It is perhaps one of the most vivid, visceral and, presumably, apt descriptions ever uttered.
Canadian musician Stephen Fearing is attempting to relay the “close quarters” of the current bus he and his bandmates in Blackie and the Rodeo Kings are inhabiting, crossing the country in.
When it’s filled, with their modest road crew and perhaps with a guest or two in the entourage, it is about a dozen people onboard.
Correction: a dozen dudes onboard.
“It is sometimes like walking into a fart,” he says with a laugh, “and sometimes not so much.”
The air quality, according to the singer-songwriter, is perhaps the only real complaint he has about the tour, which will bring the Juno-winning act of Fearing and fellow Canuck artists Tom Wilson and Colin Linden to Calgary Tuesday night.
He certainly has no qualms with the vibe on the bus, which is the kind of chummy and professional experience you’d expect with seasoned music veterans, ones who’ve been there and done that, with any hard-partying days long behind them.
“Everybody takes their tinctures and it’s off to bed,” Fearing jokes. “We’re all in our fifties, everybody’s got like handfuls of fish oil. You may be swallowing them with a glass of wine, but, yeah, it’s pretty tame.”
That is, of course, until they take the stage.
For anyone who’s experienced the band or anyone contemplating doing so, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings are something of a force of nature. Originally formed two decades ago as a tribute to fellow Canadian player Willie P. Bennett, they’ve continued on rocking up the roots in a way that’s as masterful as it is ruthless and unrelenting.
Fearing says that’s been underscored by this current, extensive jaunt, which has seen them play big rooms such as Massey Hall, as well as some smaller clubs and theatres in tinier, under-served centres.
“It’s like putting a V8 with a Hemi into a Fiat, the sound coming off the stage,” Fearing says utilizing another wonderful description. “People are sitting like five feet away from us … and it’s pretty full on.”
The current tour is in support of the band’s latest album, the star-studded Kings and Kings, which dropped late last year. A he-said companion to the she-said of 2011’s Kings and Queens — which featured appearances by some of the finest female voices in country including Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and Rosanne Cash — the new record collects some of the best of the man bunch such as Eric Church, Vince Gill, The Mavericks’ Raul Malo, Rodney Crowell and Bruce Cockburn.
Much like it’s sister album, the duets or collaborations were recorded separately, with time and budget necessitating the Blackie boys lay down the 12 tunes at Linden’s studio down in Tennessee during what Fearing terms an “amazing four-day session.”
“Then we started making the calls,” he says of the process. “And Eric Church came on first, came by (Linden’s) house. So, no, I didn’t get to see any of it.”
“Having Eric Church sign on early was a real plus for us,” he says. “It just gave us that little stamp of approval for everybody that didn’t know us.”
Fearing says many of the other Kings were brought into the project by Linden and his many musical connections, which, thanks to his involvement in the TV show Nashville — he performs on many of the songs featured and often appears onscreen — has “made his Rolodex even fatter.”
And while having people from that show in the credits as well as Church, those other aforementioned artists and more such as Jason Isbell and City and Colour’s Dallas Green, there’s one name that gives Fearing an extra special thrill — the inimitable Nick Lowe, who takes a starring role on the track Secret of a Long Lasting Love, which Fearing wrote with his sometime partner Andy White.
“I’ve got to tell you, I’m pretty excited,” he says. “When we finished recording the song, you almost hear on the tape Colin and I going, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to get Nick Lowe to sing this.’ And then he agreed.”
That came to fruition when Linden ran into the British popsmith at a festival and asked him if he’d be interested. Upon receiving the track, he took it into a London studio and added his vocal magic. He also, Fearing notes, took some artistic license with the tune, changing up some of the lines, something that the songwriter was able to ask him about when Fearing, himself, ran into Lowe at a different festival last summer.
“I wasn’t like, ‘What the fuck, man?’ because it’s Nick Lowe, he can do whatever he wants,” Fearing says, noting that Lowe explained he wanted to make the character a little older, the words a little more believable coming out of his mouth.
“He tweaked a few things here and there, and now, when I teach the odd songwriting class, I’ll hold up the two lyrics and say, ‘Can you see how he made the song better?’ ”
He laughs. “He just made it better.”
At this point in the interview, Fearing returns to the earlier part of the conversation to dispel once and for all any and every misconception one might have about life on the road with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.
“Um, Mike, I’m now pouring myself a coffee in a Molson Canadian beer cup,” he says. “That should give you a good visual of our tour bus.”
And likely that won’t change much by the time they pull up in front of Arts Commons for that Tuesday night Jack Singer Concert Hall show.
They will, however, be minus a body and a voice, that of Nashville castmember Sam Palladio who was with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings for some of their eastern dates, Fearing noting that the actor would probably only make it as far as Saskatoon.
Palladio’s loss, as the evening will feature some incredible Calgary-only guests, including Lindi Ortega, Murray McLauchlan and the legendary Ian Tyson.
“I was really hoping that he would come to Calgary and meet Tyson,” Fearing says of Palladio.
“Because, you know, he’s on this show that’s situated in Nashville and that’s about the country music world. It’s like, ‘OK, do you want to meet one of the real guys? Meet Ian Tyson.’
“He’s like Merle Haggard to me, he’s one of those guys.”
Fearing laughs. “He’s probably going to kick our asses from one end of the stage to the other, but I’m ready.”
The show will feature each guest performing some of their own songs, with them also, hopefully, sitting in with the Kings on their material.
It should be a pretty magical night, one that Fearing says these old pros will be more than up for.
“We’ll be as ready as we can be for them,” he says.
“When you invite these people onstage you want them to feel entirely comfortable and secure that we’ve got their backs 100 per cent. Especially with somebody like Ian Tyson, I want us to feel like we are the smoothest band he could have behind him so he can do his thing.”
Blackie and the Rodeo Kings perform Tuesday night at the Jack Singer Concert Hall with Ian Tyson, Lindi Ortega and Murray McLauchlan. For tickets go to artscommons.ca.
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.ca, and the co-host of the show Saved By the Bell, which airs Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM. Follow him on at Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He likes beer. Buy him one.