Calgary-born musician Tom Phillips has always had a love for songs. But it was in Toronto, rather than Canada’s country western capital, that he discovered his love for honkey tonk sound, something that blossomed into a career when he returned to Calgary.

Performing since he was 16, Phillips originally was focused on writing and playing folk music. Oddly enough, this all changed after Phillips relocated to Toronto – Hogtown.

“While I was in Toronto somebody gave me a Merle Haggard record and I just loved it, and I guess from there just started listening to people who influenced him,” said Phillips. “My father, who died when I was quite young, was also a big country music fan so I probably heard it around the house I just didn’t pay much attention. But you know, probably got it in my DNA somehow.”

Aware of the irony that he didn’t realize his interest in country music while living in his hometown, Phillips laughs and says, “You’d think I’d get into country music while living in Calgary because that would just make more sense. But it was really Calgary where I grew and after coming back from Toronto I formed a seven piece honkey tonk band. Then from there I played a lot of really country-oriented music.”

Seeing Phillips perform now almost makes it impossible to imagine that there was ever a time when that wasn’t his speciality. Commanding the stage in a white cowboy hat and acoustic guitar without a band, Phillips performs with the ease and magnetism of someone who has been writing and performing his own music for the past 42 years. Even in his intimate Friday night happy hour performances at Wine-Oh’s (which has since closed), audiences feel like they have just attended a concert.

Since then, Phillips has been hosting weekly ‘jams’ at the Blues Can in Inglewood.

Daryl Penner is an avid country fan, and after catching one of Phillips’ shows a few years ago he has tried to make sure to always catch Phillips’ shows when he can.

“I love country music and I happened to get introduced to Tom Phillips and his music at the Ironwood a few years ago when he was playing with his band, the Men of Constant Sorrow. I just loved listening to him so much that now that he’s playing at Wine-Oh’s every Friday, I come regularly. I hate to miss it,” Penner said between songs.

Sentiments like Penner’s have allowed Phillips to form a loyal fan base, something he has never taken for granted.

“I’ve become kind of a part of a family with my fans, you know to the point where I play songs at their weddings, I play songs at their funerals, things like that,” said Phillips.

“I’ve just become friends with them, that’s my favorite part. They’re just so nice to me and so loyal and I am so blessed to have fans that come out because if nobody comes out then you don’t keep getting gigs.”

Getting gigs is something that has recently become more important than ever before for Phillips, due to the growing popularity of streaming.

“You used to be able to make a living off of selling music, but now everybody streams and I’m all for it but it’s not a lot of money. Now you make your money off of playing live because that’s the best place to make it. But a lot of cities now, because there are so many musicians trying to make it, you basically don’t get paid to play,” Phillips explained.

This is an issue that makes Phillips even more proud to be a Calgarian, because according to him, it is one of the few big Canadian cities left where local musicians can still make a living off of live performances.

“If you’re in Toronto lots of musicians have to come out to Calgary if they want a shot at making a living. I’m lucky to be from Calgary because it is a city that has been very kind to me”.

Looking forward, Phillips just hopes to be able to continue doing the most important and constant thing in his life — music.

“Music has been my life, literally has been my life. It has got me through every rough situation I have ever been in, but I guess it has also put me in some rough situations. Music has completely coloured my life. It is everything, it’s my whole life.”

Mackenzie Hermann, mhermann@cjournal.ca

Editor: Jan Kirstyn Lopez, jlopez@cjournal.ca