In the late 1960s, John Cronin was at loose ends. A varsity swimmer at Davidson College, a private liberal arts college in North Carolina, Cronin dropped out his senior year. “I went through all kinds of majors. I started in math, was good in French but then ended up in psychology.” But no matter how compelling Jungian archetypes were, still something was pulling Cronin away from his studies. “My guitar,” he recalled laughing.
Hometown: Annapolis, Maryland
Columbia Valley Arrival: 1976
The late sixties was a turbulent time for the United States. Civil rights demonstrations, student protests, a pointless war abroad; it begs the question: how could a country itself at such loose ends expect its young to be anything but? It was also the time of music. In the sixties, music was the hottest cultural commodity going. The four lads from Liverpool having recently appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show taking America by storm. Every kid in America was in a band.
Cronin remembers well when a band of brothers from Macon, Georgia pulled up one day to play a show in the Davidson gymnasium. One brother sang blue-eyed soul. His name was Gregg. The other played the nastiest electric slide since Lightnin’ Hopkins. His name was Duane. Yes, Cronin bore witness to a pre-fame Allman Brothers Band. Given the context, it’s no wonder anyone musically inclined like Cronin chose plucking the ol’ six-string over plunging the Freudian depths.
John Cronin was born and raised thirty miles east of Washington DC in Annapolis, the state capital of Maryland. Steeped in history, Annapolis is situated on the shores of Chesapeake Bay and home to the United States Naval Academy. Cronin’s father was a respected marine biologist. “My parents expected me to pursue a profession, any profession,” Cronin said. For a time, he considered following his father’s footsteps. “I had a term job one year where I joined him on his research boat. We explored every tributary in the entire Chesapeake Bay. It was great.” For the younger Cronin however, a career in marine biology just wasn’t meant to be.
Cronin drew a high draft lottery number for the Vietnam War. “I got Lucky. Lots of my friends didn’t.” Without a plausible expectation of going to war and no more schooling to attend to, what was next? “A friend of mine said to me one day, ‘I’m going to Alaska, what are you doing?’” Cronin recalled. “After a moment’s thought, I said to him: ‘I’m going to Alaska!’” With that, Cronin began a period of perpetual motion eventually landing him in the Columbia Valley. It’s a winding story.
Before making it to Alaska, there was a stop in Montana. It was there he met a crazy Coloradan by the name of Buck Corrigan. Buck was fresh out of jail after deserting his post in the Vietnam War. They became fast friends. “We started playing guitar right away,” Cronin said. “He took me on some crazy ski adventures.”
Eventually Cronin made it to Alaska. “I got a job in the Malamute Saloon in Fairbanks. Alaska in the 70’s man, a wild place. Anything went.” For the better part of the next two years, Cronin lived in the Alaskan bush, worked in bars, played music on the side.
“And then in 1972, I hitched from Fairbanks to Edmonton where I met up with Buck again.” For Cronin, spending time in Canada gave him an immediate feeling of sanity. “It became clear to me that Canada was a much simpler place to live. Not easier. Simpler.” From Edmonton, the pair drove to Montréal. Buck secured work for them both in the Laurentian ski industry. “My first night in Montréal, I met Ania [John’s eventual wife for over three decades and counting] at a bar. She had a place for me to stay.”
John’s next move was to Vancouver Island. “And Ania came with me. I worked in the logging industry up in Port Alberni setting chokers around trees the size of a room.” After suffering an injury on the job, John and Ania crossed the Georgia Strait back to Vancouver. “We considered returning to Alaska, but we changed our mind after a Kris Kristofferson show.”
The show featured the outlaw country star with his then girlfriend Rita Coolidge. “They were bickering so much on stage. I remember thinking Ania and I can do better than that.” And then Buck called from the Canadian Rockies. “He said to me: ‘if you come out to a place called Sunshine, I can get you a job.’” Buck later settled in Revelstoke becoming the area manager for CMH Revelstoke.
After the call, Cronin walked into a Gastown pawnshop. Out he walked with forty bucks. “I took a bus to Banff that night and then next morning I was working as a Sunshine lifty. Buck and I shared a little cabin on Muskrat Street. It was while living in Banff and working at Sunshine Cronin first heard murmurs of the Columbia Valley. “I’d heard about it from guys like Larry Ballard [late father of Cafe Allium’s Megan Ballard], and Peter Sweetnam, both of whom were in Banff at the time.”
In 1976, Cronin made it over to the warmer side of the Rockies to pay his first visit. “When I first got here and looked around, I thought to myself: this place lends itself to a local band.” What was Invermere like in the mid-70s? “There was lots of energy. The Lakeside Pub was a hopping place and there were lots of lounges, all of which had live music.” Cronin decided this was the place for him.
"It hadn’t occurred to me that I could make a living as a musician until I moved to the Columbia Valley. Here I felt like I could do anything.” With friends Bruce Everett and Gordon Askey, Cronin soon formed the Windy Valley Band. “We played at the Lakeside a lot. It was quite a scene.” When not playing in his band, Cronin worked ski patrol at Panorama and construction in the summer.
In the Columbia Valley, Cronin’s career as a musician took off. For close to a decade in the eighties, Cronin found himself touring North America with Ian Tyson and his band. Cronin played lead guitar. “In the Columbia Valley, there was a feeling that music brought people together.”
James Rose, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer