Like a thousand rock & rollers, bluegrassers and country musicians before him, Fred Eaglesmith turned to music to escape the fate of those who worked the land and died with nothing to show for their labor. Born in 1957, Eaglesmith grew up on a family farm in southern Ontario; his father went bankrupt twice and died poor. At the age of fifteen, Eaglesmith began hitchhiking and riding the rails across Canada, staying on the road for three years, living like a hobo, finding work in freight yards and logging camps, picking guitar for a few dollars in youth hostels. He didn't know it yet, but he had found his calling -- as a musician and songwriter who works the road with the determination, devotion and hard insight that Canada's farmers bring to and draw out of the land.
In his earliest songs, Eaglesmith documented the struggles of rural working people with as much knowing detail as any songwriter since Woody Guthrie or Si Kahn. "Drinkin' don't take the place/A banker does with an empty face," he sang of yet another farmer he had seen lose it all. "As he tells you 'bout a job up the road/Leave the keys in the mailbox when you go."
Like Guthrie, Eaglesmith was a committed activist, and for a time he believed he could combine a farming life with the life of a musician. That effort proved impossible. "It just led me down the wrong roads," Eaglesmith says. "It was harsh, I couldn't do it. I thought I was just gonna end up like my parents, never have any money and slide backward."
In 1993 Eaglesmith, who had already released five records in Canada but remained little-known in the States, took his band to Nashville and landed a publishing deal, followed by his first U.S. recording contract, which resulted in Drive-In Movie, then Lipstick, Lies and Gasoline in 1997 and 50 Odd Dollars in 1999. With those last two studio albums, he found a sonic signature as caustic and textured as his realist lyrics and vocal twang. "Bluegrass played like rockabilly" he calls it, though the crankshaft clatter of the percussive grooves and the discordant attack of electric guitars gave his songs a funky, angry edge. Eaglesmith was still spinning stories, only now he focused on relationships tested or just ravaged by the grind of life itself, evoked by images of charging trains and roaring Pontiacs.
Those records, predictably, met with resistance from those who believed that Eaglesmith's rural roots and politics were an end in and of themselves. "People have boxes for me endlessly," he says. "So I just say, 'I'm not going to do what you want me to do, and I'm going be successful not doing it,' and I generally am." The success of Eaglesmith's sonic evolution owed in part to Scott Merritt's resourceful production as well as to longtime partner Willie P. Bennett and the overdriven, wah-wah howl of his electric mandolin, an instrument Bennett had never played before joining Eaglesmith's band.
"He's the Bob Dylan or Townes Van Zandt of Canada," Eaglesmith says of Bennett. "Willie was the one we all looked up to as kids. He was really punk, really tough. There was no compromise in his life, and we all looked to that. But he just couldn't do it anymore in Canada; it wasn't working for him. He joined my band, even though I didn't have hardly any gigs, and then five years later we had 200 gigs. He said, 'I guess I'll stay another year.' Every year he would say, 'I'm gonna give you another year,' and thirteen years later we don't talk that way anymore."
Although Lipstick, Lies and Gasoline and 50 Odd Dollars (both released on established indie Razor and Tie) benefited from something approximating a recording budget, organized promotion and decent distribution, Eaglesmith no more trusted the music industry than he did the banks that foreclosed on Ontario's farms. In 2000 Eaglesmith decided to run his own label and focus on selling records in the time-tested bluegrass and blues manner: on the road.
"There's no release date, no street date," Eaglesmith says of his imprint AML (as in A Major Label). "Those aren't words in our vocabulary. There isn't a record company guy trying to get on our bus to get something for free. I tried that for a very short time in the late '90s. It turned my stomach. I didn't like who they were or what they represented. It wasn't real. Music to me was always when a guy took a drive on back roads, found the guy on his porch who was so tremendous that he taped him, but he left him on the porch. Now it's like you've got to come to our town, you have to do this or that. I caught on very quickly. It's just hurry. Everybody is in a hurry. 'Break this guy,' they say. I love that. It creates emperors with no clothes, people who aren't ready, and you don't hear about them three or four years later. They just didn't have it, though the buzz was big."
On his most recent album, last year's Balin (as in baling hay or baling out), Eaglesmith returns to the live (in a church no less) bluegrass sound of his early work and also revisits, without nostalgia, the farms and rails of his past. The songs are mostly small and terse, snapshots of a rural world he left long ago but has never forgotten. For some songwriters trains, cars, tractors, farms and guns are merely Americana gestures, meant to signify some virtuous authenticity or integrity; in Eaglesmith's songs these images have the undeniable weight of facts, the often violent energy of a real world gone really wrong. They're what he's always known, and he's been turning them into songs for more than 30 years.
"I wrote so many bad songs from the time I was ten years old to fifteen," he says. "But when I was fifteen I wrote a song about a kid dying on the farm. Although looking back it was very immature, there was nothing to it, but it struck a chord with people. They cried when they heard it. I knew I had found something, I knew I was a storyteller. From then it was just honing my skills."
Lumbering across the continent in a vintage tour bus, Eaglesmith and band (currently a six-piece outfit, including pedal steel, fiddle and drums) average well over 200 dates a year. On stage, his storytelling has deepened to take in just enough comedy to balance his most devastating themes. His between-song musings sometimes wind and wander as if they'll never find the kicker; stick with his stories, and the chance of finding more than you planned is just around the bend.
"I love when the audience gets lost, when they don't know where they are," he says. "Whether they're in my song, in the story or in the club, they don't know anymore. I can tell when that happens, and then we're all in the same place."