Remarkable music careers frequently begin in unusual ways, but it's seldom that performing at a company function proves someone's big break.
But in the case of famed Scottish/Canadian tenor John McDermott, universally regarded among the finest pure vocalists ever in the Celtic tradition, that's precisely the vehicle that started him on the road to stardom.
"I had a really good job as an executive for the Toronto Sun," McDermott said during an interview. "When Conrad Black heard me singing ‘Danny Boy’ at a company function and decided to finance a recording I didn't really think a lot about it beyond the fact I was getting to make a record. Then when EMI purchased it they assigned it to Angel, the classical division. They wanted me to tour, but didn't want to pay me any money, so I told them to forget it. But when the sales exceeded 200,000 everything changed."
Since that early 1990s debut, McDermott has made his mark singing everything from traditional and contemporary Irish music to folk tunes from other cultures, spirituals, even occasionally rock and pop songs.
He returns to Nashville Thursday night for the first time in more than three years for a series of engagements with the six-member female vocal and instrumental ensemble Cherish The Ladies, backed by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero.
"I’ve worked with Cherish The Ladies at festivals, but this will be the first time that we've teamed together with a symphony orchestra," McDermott continued. "I'm very excited about it because of all the sounds and things that we can do in this context. Plus, we'll be performing a lot of songs from my latest CD, and I'm very happy about doing this for the Nashville audience."
McDermott's most recent disc, Journeys – Bringing Buddy Home, continues his efforts on behalf of veterans in both America and Canada, something he's been actively involved in since the mid-'90s.
The CD is a poignant, exuberantly sung collection of tunes that chronicle the long trip made by the remains of Canadian soldiers killed in the Afghanistan war from the battlefield to their final resting place. McDermott composed the lyrics and music, and speaks with warmth and intensity about the disc's importance and his regard for the sacrifices of young people in wartime.
"Whatever you might feel about the war in Afghanistan or Iraq is your business, but that should never have anything to do with how you feel about the sacrifices of the soldiers," McDermott said. "I've had people tell me it's not that simple, but yes, it is that simple. These people have chosen to fight on our behalf and many of them are killed, and yet there are so many instances where their families aren't getting the things they need.
“We've made arrangements with Fisher House in Boston and with a Canadian company to cover the production costs of the CDs and ensure that all the money goes directly to the families of soldiers killed in Afghanistan."
McDermott's other efforts on behalf of veterans, which include the establishment of a transitional home in Washington and currently building a similar structure in Canada, plus his other recordings, concerts, donations and appearances have earned him the U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor Society's Bob Hope Award.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, McDermott's family moved to Willowdale, Ontario in the mid-'60s. After "Danny Boy" became a major success, McDermott toured throughout 1993 and 1994 as opening act for The Chieftains, an experience he calls vital in helping him not only learn the music business, but how to handle the rigors of touring.
Since then he's made several other successful discs, and become a popular figure not only on Canadian television but also doing the Canadian and American national anthems at Toronto Blue Jays baseball and Toronto Maple Leafs hockey games.
While enjoying all types of music, McDermott has a special affinity for country, and hopes to eventually make a recording in that genre.
"The storytelling ethic in country particularly appeals to me because I'm always drawn to the story element in lyrics," McDermott said. "I'm a huge John Prine fan for example, and there are a lot of musicians in my current band who are big country fans. One day I plan to make an album of country songs and also a recording of early American folk songs dating back to the Civil War."
"My father was my biggest influence as a performer," he concluded. "He would always tell a story before he did a song, and that's something that I do now in my show. Everything I select to record and every song I do has to have a story behind it and be something the audience can relate to it and will accept."
IF YOU GO
Who: Internationally acclaimed Canadian tenor John McDermott along with Cherish The Ladies
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Laura Turner Concert Hall, Schermerhorn Symphony Center, One Symphony Plaza