Al Cherny, Canada’s Favourite Fiddler

Al Cherny. PHOTO COURTESY LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA

He was born Alexander Peter Chernywech November 1, 1932, but before he left his prairie home of Medicine Hat, Alta., he was already on the trail that would take him across Canada and around the world as Canada’s favourite fiddler, the legendary Al Cherny.

As a child, Chernywech received a violin from his father and began studying under Frank Nowak, soon becoming an accomplished classical violinist. Few knew about this talent, however, because by the time Chernywech was in his teens, he had transformed his violin into a fiddle and was playing country music live on CHAT-FM of Medicine Hat. In 1951, he joined Vic Siebert and his Sons of the Saddle, a cowboy music group in Calgary, where he regularly played Western fairs, performing on radio shows and appearing at the Calgary Stampede. Enjoying a successful career with the Sons, his mastery of the fiddle spread across the airwaves, and his prowess with the bow came to the attention of the producers of the most popular and influential radio program of its day: CKNX-AM Radio’s Saturday Night Barn Dance, which aired out of Wingham, Ont.

The fiddler soon received an invitation to audition for the famous show, and he made the long train journey east, packing his prized fiddle and his freshly shorn last name — Cherny. Wrote CKNX Alumni, Archie Mann as he recalled Al Cherny’s audition: “When he came to audition for Johnny (Barn Dance emcee, Johnny Brent), boy was he scared. The sweat was just rolling down his face.”

He won the audition, and in 1952 he became a regular. “Those of us who remember Al when he first arrived in Wingham will recall the quiet, studious, good-looking boy who was quite lonely for his Ukrainian heritage and who loved to play many of those old Ukrainian tunes of the past,” wrote Bob Carbert, another CKNX alumni. “Al was also trained in classical music and was one of the most versatile musicians ever to perform at CKNX. I vividly remember walking into one of the radio studios one day to do a program, and there I found Al, all by himself with tears flowing down his cheeks, playing that beautiful music that came from his family and home community,” he penned.

Barn Dance was a smash hit, and some of the biggest names in show business at the time performed on the show, including the Mercey Bros., Gordie Tapp, Tommy Hunter, Gordon Lightfoot, Myrna Lorrie, and Wilf Carter. Cherny performed on Barn Dance with the Golden Prairie Cowboys (and on television’s Circle 8 Ranch) from 1952–1959. It was here that he met his future wife, Marion Sieler, one of the singing Sieler Twins who appeared quite often on Barn Dance shows. Together, the couple had a son, Peter.

Al Cherny and Tommy Hunter signing a contract backstage with 16th Avenue Records executives, Veronica Mataseje and Stan Campbell

The accomplished fiddler decided to add some more “credentials” to his list of credits. He entered the Annual Old Time Fiddle Contest in Shelburne, Ont., (now known as the Heritage Music Festival) in both 1960 and 1961 and was named both North American Open (Old-Time) Champion and Novelty Class Champion successively. Cherny was the first Canadian to win both categories. It was on Barn Dance that he met two men who would have a major influence on his career, the first being comedian Gordie Tapp. Cherny soon teamed up with Tapp and made his CBC debut on the hit television show Country Hoedown. It was also on Hoedown that Cherny met a young singer from London, Ont., who was often featured on the program. That person would become a lifelong friend and collaborator and go on to be known as Canada’s Country Gentleman, Tommy Hunter.

In the mid-60s, CBC approached Hunter with an opportunity for his own show, and on September 17, 1965, The Tommy Hunter Show debuted. One of the first musicians Hunter signed was his friend, Al Cherny. From September 17, 1965 to April 11, 1992 (27 years), The Tommy Hunter Show was the leader in country music television, making it the longest-running program of its kind. Artists such as Garth Brooks, Bruce Cockburn, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Ricky Skaggs and The Judds debuted to Canadian audiences. By the early 1970s, Cherny had become a leading studio musician, recording with Gary Buck, Dick Damron, Tommy Hunter, Jesse Winchester and Sylvia Tyson, amongst others. Cherny released 12 studio albums and received an RPM Big Country Award for ‘Top Country Instrumentalist’ in 1978.

But in 1989, Cherny’s health took a turn. “My wife, Mary, and I sat at the same table with Al and his wife at a CKNX reunion just a few weeks before his death, and he seemed so full of life and enthusiasm,” wrote Bob Carbert.

Sadly, on August 23, 1989, at the young age of 56, Al Cherny passed away from throat cancer. His memorial in the Elma Centre Cemetery, just west of the village of Atwood, Ont., displays a beautifully etched violin, a fitting memorial to such a great musician. Al Cherny was posthumously inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989. Today, his fiddle, made by Joleph Rlok of Germany in 1886, is housed at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre in Calgary, Alta.

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