Canadian legend maintains his hardcore following by staying true to the music, channeling life into his songs.
He laboured on his family farm, helped repair tractors and trucks weekly, went to church five times a week, wrote his first song after seeing Elvis on TV, and ditched his parents and eight siblings in the wake of a midnight boxcar — all before he turned 16.
Afterwards, he built and lost a multi-million dollar gardening business, wrote broke and busted songs in Nashville, bought a bus that ran on vegetable oil, repaired said bus weekly, learned to mediate with a Buddhist teacher, drove thousands of highway miles from gig to gig, and wrote more songs that reflected those miles, train rides, spirituality, love, loss, and hardship — all before he turned 60. Which just happened last Sunday.
In doing all this, Fred Eaglesmith has maintained a core following while staying completely true to his vision — a vision which consists of maintaining that following while staying completely true to his vision. Judging by his two upcoming Calgary shows, which are sold out online but have a few tickets available at the door, it all seems to be working.
“I had a hunch about this many years ago that I could build this kind of career, and I was right, and it’s nice, because I had to buck the system to do it,” Eaglesmith says during a phone call in Calgary this week before those two show, Thursday and Friday at the King Eddy.
“And I’m not cynical about it. I’m cynical about the music business, but I’m not cynical about what I do and the joy of it and the love for this I have. My wife (fellow musician Tif Ginn) and I talked about this the other day, about our love for this, for playing music, and for the creativity.”
And while Eaglesmith has released over 20 albums, played on Letterman, and his songs have been covered by Toby Keith, Todd Snider, Miranda Lambert and many others, he claims that the “Fredheads” phenomenon — hardcore fans who follow him from gig to gig like Deadheads — never really existed.
“The Fredhead thing has always been a myth,” he says.
“It was a joke when I started it years and years ago, and for a while there was a tremendous following in the United States out of the Northeast, and in Texas and California. I still have a lot of those fans, but they’re older, they don’t follow me around. People used to see 80 shows a year and they don’t do that anymore, and that’s OK with me because I didn’t love that anyway because there was a sort of stigma attached to that and a sort of ownership. So now I have this thing where a lot of kids’ parents played my music when I was younger, people who like my music because I have been around, so now I have people who come to see me once or twice a year, and it’s sweet. It’s a nice career to have.”
Although recently Eaglesmith has been flying to gigs (“My career’s changed a bit in the last year so now we fly. There are more bigger shows and less smaller shows, although I’ve toured a ton this year on the bus”), for most of his career he drove the bus, repaired the bus, loaded and unloaded the bus, played the songs, and put out the records. In between all of this, he has somehow still had time to be a staggeringly prolific songwriter.
“We sit around the table in the morning, Tiffany gets her ukulele and we’re really just having coffee or breakfast and she starts singing and he (their eight-year-old son) starts singing, and we write songs.”
Or, they might make up a song while sitting on a swing after planting the garden.
It’s a different vibe than Eaglesmith’s time in Nashville while co-writing with Wade Kirby, who Eaglesmith says has probably written 15 No. 1 hits.
“He’s a friend of mine and I am known as a pretty good songwriter; I’ve got some merit. And you know, he just spun circles around me. He was so good, and he would spend that extra hour on that one line just to make it perfect.
“That’s gone now. I haven’t met anyone who works that hard anymore at the craft. I can’t teach the craft; I can say to them, go and learn from the best. I’m 60 years old and I asked my brother-in-law for some guitar lessons; I need to learn something from someone who’s better than me. The craft you have to learn from somebody, but to learn the other thing, you have to wake up in jail, have your girlfriend leave you, have your dog killed on the road. All these things have to happen, you can’t have that fake weather.
“The new young ones have pre-distressed guitars and some kind of weather in their voice that they bought. That’s not songwriting. Songwriting has to come from some kind of adversity, or some kind of unbelievable joy. You have to make that for yourself, you have to create that.
“It takes a lot of adversity to be more than just OK in a mundane world.”
This is why Eaglesmith believes millennials struggle with creativity. He points to a T-shirt that his wife told him about, which read: I’m not ready to adult yet.
“This is contrived adversity, it’s not true. When the government is going to give you the money to learn to play guitar, or your parents are going to give you the money, or you’re raised in a suburban home with no bad smells, I don’t know where you are going to get your adversity. What are they going to do now unless they do what I did, which was raise my thumb and go get some adversity — although I already had a worse life until then, and I had a worse life after for a while.”
It is a reflection, he says, of a bigger picture.
“People have lost their way, they’ve lost their rock and roll.”
According to Eaglesmith, big newspapers and big festivals have also lost their rock and roll. “The music business has lost its rock and roll. I’m going to play Redcliff tonight for 60 or 80 people and Wetaskiwin on Saturday night for 60 people because that’s where rock and roll still lives. But it doesn’t live anymore in organized music.”
In fact, Eaglesmith says the best audiences are always the ones down the longest road or in the most desolate places, like Wawa, Ontario, or the backroads of Texas.
“People (there) are thirsty for it. They don’t get to experience it much. You know that great cup of coffee after you’ve had 10 days of bad ones? Otherwise with the radio, media, and the government grants — Godforsaken things — they are basically the same audience, and it’s a homogenized audience.”
So instead of worrying about radioplay, publicity and grants, Eaglesmith has unique advice for somebody starting out.
“People come to me every day and they say, ‘I want to be a musician; what should I do?’ First of all I say, ‘Don’t be one,’ but then I say, ‘Move to the most horrible desolate town in Saskatchewan you can. Don’t be part of a scene.’
“Do you know why there are no Jimi Hendrix bands? Because no one can play that well. These horrible tribute bands pay tribute to the lowest common denominator, bands that are easy to pay tribute to because there are so many guys that can’t pay tribute to anyone who is complicated because it’s hard to emulate. Almost anyone coming up now, there will be a tribute band three years later because their music is so easy to play.”
Eaglesmith intends to stay true to his vision until the end.
“There are some of us left. We have a very small torch that we’re carrying. It was its brightest in 1969 at Woodstock, and it’s diminishing ever since, and we are still carrying a tinderbox that has a spark in it. I am not going to drop it.
“I was doing a show with my friend Robert Earl Keen the other day. He said, ‘We’re plate-spinners now,’ and it was such a great thing to say. You know, plate-spinners — people used to pay to see people spin plates. I don’t know if anyone’ s going to revive rock and roll, but I hope to at least keep my hands around that tinderbox as I go to my death.”
Fred Eaglesmith performs Thursday and Friday at The King Eddy. Some tickets are available at the door.
Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who covers her two passions, music and horses. She has written in the Calgary Herald, FFWD Weekly, Swerve, Western Horsemen, Western Horse Review, Horses All and other publications, for over 25 years.