“I always sang country music and I didn't know how to play so I thought, well I'll take some guitar lessons and see what happens,” says Christine Urchyshyn, reflecting on starting to play guitar at the age of 61.
Since then, Urchyshyn received the title of Queen of the Bonnyville Opry sometime throughout 19 years of performing at the popular local music venue. In April, she will mark 20 years of performing at the monthly evening of home-grown talent.
“I phoned and asked Lavern Panich if he gives lessons to adults,” she recalls. “Well you should have seen the look on his face when he saw how adult I was. He didn't expect this old grey-haired woman to be taking guitar lessons.”
The queen title granted to Urchyshyn was not exactly scientific, explains Opry president Glen Hrycauk, but rather a suitable handle to describe someone who's contributed a lot to the event over the years.
The Opry Queen has played with many other performers on the stage of the Lyle Victor Albert Theatre over the years, he adds.
“People I think can really relate to Christine's performance because it's simple,” says Hrycauk. “She sings songs that people know and they respect her for going on stage. There's lots of good performers in the Lakeland area and there's lots of people that can pick up the guitar and sing, but not everybody wants to go on stage and do it.”
“I'm just an ordinary person but they call me the queen probably because I'm the oldest person there,” Urchyshyn laughs.
For an ordinary performer, Urchyshyn plays with a unique guitar she won at the St. Albert Blueberry Bluegrass and Country Music Festival nine years ago. She won a highly esteemed Martin acoustic guitar.
“It's just another guitar to me,” she says, “I just happened to be the lucky one to win it.”
She acted as the secretary and treasurer for the Opry and sat on the board for 12 years. She still pitches in by putting up posters and helping out when needed.
She says the Opry remains a popular night in town because of the people who continue to come out. “There's some people that just like country music,” she says.
“Mississippi Squirrel,” “All American Boy,” and “Little Brown Shack Out Back” are among her favourite songs to perform. “Mississippi Squirrel,” a song about a squirrel let loose in a church, is big crowd pleaser.
“She gets the crowd laughing, they love it,” says Hrycauk.
Over the years Urchyshyn has collected quite a large catalogue of songs she likes to play, but says learning new ones doesn't come as easy as it used to. She used to pick up on new songs listening to the radio, but now selects from her roster of favourites for the Opry performances.
Her favourites include gospel and the old-time songs few others choose to play. She likes to pick songs to suit the time of year, such as “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” or the comical version of “Jingle Bells” she performed on Dec. 11.
“I would first of all like to thank the audience for supporting me through the last 19 years. I hope I made some of you laugh and enjoy some of my antics,” she said in a handwritten letter to the Nouvelle.
Urchyshyn is also an avid singer and performs with the Ukrainian Singers, Bonnyville Tune-Agers, and at other venues including her church.