Kitchener musician finds his true voice again

James Downham has kicked off country trappings for his rock roots

Waterloo Region Record
Saturday, May 7, 2016

KITCHENER — James Downham — a true-to-himself Kitchener guy with his own rock band, CD and website — spent 10 years living a rhinestone lie.

He’d dress himself up as country crooner Tim McGraw for the amusement of urban cow-folk.

Black Stetson? Check. Western boots? Check. Gaudy belt buckle? Ditto.

That’s all the longtime local community care worker needed — besides his neatly chiseled chin-whiskers and twang-tinged vocal chords.

He was only tricked into this gig 12 years ago anyway, he sometimes feels.

His friends in a Tim tribute band needed a McGraw mimic to practise with. Downham slowly slipped into the role. A drawl developed in his delivery. His indie rock voice, still lingering from his University of Waterloo days fronting a band called Reson, was buried beneath the various Tim Mc-trappings.

“You’re being somebody else,” the 40-year-old Downham says.

“You play in front of packed bars of inebriated people who see you and they’re screaming and go crazy. But you can walk off the stage at the end of the set, take off the hat, walk back on stage to start wrapping cables and you’re not Tim McGraw anymore.”

The illusion dissipates immediately, he says. The ersatz Superman is replaced by a clumsy, cable-bashing Clark Kent. Nobody recognizes him. Nobody cares.

What about the songs he’s been writing with bandmate and keyboardist Mark Smith since the two were grade-schoolers in rural Pembroke?

As age 40 neared, were his days performing original material with his true voice long gone?

“I just didn’t think I’d get back to doing my own thing,” he worried.

“I thought that ship had sailed.”

He felt a bit like his dad, Bill, who once sang in a boys gospel group. Bill was enthusiastic but couldn’t carry a tune. The mic he stood in front of was always turned off. Bill was going through the motions to put on a show. Maybe his son was, too.

About four years ago, Downham started to step out of Tim McGraw’s shadow. His good friend Catherine Fife, now Kitchener-Waterloo MPP, asked Downham to play his music on her front deck during the Grand Porch Party.

“I almost said no.”

But Downham thought hard and accepted. He once orchestrated one of Fife’s political campaigns so surely he could strum a few tunes on her front porch. Then, he played at Hohner Avenue’s porch party. That’s in his Kitchener neighbourhood, so he now sits on the organizing committee.

Two Marches ago, his wife Angela suggested that he attend a music industry seminar at Kitchener City Hall, so he went. Then, as he was studying part-time at Laurier to get his master’s degree in business administration, he entered and won The Shot, a local competition aimed at mentoring emerging musical talent. Winning altered his attitude.

“You believe in yourself,” he said. “You get a little dose of anything-is-possible.”

One of the prizes was recording time. A CD ensued. He relearned how to play guitar standing up, something he never did as McGraw. His band played at last year’s Big Music Fest in Kitchener. This past week, Downham’s band joined bands from Hamilton to Hungary for Canadian Music Week at the Cadillac Lounge in Toronto. He’ll play Hohner Ave. again this month. His next 30 years are well underway.

Downham recently released a single called “Don’t Talk to Girls” that got airplay on radio stations out east, out west and up north — but not locally, he said.

Some pop-rock stations felt the single was too country. Some country stations felt it was too pop-rocky.

“Maybe we’ve made it difficult for ourselves,” said Downham, who promises the full album he’s working on will be rock. “I’m sure people are always going to hear a little bit of country in my voice.”

Maybe that’s a troublesome byproduct of his McGraw moonlighting.

But another potential booking looms for Downham. He’s been asked to dust off his Tim McGraw tribute act for a date in July.

“I don’t know if I will do it,” he said.

Why not? Because he doesn’t want to be just a quick-change, quick-draw impostor on stage any longer.

“Now, at least I’m still James Downham. People can come up to be after the show and say, ‘I really enjoyed that. That was great.'”

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