Barn Dance 23: Musical legend Larry Mercey returns for one last Blyth Barn Dance
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Musical legend Larry Mercey will be gracing the Barn Dance Jamboree and Campout stage in Blyth for one last time this year - the end of a remarkable run in which Mercey was one of the most consistent performers at the annual pilgrimage for country music fans.
This is one of the shows Mercey says he has looked forward to the most over the years, saying that the Blyth audience has always been very good to him.
Mercey has been performing at Barn Dance shows since he was 16 years old and a member of the Ranch Boys, playing at the Blyth event many times over its 25-year history. It’s then only fitting that Mercey would be one of the final musicians to grace the stage after this year’s 25th and final Barn Dance Campout and Jamboree, set for May 26-28.
In those early days, Mercey says he remembers being part of programs with the likes of Earl and Martha Heywood, the founders of the Barn Dance, Cactus Mac and some of the other legends of the early country music scene in Canada. He says he’s now one of the oldest living original performers and that he’ll hate to see the Blyth show go, but he understands why it has to end. With the aging demographics of the show, and no younger generation coming up to take the previous generation’s place, as well as a stretched-thin volunteer base, it’s tough to keep running an event of the Barn Dance’s size.
The Barn Dance shows have been a big part of Mercey’s life over the years, he says, and he owes a lot to those event organizers and audience members. He says he feels “really blessed” to have lived the life he has, performing music for generations and keeping the traditions of early country music alive, even at times when he would have to work other jobs to support his family while still performing when he could, saying he’s been lucky to have “been able to do what he loves for all of his life.”
In an interview with The Citizen he recalled a conversation he had with his wife many years ago when he had to work a sales job after years of performing on the road. He was facing a difficult selling season and facing a lot of rejection from potential customers and Mercey said his wife welcomed him to the real world, where everyone isn’t always so lucky to live out their passion on a day-to-day basis. He said that was a lesson for him on how lucky he has been when he’s been able to perform for adoring audiences like those who fill the Blyth and District Community Centre for the campout on an annual basis.
Even now, operating out of Ilderton, Mercey says he plays between eight and 10 shows a year. Ahead of the Barn Dance, Mercey had played two shows with his trio, but had the bulk of the year’s shows scheduled for the fall.
One thing Mercey, who’s now 83 years old, says has changed about performing for him as he’s grown older is that he’s become more “scared” of it, worrying about remembering songs or lyrics in front of a large crowd, whereas when you’re young, you just aren’t as concerned with those kinds of things.
However, he says hardly a day goes by that he’s not singing or playing guitar in one way or another. Even his community in Ilderton has jam sessions and fundraising concerts that include him and some of the other musicians who live there, which Mercey says has helped to keep him sharp musically in recent years.
In recent years Mercey also decided to tell his story. It began with him recording some of his memories for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the project just continued to grow. In fact, it may have even started earlier, as Mercey’s mother was meticulous and thorough about keeping scrapbooks to document Mercey’s musical journey, much of which he took with his brothers.
So, following the scrapbooks and penning memories and anecdotes triggered by the scrapbooks, he soon realized his journaling project was growing too big to be contained and he wrote a book, which has now been on sale for a few years. Sales have gone well, Mercey said, as a lot of people have been interested in reading about his life.
And what a life it has been.
Mercey, along with his brothers Ray and Lloyd, who performed together as the Mercey Brothers, have won seven Top Country Group Juno Awards and even earned a Gold record for their Comin’ on Stronger album, just one of 22 total records the brothers would produce over the years.
In his book, Mercey detailed how he enjoyed growing up near Hanover. There was a lot of music in the family home. His dad played guitar and his mom the piano. “We were brought up on music. Back then that’s what people did – listened to music,” remembers Mercey.
Highly motivated to become performers, Mercey and his brother Ray would stand in front of a mirror and sing together to improve their look and sound. “It paid off because when we started to record, we sounded pretty good!”
In 1960, the pair won second place on a CBC talent show called Talent Caravan. “That really opened doors for us,” remembers Mercey. They began performing in large Canadian cities from Winnipeg to Halifax, gaining popularity. Being on television gave them more exposure than a year performing in bars and led to concerts in Finland, England, Holland, Sweden and the historic Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.
This was a taste of international success, but breaking into the United States was going to be a huge hurdle. “We felt we could be a big fish in a small pond so we decided to stay in Canada,” he said.
There were many awards; the Junos and Gold record, as mentioned. Mercey played guitar using a Martin guitar and says a career highlight was winning the Martin Guitar Award in 1986 for lifetime achievement.
The journey wasn’t easy. It was a lot of hard work travelling to cities, playing in different venues and bars every night. The brothers were their own roadies, responsible for setting up and taking down their equipment and transporting themselves from one venue to the next. The band committed to putting out a single every four to five months so there were a lot of recording sessions as well.
“We felt it was important to be consistent and we put out records like pulling a handle on a machine,” says Mercey.
The Mercey Brothers disbanded in 1989 when Larry was 60 and he went on to work as a landscaper, picture salesman and tour guide for Hanover Holidays. He also ran a recording studio for a time. He enjoyed all of the above because he enjoys people.
What he has missed most since leaving the music industry are the people, he says. It’s why he still performs for fans who have followed him and the Mercey Brothers since the 1960s. Huron County fans will remember he sang on the CKNX Barn Dance in 1956. A personable fellow, Mercey has deep fondness for some country music legends he met while in the business. His favourite was Charley Pride. “Charley was a nice man,” says Mercey.
Pride also performed a song Mercey had co-written. “I was there in the audience and he announced he was going to do a song by a Canadian and he had me stand up,” remembers Mercey. By the second verse, the crowd of over 10,000 fans were on their feet and singing along. It was quite a rush.
If you’d like to read more about Mercey’s life and his music, seek out a copy of Have Mercey: My First 60 Years of Making Music, and plan to attend the Barn Dance weekend this year to see a legend, live and in person.
With files from Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot of The Rural Voice.