Bruce Guthro, one of Cape Breton’s most well-known troubadours whose remarkable 40-year career made waves on both sides of the Atlantic, has died.
Guthro passed away on Tuesday evening after a battle with cancer, his family said. He had just celebrated his 62nd birthday on Aug. 31.
He leaves behind his wife, Kim Guthro, two children, Jodi and Dylan Guthro, as well as many family and friends.
Guthro was born on Cape Breton Island and started his career leading a band at local clubs and legions — what his longtime friend and colleague J.P. Cormier described as his “first career,” as Guthro would reinvent his place in the music industry many times over.
He would later move to the Halifax area and go on to have a successful solo career before fronting the hugely popular Scottish band Runrig for 20 years.
More recently, he brought together both established and up-and-coming artists in his mould-breaking songwriters’ circles, where the musicians face each other, away from the audience, allowing a vulnerable and emotional atmosphere of storytelling.
From touring across Europe to hosting songwriters’ circles, 2002 was a big year for Bruce Guthro
In 2002, CBC reporter Linda Kelly spoke to Bruce Guthro about the busy year for the Cape Breton singer-songwriter — including his three East Coast Music Award wins. Guthro died on Sept. 5 at the age of 62.
Cormier described Guthro as “one of the most likable people you ever met in your life.”
“He was so incredibly proactive and positive. But it was impossible to stop it. And that’s what inspired all of us,” said Cormier, who knew Guthro for more than 30 years.
“He saw the universality of us as writers, but also saw the thing that made us different, which made us stronger. And he was compelled, for some reason, to demonstrate that to the world over and over and over again, and that’s what the circles were.”
Guthro transcended genres — from rock to traditional — and marched to the beat of his own drum, said Cormier, forging his own path in a cutthroat industry through his ability to connect with people and brush off negativity.
In his early days, even as he was signed to a major label and rose to number 1 in the Canadian charts with Walk This Road, Guthro always avoided the “troublemakers” of the business and floated above adversity, said Cormier.
“He was very smart. He knew people. He knew more about people than most guys I’ve met,” said Cormier, who has himself sat in Guthro’s circle more times than he can count.
“He loved people and so his success was unavoidable.”
For fellow Cape Breton songwriter Gordie Sampson, Guthro was the Yoda of performance — “He just had the force.”
“He could work the crowd and he knew it, and there was absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. That’s what entertainment is,” said Sampson. “He was able to read his audience…. He lived and fed off the crowd, and it was so innate.”
Guthro started from humble beginnings, growing up in the small coal mining community of Sydney Mines. He was the seventh of nine children.
Sheumas MacNeil, one part of the Cape Breton family band the Barra MacNeils, recalled playing with Guthro at the local beverage room in their teen years and then returning to the MacNeil homestead to continue the revelry until the wee hours.
“On the weekends, we would gather in the woods around a fire and sing songs, and actually a lot of famous singers from Sydney Mines gathered around that fire with Bruce,” said MacNeil, joking that perhaps the “Brown Street Country Club” campfire jams were the origin of his songwriters’ circles.
In the late 1990s, a Celtic band from Scotland called Runrig was looking for a new lead singer. Enter Guthro, who held the band’s main microphone and helped fill European stadiums until their final performance in 2018, which drew more than 50,000 people.
Watch as Bruce Guthro plays guitar with his young son in 1998
Bruce Guthro’s son Dylan Guthro, then seven years old, accompanied him on guitar for the song Walk This Road.
Former Runrig bandmate Pete Wishart described Guthro as “the nicest person you could ever hope to meet, and a joy to perform with.”
“An exceptional singer, musician and songwriter taken far too soon. We are going to miss him,” Wishart said in a social media post.
Despite his success on the world stage, Guthro’s loyalty to his home province was unwavering, hosting his songswriters’ circle in Halifax multiple times a year and becoming a mainstay act at the annual Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso, N.S.
His legacy will also live on through his children, who themselves have established their own place in the music industry — Dylan Guthro is a songwriter and producer currently based in Nashville and Jodi Guthro is a singer-songwriter in her own right.
‘He’ll never die’
A few weeks before his death, Guthro posted a video on his Facebook page, a stand-in for his would-be performance at the Canso folk festival.
Flanked by his children around a kitchen table with a drink in his hand, Guthro asked for prayers from his fans before launching into a newly written song that includes the line, “Can I get an amen?”
He appears composed as he recites the Lord’s Prayer while Jodi and Dylan harmonize the song’s main passage.
“Thank you all for your support over the years in this blessed musical career I’ve had. You were always the inspiration behind it all,” Guthro wrote in the post.
Cormier said Guthro’s death will leave a noticeable void in Nova Scotia’s music scene, but he promised to help carry on his renowned songwriters’ circles in some way.
“Our little world here just got smaller. But like I said, if we remember what he did, and we continue what he did, he’ll never die.”