Shredding time zones and comfort zones: Corb Lund travels from bows and arrows to bows and cellos with the CPO

From riding horseback with a mule train 20 miles into rugged mountains on an elk bow-hunt to playing in the plushy seated Jack Singer Concert Hall with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, all within a couple of months, Alberta roots songwriter Corb Lund’s comfort zones wear broken hearts — he keeps leaving them behind.

Seeking out these experiences is no recipe for Easy Street. For instance, for his gig at the Jack Singer Thursday, Nov. 2 with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, Lund gets only one practice session. “You don’t rehearse until the day-of with orchestras. It’s kind of intense. It’s super intimidating because they all play 10 times better than I’ll ever play, too,” Lund says in a phone interview during a visit to Calgary on his way home from time spent in Nashville (“working on songs, meeting people, stuff like that. Kinda like Calgary if you’re in the oil and gas business”) and touring several states.

And as for a place where Easy Street had never been mapped, let alone paved, Lund says of the elk hunt, “It was intense! I’ve never bow hunted before. I wasn’t hunting because I’m not qualified to shoot something with a bow because I’m not a good enough shot with it. I went along for the ride and helped out.”

In this case, going along for the ride meant that Lund and his friend, Evan Felker from Oklahoma band The Turnpike Troubadours, flew into Boise, Idaho, and then traveled three hours to Riggins, where they drove 45 minutes “up the side of a mountain” to a trailhead camp and switched to horses and a mule train. They were led by a 55-year-old ex-Special Forces ranger instructor who invited them and guided them for free for nine days because he liked their music.

“It’s steep as hell. I grew up in the mountains; this is steep, steep, steep stuff. As rugged country as I’ve ever been in. It’s a bow hunt, so it’s not like you sit in a tree stand with a rifle all day with a beer. You’re up at 5 a.m. and on the horses, and you ride three or four miles, then you walk for miles into the bush. You’re quiet, checking the wind all the time, and trying to keep your clothes scent-free. It’s intense.”

And for all that, they didn’t get an elk. On the bright side, Lund learned how to saddle, pack and string together the pack mules, and also rode one, another first for him. “The day we were finished, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I would do that again.’ I wouldn’t call it a vacation — it was like work, but after a week, I was like, ‘I want to do it again.’

“It was as hunty as it gets. A couple of the photos looked like Afghanistan.”

Which is quite the juxtaposition to his CPO show, which involves neither mules nor arrows, although bows of a different kind are de rigueur.  In getting out of that comfort zone, Lund had to do something really brave for an artist: listen to his past albums to remind himself of the original arrangements for songs like Student Visas, Antique Pistol Shoots Startled Owner, No Roads Here, and This is My Prairie. Lund learned from a similar show he did a few years ago in Edmonton.

“There’s a few things that are different (when playing with the orchestra). I don’t use a setlist normally. So I have a very strict setlist I need to follow. That’s no big deal, though. The other thing is that when I play with my band, if I forget a lyric at the beginning of a verse and just want to wait a few bars, I’ve been playing with them so long they’ve got my back. We can vamp on a part until the lyric comes to me of if I do something funky they’ll adapt to it.

“Orchestras can’t do that. They don’t jam; it has to be very specific. My band can adapt because they know me so well, instantly, and no one even notices, but it’s a trainwreck if you do it with an orchestra. I have to go back to the records because the arrangements they made charts on are based on the recorded version … (I have to) make sure I am playing them the same way,  because sometimes the songs drift over the years, and I don’t sit around and listen to my own records much.”

Lund also learned that some songs work with the orchestra, and some not so much.

“The slower textural songs with interesting chords and harmony work really well with the symphony, but the kinda boom-chicka boom-chicka ones sound terrible. It’s no one’s fault, but it ends up sounding like a game show. When you put horns on the boom-chicka boom-chicka songs, sometimes it sounds kinda hokey.”

Thus Lund will be doing about 10 songs with the symphony with a number of solo songs interspersed, which will help him get ready for another piece of trashing that comfort zone: the upcoming B.S. with C.L. Tour, featuring Lund and his guitar, through Alberta, British Columbia, and Saskatchewan.

“I love playing with my guys and want to play with them with them forever, but in Canada there’s a number of people who’ve seen me a number of times, so it’s a fresh way to see some of the songs. I enjoy it just as a change, because I can chit chat a little more and I can stop in the middle of a song and explain and I’m a little more nimble in terms of taking requests. I can pull out a cover if I want.”

Lund is soliciting questions ahead of the tour on social media. “Over the years, I’ve had people ask me millions of questions about who’s that one about, is this a true story, what made you write this song, or how did you write this or that song.

“My audience is made up of different factions. One faction just likes to party and listen to the rockabilly songs and get drunk and I’m totally down with that, but there’s another faction of my audience who really likes the lyrics and wants to know (the) meaning and all that stuff and really focus on the words, so this tour is kind of catering to that segment of the audience.”

He adds, “I’m starting to enjoy the challenge of just being me out there and trying to entertain people for 90 minutes. One of the reasons is I wanted to stretch myself this year and improve my arrows in my quiver that way.”

With months of playing Europe, Atlantic Canada, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Tennessee, plus other odd shows recently behind him, it seems the thrill of playing live might wear off. Lund responds, “Ninety-nine times out of 100 that’s how it is (thrilling). Every so often, if you’re really tired or my voice is really beat up or the sound system’s awful, it’s a struggle, but maybe it’s more like 299 times out of 300 (that) it’s good.

“It’s the most fun thing that I do. The rest of it kinda sucks. The driving’s no fun — I mean, I get to see friends, it doesn’t all suck, but out of the whole thing, the hour-and-a-half onstage is by far the best part of the day when you’re touring, by far.”

Just as Stephen King was made to entertain with novels, Lund was made to play live. He admits the rest of the shifting music industry baffles him.

“It’s tricky. Everything about the music business is changing quickly, and he only thing that’s been consistent for me is playing live shows. The way people record and make records … and release individual songs and use social media is the wild west right now. Everyone I know in the music business has got their head on swivel trying to figure it out the best way to go forward.”

When it comes to recording, Lund is old school.

“My brain thinks in terms of albums, because 40 minutes of music every year and a half or two years is an appropriate statement from an artist that you follow. And if there’s just a bunch of singles trickling out all the time … People are trying to figure it out. I don’t know, I’m kinda confused by it.

“All I know how to do is play live and make records. Playing live is the number one thing for me from the beginning, so thankfully that hasn’t really changed much. About six or eight years ago when things really changed drastically, quickly, people are saying the new thing to play live mostly and use your records as promotional devices. That’s what I’ve been doing the whole time, so I still think that playing live, no matter what the technology is around it, a human being playing live in the same room, that’s not going to change.

“Live shows are the only thing I really fully understand anymore.”

This is possibly because, with so many other things to do, like write songs, travel, tour, and get out riding, Lund has no time to sit around.

“It happens so often that people get into making demos and trying to get a record deal and they sit around waiting around and waiting around and pretty soon their life’s gone by and they haven’t played much music. I always wanted to say screw it and play live music and make records on my own, and if the music industry wants to come along for the ride and help me out, that’s extra good, but in the meantime while I’m waiting for those guys to come around,  I’m going to be playing shows.”

Some of those shows in the past year include The Last Waltz, Revisited, and a collaboration with Ian Tyson, created in response to the lack of historical programming during the Calgary Stampede centennial in 2012. “Ours wasn’t an official Stampede event, but we took it upon ourselves to put together a song list between several covers but mostly our songs that relate to this area and the history of cowboy stuff and how it all got here.” They played several sold-out shows, and re-visited that recently for the folk festival in Ottawa. They are also booked to play shows in the new year in Alberta and British Columbia.

“I will play with Ian any time anywhere, and you can put me on record as saying that.

“Every time I hang out with him, I forget. It’ll be my buddy Ian, but I’ll look over at the wall and there will be the Order of Canada thing, or a copy of Neil Young’s version of Four Strong Winds, and you forget how much of a footprint the guy’s had.”

And one more set of shows was not pre-planned, but emerged due to changing events. Lund has been involved in several benefit shows for people affected by natural disasters, including the fires in Texas, Kansas, and Fort McMurray. He donated all of the profits from last month’s Texas shows to people in Houston recovering from Hurricane Harvey.

But one of the benefits hit closest to home, the Kenow fire. “Our ranch is 20 minutes east of the park (Waterton). I was on the elk hunt and we had no cell service for 10 days. When I got down to civilization, my cell started blowing up with all these calls and texts about ‘How’s your place?’ because they’d all been waiting.” Lund called his mom as the fire had gotten very close; his uncle had moved horses to safe ground. So after playing benefits for people around North America, Lund played one Nov. 1 to help those people close to home.

So elk hunts to orchestras, freefalling music industry to fires, Lund continues to stretch his comfort zone. As for the CPO show, he is starting to feel OK. “It’s a neat collaboration; they’re all super pro. You count a lot on the conductor — he’s the liaison between you and (the musicians). And he’s got your back because I don’t know how to drive that truck, but he does. It’s a big one, it’s a big truck.

“It’s got me nervous enough that I’m working hard.”

As he is close to conquering that comfort zone, what is the next thing on the horizon?

“I want to be in one of those westerns they shoot west of Calgary — that’s what I want to do next. I can already deal cards, play guitar and sit a horse, so I’ve pretty much got 90 per cent of it.”

I point out that he can pack mules, too. Should be a bonus.

(Photos courtesy Theresa Tayler.)

Corb Lund plays with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra Nov. 2 at Jack Singer Concert Hall.

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who has written about horses and music for over 25 years.