Highway 97 is the longest numbered route in the province, running from the Canada-U.S. border to the Yukon, its also the title track of an album by long-time Prince Rupert artist.
Last summer, Danny Sklapsky and his wife Katie, hopped in “The WB” (or Western Winnebago) and took Highway 97 south to Kelowna where they produced his new album.
From tapes, to CDs and now streaming on iTunes, Sklapsky has been a musician for decades playing with multiple bands, with his buddy Dave Wilson, and going solo.
As he tells his story his guitar never leaves his hands. The instrument seems to be an extension of his body. Before he speaks about his youth, he strums a tune called Silent Cannery.
“When we were all going to school economically it was really booming here so we had a chance to go work in the canneries and you’d go back to school with pockets full of money,” he said. “This tells a story about that. It talks about a woman who has been working in the cannery. Katie worked in the cannery too.”
The song tells the story of the north, of the declining fishing industry and the closure of the cannery. Although this song isn’t on his album, his other songs speak to North Coast life.
Born in Saskatchewan, when he was just an infant his father moved the family to Prince Rupert for work. In a way, he feels that he missed out on growing up in the Prairies. His father owned Clydesdale horses, and his older brother and sister used to ride the beasts to school.
The Sklapsky family is musically inclined. Influenced by his siblings, at 10 years old Danny picked up the guitar. His passion led him to experiment with other instruments: mandolin, piano, flute and bass guitar.
“When I was 14 I played at a bar and I had to have a note from my mom. You were making like $50 for Friday and Saturday which was great for a 14-year-old but I had to have that note,” Sklapsky said.
Back in the 60s and 70s the bar scene was thriving. Even as a youngster, Sklapsky’s talents were in demand. When a country artist came to play at the Prince Rupert Hotel he was asked to play bass guitar with a high school friend who played drums.
“We ended up getting more calls after that. We thought we were stars,” he said.
For a brief stint he moved to Terrace where he worked for one of his band friends who owned a pizza joint — that was where he met Katie. She was a waitress and a fan of the band. The two connected, and have been married for 43 years. He told her that he had a gig in Prince Rupert for a few months, she moved with him, and they never left.
She’s been supportive of his music, and even designed the artwork for his latest album.
But living the dream as a musician has its limitations, and along with the waning fishing industry, the music scene drifted as well.
“The days are gone where you can make so much money. There’s not very much live music in bars anymore,” he said.
With a level three First Aid certificate, he took a job at Ridley Terminals where he worked until his recent retirement. Now, he spends his days with his guitar in hand, strumming out new songs and jamming with neighbours.
“It’s so much a part of who he is,” Katie said about her ardent support for her husband. “I enjoy listening to the song writing process.”
Going on the road to perform top 40 tunes lost its appeal. Playing his own original songs at festivals was the kicker for Sklapsky, who realized then that he could take his craft further.
He has fond memories of playing his originals at Kispiox Valley Music Festival, Rolling on the River in Port Edward and Midsummer Music Festival in Smithers.
It took courage to play his own work, but the reception was welcoming. Once, he went to Kispiox with his band, Slapshott, and they were so well rehearsed their performance was as smooth as butter — that was a special moment for him.
Music for Sklapsky is not for commercial gain or fame, it’s his therapy. Mid-interview he breaks into another song called Box of Soul.
“It’s something that I wrote, when I was playing music that wasn’t my own and you sort of get tired after a while. You just go back, why did you start doing this in the first place. Write something that is actually going to bring you back to wear it started,” he said.
This song may find a spot on his next album. But in the meantime, he plans to continue playing in-kind at Acropolis Manor, the Seniors Centre and he’s lined up to play at Seafest in June.
His album Hwy 97 South is available at Maverick Foods, Cowpuccino’s and online.