Terry Kelly Shares His Message of Positivity
One snowy Saturday in February, visitors to The Back Nine Club, a restaurant and bar in downtown Fredericton, New Brunswick, were in for a real treat – an old-fashioned kitchen party complete with live bands, fiddlers and highland dancing. It was all part of Music Nova Scotia’s three-day showcase of acclaimed local talent, and this afternoon of Celtic music was one of the hottest tickets in town during the 2008 East Coast Music Awards.
Among the performers was Terry Kelly. He knows how to entertain a crowd, and it’s no surprise that this talented singer/ songwriter has won seven East Coast Music Awards and been nominated for four Canadian Country Music Awards and a Juno (he was also inducted into the Order of Canada in 2003). Kelly, who accompanied himself on electric guitar, played several crowd favourites, including “In My Father’s House,” one of his biggest hits.
When not thrilling audiences with his blend of contemporary, roots, traditional Celtic and devotional music, Kelly, who is blind, is a sought-after motivational speaker and a well-spoken advocate for people with disabilities. In his speeches, he talks about confronting fears, pursuing dreams, and understanding and celebrating our differences.
After his performance, I talked to Kelly in his dressing room about his life and experiences as a musician with a disability. Born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in 1954, Kelly was seven years old when his parents made the difficult decision to send him from St. John’s to the Halifax School for the Blind in Nova Scotia, something that many families in Atlantic Canada did at the time.
Two years before that, a family friend had given him a button accordion. “My dad said when someone gives you a gift, it’s important to use it and share it,” says Kelly about his musical roots. “So I was given the task of learning the accordion and it started there.” Kelly took up the guitar at 10 and plays the piano as well.
In Grade 10, his school band got a chance to play on Christmas Daddies, an annual television program started in 1964 to raise money for less fortunate Maritime families. That appearance led to Kelly’s first big break, the offer of a gig at a Halifax folk club that specialized in Newfoundland music. “I ended up playing down there every weekend. That got me rolling along, you know. It’s been more than 30 years.” Life for travelling musicians is never easy, especially if, like Kelly, they perform over 100 nights a year. Often, successful musicians forsake a personal life and family for their career. Kelly, who has two daughters, admits that has happened to him, but his life is more balanced now. “I had to learn that the hard way.”
Balancing the personal and professional is a recurring theme in the motivational speeches that Kelly delivers at schools and to the corporate sector. His presentations are based on his own life and the values he has learned.
“I talk about people discovering the gifts they don’t know they have, using them and sharing them. I talk about taking the challenges they have and transforming them into gifts that they can share with others,” says Kelly. “I talk about finding the social, spiritual and personal balance in your life. If you want to do your everyday job and be healthy, you have to take care of yourself first. And to have that balance to take care of family and work, you have to be healthy yourself and be aware of having that balance. It doesn’t matter if you have a disability or not. Everyone has challenges and everyone has gifts.”
Kelly says that gratitude is a key part of who he is. “It’s a matter of learning to be grateful in life. My gratitude came from family, from mentors and teachers. I was taught to take responsibility for myself. Once you learn that gratitude snowballs, it’s a gift to share with others.”
This year, Kelly is working on a CD of traditional music, an album to commemorate heroes from the World Wars and war in Afghanistan, and a CD of contemporary music.
Kelly is also involved in documentary filmmaking. In 2004, he completed a video and documentary based around his song “A Pittance of Time,” which tells of his desire to have Remembrance Day held in high honour by all Canadians.
Kelly offers advice for other musicians with disabilities. “I don’t think the disability is everything. It can be a challenge and sometimes it can be a concern for someone who wants to hire you. See yourself as an artist first. I don’t allow the disability to define me. The music will take care of the disability not being a problem.”
In his business, Kelly meets a lot of new people. When approaching others, Kelly says, “It’s my responsibility to make others comfortable with my disability. I reach out and shake hands and say ‘hello’ so they get past the disability, which may be the first thing they see. I jump over that right away and say ‘Here I am. I’m a person and an artist and not a disability.’”
Having recorded six full-length albums and established himself as an important figure on the Canadian music scene, Kelly isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. “I might drop playing,” he says, laughing. “No, I don’t think I’ll ever stop performing.”
To read more information about Terry Kelly, check out his schedule of upcoming performances, listen to or purchase his recordings and watch his videos, please visit www.terry-kelly.com.
Stephen Pate is a writer, musician, social activist and business consultant. He is also the founding director of PEI Disability Alert, a disability advocacy organization (http://peidisabilityalert.blogspot.com/). He can be found performing his songs weekly at clubs in Charlottetown, P.E.I.