Playing a guitar as fast as he can is a novelty that wore off for Don Ross by the time he was 17 years old.
“It wasn’t about how many hand stands I can do on the thing,” says Ross over the phone. “But, really, a good tune is more important than how fast I can play.”
Graduating from the music department of Toronto’s York University in 1983, he didn’t start playing professionally for another three years.
So, it must have been a surprise for the music industry when this professional of just two years won the U.S. National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship in 1988, a competition that looks for immaculate technique and a high degree of emotion and intensity.
Now considered one of the world’s best, he has done what no other guitarist has been able to do: he won the competition a second time in 1996.
In spite of his credentials and acclaim from around the world, he never achieved superstardom.
“Trashing hotel rooms has always been a dream of mine,” Ross says wistfully. Then, getting serious, he says he chose to play for “a very specialized audience”.
Although people see the acoustic guitar and peg him as a folk player, Ross says his music is more “heavy wood”, a term he borrowed from a Toronto band, Rare Air — “But they disbanded, so I took it over” — that describes his eclectic, out-of-the-ordinary style.
“The cool thing with this kind of music is that I really like the audience.
“They are warm and into the more intellectual type of music that this is and they listen.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing to that crowd.”
Instead of having his posters on teenage girls’ bedroom walls, he is content with having a fan base in hundreds of communities around the world … and he has played to each one.
He has a fan base in the Yukon, too, and many of them have become friends as he has been here several times.
This time, however, Yukon audiences will hear his bride, too.
Ross fell in love, first, with Brooke Miller’s voice when he heard it on CBC Radio. “I flipped out,” he says today. “I called CBC and got her name. A month later, I met her at a conference on the west coast and we kept in touch.”
Miller had been building her own career from her Prince Edward Island roots and has been showcased across North America and Europe.
Two CDs and the Colleen Peterson Songwriting Award has served notice that she is among Canada’s “strongest new crop of writers of acoustic music”.
Along with Miller’s smokey vocals, Ross’s fans will hear him sing, too. They’ve heard a song or two before, but this is a new path he is trying.
“I just released a new, all-vocal CD. It’s a rewarding experience.”
Ross is referring, too, to the other instruments he played for the CD, Any Colour: “I’m a pretty good piano player and I’m an average drummer.
“The record is surprisingly polished.”
Don Ross and Brooke Miller will be playing at the Yukon Arts Centre Tuesday, May 12, at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at the YAC Box Office and Arts Underground.