Terry Sumsion has a new song – and new hope after cancer battle

Terry Sum­sion is doing a sound check at the Commercial Tavern here just outside the border of Well­ington County.

The music doesn’t over­power the room with decibels, and his voice is in fine timbre. For some reason, his appear­ance and sound bring to mind that beloved entertainer Burl Ives, whose music crossed gen­erational bound­aries with ease for decades.

At 10am on Feb. 17, Sum­sion had just had a world-wide release of his new single, You Gotta Believe. It will be part of a new album he is preparing, for which “five or six songs” are already record­ed.

While all appears to be nice and normal in a relaxed at­mosphere prior to the show, Sum­sion’s performing is really part miracle and part grim de­ter­mination, and that is reflec­ted in his newest song.

“We’ve been fighting pretty hard,” he said. “I’m just glad to be back out here doing what we do.”

He said of the belief in his return, “That’s been the key to this whole thing. Being posi­tive. We’re still battling. They found a couple more tumours.”

Sumsion has been an en­tertainer and recording artist for over 40 years. He has per­formed at the legendary Mickey Gilley’s in Texas, and shared the stage with musical legends Mel Tillis, Johnny Cash, and Conway Twitty. He was scheduled to open a show in Brantford for Tammy Wynette when she was suddenly taken ill, just weeks before her death. He performed both parts of those two shows.

Sumsion’s Highway of Her­oes, a tribute to Canada’s fallen soldiers has won him fame and he even received ac­colades from the federal government.

Sumsion has long been a favourite in this area, and performed at probably 17 of the Fergus Truck Shows over the years. He even used to help hand out the prizes.

But problems for him began in the summer of 2007. He was having trouble eating and hold­ing down his food. His family doctor suspected a hia­tus her­nia, and wanted to do some tests.

Sumsion “let it go.” He was busy, and proposed to get a check-up in the winter, when his schedule eased. But, he said, it was not easy. “There was pain trying to eat any­thing.”

In November that year, he was diagnosed. A doctor in Woodstock told him, “I’m pretty sure it’s cancer.” He was correct. A London doctor agreed, and plans started for treatment. He was scheduled for surgery around Christmas, but a huge snowstorm caused a major pile-up on Highway 401, and all the doctors were busy with accident patients.

He had surgery on Jan. 7 of 2008, and “by then, it [the tumour] was bigger than a large grapefruit.” It had “blown through” both sides of his eso­ph­agus. The operation lasted nine hours and four doctors performed it. Sumsion lost 180 pounds in the next while, and, he said, “I was lucky I had that to work with. It really takes a toll on you.”

While he was fighting for his life, he faced another prob­lem. He lost his voice for 16 weeks.

“Not even a whisper,” he said of that period.

Such a thing is particularly tough since Sumsion makes his living as a singer. He went to a speech therapist and learned 70 to 75 per cent of the people who had his type of cancer never speak again.

“I was so weak I couldn’t even hold a guitar pick,” he remembered. “I decided to keep trying. I didn’t ever really doubt that I was going to sing again.” He saw throat and chemo­therapy specialists and a radi­ologist. Then, he used his musi­cal knowledge to help find his voice again. He explained that wood in guitars and violins can, over time with no use, go “dead.” The way to bring them back is to strap them to a speak­er, play music loudly all day, and let the bass vibrations soak into the wood. It either works – or the instrument is finished.

“I can’t go back to singing half way,” is how he remem­bers it. He started working to talk and sing, and, “Finally, it started coming around.

He recorded a DVD, and was told his voice was better than ever.

Still, he has his battles. He was weak all through 2008, but was solidly booked to play. He cancelled them “a few at a time,” hoping to get back on the road.

On June 7 and 8, still weak, he was set to perform in Chatham with a bluegrass group. The first day, he said, that group took the lion’s share of the work. The next day, with temperatures soaring, he got 15 minutes into his show and had to quit. It was the first time in 42 years he had failed to com­plete a show.

Instead of being angry, the crowd supported him.

“The compassion and the love we’ve seen was amazing,” he said, adding he is unlikely to forget that Rosy Rhubarb Festival. “People at the gates took donations,” he remem­bered. At a  sold out benefit for in Paris, the place “was pack­ed.”

Larry Mercey, of the Juno award winning Mercey Broth­ers, of Elmira, called on his re­cent birthday. They had known each other in passing for years, but had little time to form a full friendship because they were always touring. They are now good friends.

Sumsion estimates that he has been coast to coast in Cana­da at least 20 times. He remem­bers in 1984 that he performed in 26 cities in three-and-a-half weeks – with no set up crew. “It was an amazing time. A training ground for all of us,” he said.

Sumsion is still not over his fight with cancer, and he said there are still a few lymph nodes he must deal with, but he does not sound worried.

“I had a great support team,” he said. “People have bent over backwards to help every way they can.”

His old band, Stagecoach, was a big help, and, he said of his wife, Jeannie, “She’s been a rock.”

Sumsion is now busy get­ting on with his career, and he is taking bookings for the coming year. He has one lined up for Peterborough next week, and more in March. He said he plays a lot of churches these days, and he loves the acoustics and that there is no alcohol in those venues.

He said with a laugh, “Seven years ago,?I said those old country churches would be the concert halls of the future.

Sumsion can be contacted for booking, or to hear his songs and see his videos at his website, terrysumsion.ca, or by calling Lori-Ann Newell, at 519-240-9302. He is looking forward to performing his new album, which he calls “magic medicine music.” He said he needs to perform for a crowd to make his music work best.

For now, Sumsion has only a few ambitions. The only part of Canada he has never played in is Newfoundland, and he hopes to remedy that. Besides that, he is interested in being a grandfather to eight grandkids, and said, “There’s a couple go­ing to carry on where I leave off.”

Grandson Matthew Norris got his first guitar from his grandfather at age 10, and now sings, plays, and writes songs.

Granddaughter Montana Jean Norris, just 10, has “all the magic it takes to get a star. I hope I live long enough to manage her.”

Sumsion said his attitudes have definitely changes since his illness – and on the long road back. “I look at life a lot different than I used to. Things that used to matter don’t – and things that didn’t, now matter a lot.”