Gonna face the dark tonight, gonna tell him I'm on the rise.
- Justin Hines, Courage (Come Out to Play)
He scored his first points at a Toronto Raptors game in front of 17,000 people, but Justin Hines wasn't there to play basketball. Crippled since birth, the 13-year-old boy's job that day was to sing the national anthem, which he did very well, his "glorious and free" thrilling enough to set a music career in motion.
Fourteen years later, Hines is a successful singer-songwriter. His second album, Chasing Silver , came out this week. A a current television commercial for Ontario Tourism - "There's no place like this" - boosts his profile.
Talking to Hines and watching him zip about in his motorized wheelchair, you realize there's very little stop in the young man who sings convincingly about chasing suns, touching stars and running down dreams.
On a visit to The Globe and Mail offices last week, he talked about the challenges he faces, compared to the bothers of others.
He suffers from Larsen syndrome, a congenital condition that stunted his physical growth, leaves his joints oddly angled, and has put him in a wheelchair. "This is my reality," he says. "For me to get up in the morning and to function, I've got to do whatever I've got to do."
He contorts a bit, raising his right shoulder, wringing one hand with the other, and fingering his wedding ring while talking about his album, an uplifting collection of acoustic soul in the middle-of-the-road vein of Amos Lee or bearded seventies cats like Jim Croce.
Is he in pain? Not really, he says. "Nothing that stops me on a day-to-day basis."
Raised north of Toronto in Stouffville, Hines's "situation," as he refers to it, is serious enough that he had to shut down his music career as a teenager - a break to "get things back in order." Earlier on, as a child, the boy who could sing before he could talk was taken by his grandmother to churches and old-folks' homes to entertain. It's still sort of his thing: Because of his inspirational back story and heartening, motivational lyrics, he plays a lot of charity shows and corporate concerts rather than numerous club gigs.
The album's first single, Say What You Will , is sweet, emotional - "Say what you will before it's too late" - and poignantly melodic. "If I were to die today," Hines sings, "my life would be more than okay." It's a line that could be seen as cloying, but the songwriter assures that it's his reality. "I have no sense of angst. I don't know a different life. I'm fulfilled."
In a way, Hines, a Top 40 version of Terry Fox, is Canada's answer to Irish tenor Ronan Tynan (a double amputee) and blind opera singer Andrea Bocelli. But his musical talent needs no crutch. He plays piano just well enough to write stirring songs that are extremely easy on the ears. He describes one of them, Courage (Come Out to Play) , as liberating.
"My life has changed a lot in the last two years," he says. "I've had to step out of my comfort zone. The song is a declaration about being able to face more than I thought I could."
It's funny that Quebec singer Bernard Lachance was able to snag an invite to appear on Oprah (and land a subsequent record deal) after inviting the big-mama talk-show host to see him perform at a Chicago theatre he had rented out himself.
Hines is talented, and has something to say other than "Look at me." He'd be easy to root for even if he were 10 feet tall and in pristine health - he's someone you would imagine underdog champion Winfrey would dearly want as her guest. Really, it seems like a slam dunk.