Mike StevensBreathe in the World.... Breathe out Music

Mike Stevens
Photography by Larry Towell

Mike has a powerful message and is a much sought after Performer, Keynote Speaker, Composer and Educator. His book Bluegrass Harmonica has been distributed worldwide and provides instruction about his groundbreaking style of Harmonica playing. He facilitates workshops for groups, corporations, and youth nationally and internationally.

 

 

Since 1999 Mike has been traveling to isolated communities in Northern Ontario and Labrador, Canada sharing his love for music with kids and helping them explore their own musical expression through instrument lending libraries and recording studios he has helped create in some of the communities. We invite you to read Mike’s story. It has been transcribed word for word.

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Mike in the Arctic

Up in the Arctic in the Middle of the Night Holman, NWT

 

 

Crazy Facts

Mike Has had 7 hernias from playing the harmonica... that’s right! He is currently steel belted with rows of wire mesh--- Really

Mike was an IRONMAN triathlete in the very early days of the sport and in fact qualified for the iron man in Hawaii. He’s pretty stubborn!

For years Mike with his wife Jane and son Colin would leave Sarnia on a Thursday afternoon and drive to Nashville, he would work the Grand Ole Opry, then play shows in up to 4 different states; many with 500 mile all night drives between shows. He’d play the last show on Sunday and race back to Canada to work a day job on Monday. His trusty Volvo had 760,000 kms on it.

 

At a very early age Mike found an harmonica. Actually I think it found him. Living in Sarnia, Ontario you couldn’t help but hear the sounds of Motown and the Blues coming in over the airwaves from Detroit - Son House was a big early influence. At 16 years old something snapped and Mike started to practice up to 12 hrs a day. Creating and refining a very original and often copied style of playing. It was never a particular style of music and there were no limits. It was always about playing exactly how it feels in that moment; no rules, no barriers.

This approach to music led Mike to audition for a Bluegrass band; he didn’t realize that the harmonica was not an accepted instrument in Bluegrass music. In fact some people would turn their backs or re-tune their instruments so that the harmonica would not fit in. This only strengthened Mike's resolve and made his playing even more explosive and expressive.

In the 1980’s Mike was playing the Carlisle, Ontario Bluegrass festival when Little Roy Lewis from the World famous Lewis Family invited him on stage. The crowd went nuts and afterward Little Roy said "look if you’re willing to follow us around the country for no pay I’ll let you play with us". Here’s the deal, Mike would sit in the audience and Little Roy would start a tune then stop and say what this song really needs is harmonica (the audience would gasp – harmonica wasn’t accepted) that was Mike’s cue and he would jump on stage and they would burn down the house getting a standing ovation. Next they would pass the hat, Mike ended up getting better pay than most of the bands on the bill and a booking for the next year.
 


 

Mike and his wife Jane, criss-crossed the United States this way for more than a year playing for the most hard core Bluegrass fans on the planet and winning them over show by show.

In 1988 while appearing at a Bluegrass festival in Georgia, Mike met Bluegrass legends Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys. Once they heard Mike play they invited him up to do a number on their show. After the performance Mike heard the words "You need to be on the Grand Ole Opry" and that’s exactly what happened. Mike has performed more than 300 times on the world famous Grand Ole Opry stage and can count Roy Acuff -The king of Country Music as one of his biggest fans. In fact Roy would ask to be led to the stage just to see Mike perform.

Mike toured the world as a feature performer with Jim and Jesse for close to 15 years playing all the major Bluegrass festivals solidifying Mike’s position as the true pioneer of Bluegrass harmonica. Meanwhile the awards were rolling in: In 1990 Mikes first release "Harmonica" won Recording of the Year at the Central Canadian Bluegrass awards. Amazing, considering the Harmonica’s previous history in Bluegrass music.

1990-1996 Mike was awarded the Entertainer of the Year award at the Central Canadian Bluegrass Awards and was in fact retired from the category after 6 consistent years of achieving this award.

In 1991 Mike's recording "Blowin up a Storm" was the highest selling release on Pinecastle Records. In 1994 Mike was named a Kentucky Colonel by the Governor of Kentucky for his contributions to Bluegrass music.

In 1995 Mike wrote the book "Bluegrass Harmonica" detailing his unique harmonica techniques. This book has worldwide distribution through Hal Leonard Publishing.

In 2001 Mike signed on with Borealis Recording Company, one of the most prestigious Folk and Roots Music Labels in Canada. Both "Old Time Mojo" and the groundbreaking Canadian Fiddle Tune recording " The World is Only Air" were released on the Borelis label.

From 1999 until the present time Mike has been going into some of the most troubled communities across Canada playing music for native youth and bringing other artists into these communities to share art with youth. He is the Founder of ArtsCan Circle - a nonprofit organization dedicated to giving Youth at Risk a voice through music and the arts.

In 2002 Mike was awarded the YMCA Peace Medallion for his work with At Risk Youth. From Asia to the North Pole; Europe to the Middle East; Mike continues to bring his music and life experience to the worlds stage. Mike has been the subject of 2 Feature Film Documentaries:
  • The award winning Harmonica Crossing (2000) about Mike's career at the World Famous Grand Ole Opry
  • The recently released A Walk in My Dream (2011) produced by Jonathan Torrens
  • Talks are currently underway for another full length documentary film about CanadAfrica - the amazing musical collaboration between Mike, Harmonica Great and Master Ghanian Musician and Dancer, Okaidja Ofroso. This will follow their journey from Iqaluit Nunavut to Ghana in West Africa while sharing their music during collaborations with Traditional musicians and dancers from both countries.

  • Mike continues to play many styles of music incorporating all of his influences and experience. These may be solo shows involving cutting edge looping with mouth percussion creating otherworldly sound paintings which has been doing for over 35 years. Some of the collaborative highlights Mike has done include: Avante Garde multimedia performances with world famous Magnum photographer Larry Towell Duo performance’s with Legendary Bluegrass musician Raymond McLain Acoustic Blues shows and award winning recordings with Blues star Matt Andersen, Composing for the Atlantic Ballet and performing with them. And most recently Mike has been recording and performing with West African Master musician and dancer Okaidja Afroso. See their new album "Where's the One?". No wonder Mike won the first ever Innovator of the Year award at the Canadian Folk music Awards in 2012 and the Ontario Contact Award of Excellence in the same year! Mike Stevens's music is always evolving and reflects all of his influences. It’s always pushing the envelope while respecting the past.

 
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