Cory Churko: From Shania to Kelly

WEST VALLEY CITY — Cory Churko will be performing at the Maverik Center on Tuesday, but you won’t find his name on any marquee.

If you’re a fan of pop or country music, however, you’ve likely already seen Churko perform, you just may not know it.

Churko is a multi-instrumentalist, producer and engineer with more than 20 years in music business. His big break came when got a call to play fiddle for Shania Twain who was about to launch her massively successful Come On Over Tour. His “audition” was in front of national television audience performing with Shania on the Late Show with David Letterman.

Currently, Churko is the lead guitarist in Kelly Clarkson’s band. Kelly and Cory will be at the Maverik Center Tuesday for Clarkson’s Stronger 2012 Tour.

Speaking to the Deseret News during a recent tour stop, Churko talked about growing up in a musical family, playing many bars across Canada and busking on the streets of Vancouver. But Churko is a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and his years spent honing his craft in Canada only prepared him for his time in the big show later.

Churko grew up in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan (yes, he played hockey). By the time he was 7, Churko, his father, mother, and siblings were playing local weddings.

“In my first band I was the tambourine player,” he recalled. “I sang two songs and then slept behind the amps at midnight.”

At age 9, Churko was playing guitar. By the time he was 12, Churko dropped out of school to take correspondence classes and toured around Canada with his family, playing local clubs. Primarily at that point the family was playing country music, though his parents had grown up with groups like The Beatles.

When Churko was 16, his favorite guitarist at the time was Yngwie Malmsteen. Because of Malmsteen’s classical background, particularly in playing violin, Churko began playing fiddle to improve his guitar skills. Little did he know, it would prove to be a move that would later change his life.

“One thing I’ve learned in my life, everything has a reason,” he said.

After years of playing bars and clubs throughout Canada, Churko said he was ready for a change by the early 1990s and wanted to go to college to take computer animation courses. At one point in Churko’s career, he was an animator for The Transformers cartoon series.

“I was burned out. I was living check to check, I wasn’t saving money, no benefits,” he said.

In order to earn enough money for college, Churko took his fiddle to the streets of Vancouver to busk for money.

“That’s really where I cut my teeth on the fiddle,” he said.

What Churko got while playing for money on the streets was a “musical rebirth” for him. He learned street performers are a true art form, he said. It got to the point where Churko could learn a song on the spot.

One day in mid-90s, Churko got a message on his answering machine from a man from Mercury Records who represented an artist looking for a fiddle player. Churko knew the man represented Shania Twain and an unknown new artist. He was sure the call was about the new guy.

“I didn’t even call back,” he admitted.

But the record rep called back, this time explaining that the artist he was calling for was Shania. The rep said he was talking to the editor of a local music magazine who had seen Churko play in the bars of Canada.

“All those years of playing in the bar…everything happens for a reason,” he said.

Twain was about to embark on her first ever tour following the release of Come On Over, an album that would become not only the biggest selling record in country music history but the biggest selling album by a female artist ever. But first, she needed a band to do a series of TV appearances. Churko was flown out to New York where his audition and debut with Shania’s band was on David Letterman’s show.

“My head was just spinning,” he said. “From there, there was no looking back.”

Churko toured with Twain on both her mega-successful Come On Over and Up tours. He also became close friends with Shania whom he considers like a big sister.

“She’s been a mentor to me ever since I met her,” he said.

During time off from her touring schedule, Churko worked behind the scenes on albums by the likes of Britney Spears and The Corrs and has also toured with Reba McEntire.

“I love pop. I’m a big pop guy,” Churko admitted. Whether its country-pop, rock-pop or straight pop music, Churko said the most important thing to him is whether there’s a good melody in the song. “There’s a greater chance of making a larger number of people happy with a pop melody.”

After touring as a muli-instrumentalist and backup performer for Kelly Clarkson’s band for a couple of tours, Churko moved to the front of the stage and became Clarkson’s lead guitar player.

Touring with Kelly Clarkson is similar in many ways to touring with Shania, he said.

“Both are remarkable women. So fantastic, no ego, very down to Earth. They’re both generous and very gracious people. I’ve really become friends with both,” he said. “With both Kelly and Shania, the bands are very much part of the show. It feels more like a band in both situations.”

Where they’re different, Churko said Shania’s concerts are a more polished production with the same show every night whereas Kelly is a bit more spontaneous each night. But Churko said he didn’t have a preference on styles and respected each.

In December, Shania is scheduled to return to the stage, beginning a two-year residency run in Las Vegas at Caesar’s Palace. When asked whether he would be part of her band again, Churko said he was keeping his fingers crossed that Clarkson’s tour would be over by then.

“I really hope I can be part of it. I don’t want to have to make a decision, it’s a difficult one to make. I really wouldn’t want to have to pick between the two.”

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