Terry Sumsion: “THE BEST FRIEND A COUNTRY SONG EVER HAD”

Cover, April 1, 2011

“THE BEST FRIEND A COUNTRY SONG EVER HAD” 

Submitted by:  Randy Owen, Country 107 3, Tillsonburg, Ontario

That was how a band member would introduce the late Conway Twitty.  When introducing Terry on stage, I would sometimes mention that quote and said it also applied very appropriately to Terry Sumsion.

Last night, Saturday, March 26, 2011, Terry took his last breath.  Terry Sumsion has passed away at the age of 64 after a courageous, three-year-battle with esophegeal cancer at a hospice in Brantford, Ontario, surrounded by his loving family.

Born February 7, 1947 in the small town of Burford, Ontario, the former truck driver would establish himself as one of the most powerful voices in country music, of country music, and for country music in Canada.  The story of his early years is not much different from that of other country singers, slugging away in bars, playing smoke-filled dives, and driving unimaginable distances just to get to the next gig, hoping for a chance at stardom.

But Terry was different.

That became apparent in the late 1970's when he first came to national prominence by winning the Male Vocalist category at the Canadian Open Singing Contest in Simcoe, Ontario...not once...not twice...but three consecutive years!  The early 1980's saw him and his band, Stagecoach, entertain on various stages, both big and small, across Canada and the United States and occasionally overseas.  His booming bass voice, backed up by some of the best musicians to hit the stage, was the perfect vehicle to promote his traditional style of country music for the next several decades.

The title song of his first album, “Our Lovin' Place,” became his “signature song.”  Written by Wayne Heimbecker, a longtime friend and bandmember, it is his most requested song.  Truth be told now, however, Terry wasn't the first artist to record it.  Nashville legend Charlie Louvin, who passed away earlier this year, had recorded the song in Toronto for an album that never was released.  But Terry's version, the song he is most identified with, became HIS song.  It was the perfect marriage of a song and a singer.

Terry would become close friends with country music stars like Gene Watson and John Conlee.  No wonder.  With his charisma, infectious smile, genuine big-heartedness and an incredible memory for names, anyone who came near him or spent even just a few minutes with him, felt like Terry had been a lifelong friend.  He gave his time and his undivided attention to many other singers and songwriters, professional or amateur, promoting them as best he could without asking for anything in return.

Over the years, many more albums and songs would come along.  Although he was never signed to a major record label, Terry released over thirty singles—ten of them made the Canadian country music charts—on various independent record labels.  Many of his later songs and albums were self-released, including “Highway of Heroes,” a song inspired by the stretch of Highway 401 in Ontario where soldiers, who have given the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan, are returned to Canadian soil in a patriotic homecoming.

“Highway of Heroes” was recorded soon after Terry was struck with the disease that would eventually kill him:  oesophageal cancer.  The diagnosis came in late 2007.  In January 2008, he underwent surgery in London, Ontario, having been told the operation could possibly leave him without the power of speech, let alone his remarkable gift of singing.  But through the combination of chemo and morphine and rehab and sheer determination, he came back.  Terry was determined to sing again, record again, perform again, and even tour again.  Why?  For the fans.  His fans.  For every single fan who felt a special connection to him and his music.

But the disease came back, too.

Terry fought it.  He fought it because he wasn't finished sharing his remarkable talents and gifts.  He'd write songs, he'd record those songs, he'd perform in concert.  But he did so, sometimes in pain from the cancer and the medication he needed to fight it.  While those close to him had an idea what he was going through, only Terry himself knew how bad the pain really was.  But he continued to fight bravely.  Very bravely.

In May 2010, Terry signed with Bullet Records in Nashville, and later released the single that will probably be known as his swan song, “Dance With Me.”  The lyrics, about a person facing his own mortality, have a special poignancy with his passing.  His last album, entitled “Encore,” a project for his fans, was released just two weeks and a day before his fight was over.

Terry Sumsion was a uniquely gifted man who shared those gifts unselfishly with his family, his friends and his fans.  His family—his devoted and loving wife Jeannie, his children Tammy and Jeff, and several grandchildren—and all who knew him are in our thoughts, our prayers and our breaking hearts.  His family had, in him, a unique gift.  And how thankful we should be that, in the same way he shared his gifts with us, they, in turn, shared their remarkable gift with us, too.