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Larry Berrio rooted on the rock

Country music is all about roots, and the early beginnings of a country singer are well-established: a childhood surrounded by a musical family, singing in church on Sundays, with starry-eyed dreams of one day standing beside your musical heroes on the stage of the Grand Ol’ Opry in Nashville, Tennessee.

The story of Sudbury singer Larry Berrio is nothing like that.

Berrio (or Barriault as he was born in Val Caron 41 years ago—he changed the spelling so radio types would know how to pronounce it) didn’t have a musical family. He didn’t even ask for his first guitar until he was 14. And although he’s a fan of the usual country legends, it was the unlikely inspiration of Jerry Reed’s hot guitar and banjo picking in the Smokey and the Bandit movies, and a side-order of the Dukes of Hazzard TV show that turned Berrio on to country music.

He was the guy buying the Johnny Cash 8-track when his friends were buying Kiss albums (He gets a request to sing a Johnny Cash song from a passing customer while we’re sitting at Tim Hortons).

It took a lot of coaxing to get him onstage in a talent contest at Buddies Restaurant in Hanmer when he was in his mid-20s. But, in that moment, the course of his future was charted. Now, Berrio’s rocking-country sound and high-energy performances have made him fans all over. And two well-received albums: 1997’s Living A Dream and his newest effort, RPM, released in March 2009, delivered several singles that received good airplay on radio.

“It’s pretty cool to sing those songs live now and hear people singing along,” he says, smiling. “To hear from a total stranger that a particular song on the album really grabs them, that’s beautiful.”

The long wait between albums was because he stayed close to home for his daughters, Jenna and Olivia, while his wife Terri finished her child psychology degree.

When asked whom he most needs to thank for the success he’s had, he nominates his wife before I can even finish the question. She believes in him, and in his dream.

There have been a lot of milestones: As an avid outdoorsman and long-time teacher of hunter safety courses, Berrio enjoyed being a guest on the Global TV hunting and fishing show, Canada In The Rough. So he decided to write a song called In The Rough. The song has been adopted as the theme song for the show’s sixth season.

His biggest thrill to date has been opening shows in Kingston and Sudbury for superstar duo Brooks & Dunn. A standing ovation from the hometown crowd touched him deeply.

Last November, he shot a music video for his song Rock Town in and around Sudbury. The video was released at a party at Cranky Joe’s Feb. 6.

With a cost of reportedly more than $125,000 and a cast and crew numbering more than 50, the Rock Town video unabashedly showcases a dozen of Berrio’s hometown locations such as the NORCAT mine and the Fisher Wavy pit. The song and video (and its companion “making of” video) offer so much potential exposure for Sudbury that the city is getting involved in the marketing campaign.

Berrio’s in a wonderful yet tough place in his career right now: the brink of the next level.

“You’re on the top of that pyramid where you either go back to the bar scene or you cross over and start getting recognized as a recording artist.”

When he went to Nashville to write songs with transplanted Sudburian Gil Grand and to record the RPM at Grand’s studio, he saw the power of the music capital.

“In New York people walk around carrying briefcases,” he says.  “In Nashville, it’s guitar cases. They breathe music every single day.”

But the call of Music City isn’t irresistible. Although he’d love a string of No.1 hits, as well as the combination of Canadian stardom and international success enjoyed by the likes of Terri Clark and Paul Brandt, Larry Berrio knows his roots are in the hard rock of Northern Ontario. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Scott Overton is president of the Sudbury Writers’ Guild, and was a broadcaster at 790 CIGM for more than 20 years.

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