The Fred Eaglesmith Travelling Show certainly lives up to its name. When reached by phone two weeks ago, Eaglesmith and his crew – which includes the Fabulous Ginn Sisters from Texas, and Bill Poss and the Useful Tools – had just performed in, and driven through four provinces in as many days.
The production, which stops in Orono on Friday, October 21st, is not easy to pin down, musically as well as geographically. Driving one of the show’s two tour vehicles, somewhere between Hampton, New Brunswick and Truro, Nova Scotia, Fred Eaglesmith tries to describe his music.
“There’s the problem,” he says, laughing. “The record companies always say, ‘If you could label it, we could make a fortune.’ It’s Fred Eaglesmith music, that’s all I can say. It’s based on rock’n’roll.”
Eaglesmith isn’t easy to pin down either: he often uses jokes to make a serious point. But it’s all in the name of entertainment and that humour is apparent even from the bands he has employed over the years: the Flying Squirrels, the Flathead Noodlers, the Smokin’ Losers, and the latest, the Useful Tools.
Comprised of Matty Simpson on guitar, Justine Fischer on bass, Kori Heppner on drums, and newest member Mike Zinger on mandolin, the Useful Tools also play back-up to Bill Poss (Passalacqua), husband of Tiffani Ginn.
“We are doing it just like the old-timers did,” says Eaglesmith of his touring roadshow. “There are eight of us out there plus a kid and a dog. We are literally living on the road. We have an old bus and an RV that runs on grease (it saves money), and every day we pack up and head to a new town and play a show and then move on.”
Crossing musical boundaries as often as he does provincial borders and state lines, Eaglesmith plays “alternative country” music that encompasses roots, folk, country, bluegrass and rock’n’roll.
“Very exotic,” is how TV’s David Letterman described the band’s performance of the song “Careless” on Late Show with David Letterman last year. “It’s like Berlin before the war,” he quipped, of the smoky stage act that showcased the singer-songwriter’s world-weary delivery, backed up by the sultry vocals of Brit and Tiffani Ginn.
Playing 150 to 200 shows a year including tours to Europe, it’s no wonder Eaglesmith writes songs that continue the theme of travelling, with titles such as “I Like Trains,” “It’s a Pontiac,” and “Indian Motorcycles.” Conveying stories of rural life, his lyrics also reflect his familiarity with small towns and farming communities.
“I was raised on a 200-acre farm with eight brothers and sisters,” he says, of his childhood in Caistor Centre, in the Niagara Region of Ontario. “I was raised with religion, agriculture and poverty; that’s the formula for rock’n’roll.”
Recording his self-titled, first album in 1980 at the age of 23, Eaglesmith followed it up in 1983 with The Boy That Just Went Wrong, and Indiana Road in 1987. Since then, he’s released fifteen more albums, including Cha Cha Cha in 2010, on his independent record label, named with tongue-in-cheek, A Major Label.
Along the way, he has had three JUNO Award nominations including one win (1997) for Best Roots & Traditional Album – Solo, has made the Polaris Prize shortlist, and has won a Canadian Independent Music Award for Folk/Roots Album of the Year. His albums have made the Top 10 on the Americana charts, and he is the only Canadian to have scored a #1 hit on the bluegrass charts.
His songs have also been recorded by such diverse artists as country superstars Toby Keith and Allen Jackson, alternative country rock band the Cowboy Junkies, and alt-country singer Todd Snider. One of his songs was even used in a movie by director Martin Scorsese. All of this has garnered him a dedicated following of fans, known (with a playful nod to the Grateful Dead) as “Fred Heads.”
And yet, as writer Mikal Gilmore put it a few years ago in Rolling Stone, Eaglesmith “sadly remains largely undiscovered” despite what is now over 30 years in the music business. “I’ve been at this a long time,” concedes Eaglesmith, but he says he is happy with his career and what his music has allowed him to do. “Things are really great. I don’t feel like the chicken flew out of the coop. It’s better to be an ‘almost-been’ than a ‘has-been.’ I hope I don’t truly ‘make it’ until the day before I die.”
His latest effort, the 11-song album 6 Volts, has hand-made CD packaging with three different cover photos. It is only available at live performances and through his website until its official release in January, according to Eaglesmith.
Besides his song-writing, Eaglesmith is almost as renowned for his comical story-telling between songs during live performances. These stories often involve a plot twist or unexpected turn. “That’s a technique I really like,” he says. “I like to make people happy, but I like to spin their world a little. I see a lot more of the world than most people, so I like to bring a different point of view.”
“I’m a song and dance man,” he explains, of his hard work ethic and independent spirit. “I do whatever it takes to keep them happy. It’s good to give people value for their money.”
Eaglesmith last played the Orono Town Hall four years ago, and he says it holds bitter-sweet memories for him. It was his last meeting with Canadian folk singer-songwriter Willie P. Bennett, a friend and musical collaborator, who played with Eaglesmith’s band for 25 years until a heart attack caused him to step down in 2007. Bennett died the following year.
“The last time I saw him was actually at the Orono Town Hall,” he says. “It was really sad because he came out to see us. He came to show us his X-rays. Afterwards, he drove away and we went inside to play the show. That was pretty tough, to see him drive off and then go on stage without him, after playing together for 25 years.”
But Eaglesmith says he is happy to work with the Town Hall Board, which booked the show to help raise funds for the hall’s washroom renovations. “That’s what we do; we play the little halls, the little bars. I like it when we can help the halls. I played a show in St. Jacob’s 25 or 30 years ago, for a hall that needed washroom renovations,” he recalls, chuckling. “It didn’t have any washrooms.”
In Orono just last month as part of the entertainment at the Orono Fair, Eaglesmith and his band mates witnessed the success of the pie auctions there, and it gave them an idea. “We said, ‘We’re going to do a pie auction too.’ We wanted to buy a pie at the Fair, but the politicians were all there and bought them all up,” he says, laughing. “A pie auction is fantastic for charity. So we’re going to do one for the Town Hall.”
The Fred Eaglesmith Travelling Show starts at 8 p.m. Doors open at 7:15 p.m. Tickets are $30 in advance, or $35 at the door, and available at The Orono Times office, and Terrens Wellness Centre, both on Main Street, Orono, or online at www.fredeaglesmith.com. Admission includes sandwiches prepared by the hall’s volunteers.