for sure.”
Throughout his life, Daley’s music reminded him of who he was, where he came from, and where he would eventually, in his own way, return. “It connected me with band members and with other people who love music. It enabled me to be confident in myself, to be creative, to meet challenges, even to overcome fears at times.”
He paused, seeming to disappear inside his own head, when suddenly: “I was all but devastated…,” Daley started, jokingly singing along to Wrong, a Waylon Jennings song that was playing through the speaker. While Waylon was singing about another broken heart, Daley borrowed his words for his own life, offering a rare glimpse into the emotional aftermath of his accident.
He was somehow both entirely engaged in conversation with me while also keeping one ear to the music, attuned to the words, ready for them to weave meaning into whatever he was saying. Something inside of him seemed intuitively to fall into step with whatever beat he found.
“There’s no point in sulking or going into depressions for things you can’t change. What you can’t change, you’ve got to accept. Move forward, and do something with what you’ve got. The music enabled me to feel fulfilled, and be happy in life. That’s where I feel enlightened.”
Today, Daley plays with a band called the Ricochet Riders. They’ve been together since 2005.
They will join him on stage in Richmond on Mar. 11, in Ottawa on Mar. 17, and in Aylmer on Mar. 18. His wife Pat passed away eight years ago, and Daley continues to live in the Kanata home they had shared for more than three decades. His four kids live in the area. Their faces, and their children’s faces, sit smiling in picture frames crowded onto the top of his piano. They were important to his wife, and so they remained important to Daley, even though he can’t see them. “You’ve got to keep those things close to your heart.”
Before I left him, Daley agreed to play me a few songs. We got up from his table and moved into his piano room, where he sat down at the bench, hovered his hands above the keys, turned to me and said, “…and now here’s an original. This is The Spirit of Home.”

“Today they tear the homestead down,
and when rafters hit the ground,
our old home becomes a memory,
of a time and place when we were young,
where we were raised by Dad and Mom.
Home was life with all the family.
It was there we learned to love and pray,
to give our all in work and play.
It’s where we learned we always belonged.
And Dad and Mom assured us all,
you can get up after you fall,
teaching us how we can carry on.”

Story by Sophie Kuijper Dickson