When he spoke to GO! Magazine last week, Canadian singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith was on the road “somewhere between Arizona and California” and having a little cellphone trouble.
The alt-country artist is in the midst of a house-concert tour with his band, coming soon to a town near you — or to your town, if you live in Sisters (see “If you go”).
After the music journalism world's shortest phone interview — Hello? Hey, having a little trouble hearing you ... click ... silence — Eaglesmith pulls over, and his publicist soon patches him through again.
“There we are. I'm on a hill. I'm just going to stay on top of this hill,” Eaglesmith said.
Atop a hill, with possibilities in multiple directions, isn't the world's worst metaphor for where Eaglesmith is in his career: A singer-songwriter with a loyal fan base; a raconteur known for his funny stories and sometimes funny, sometimes poignant songs. A tunesmith whose songs may arguably be better known than he is; a figure to whom “entertainer,” “iconoclast,” “humorous” and “original” can be applied in equal measure.
Even if this is the first you've ever heard of Eaglesmith, you may know his songs, as recorded by country artists that are sure to ring a bell: Miranda Lambert (“Time to Get a Gun”), Alan Jackson (“Freight Train”), Toby Keith (“White Rose,” “Thinkin' about You”).
Eaglesmith grew up on a struggling farm in Ontario as one of nine kids. He made much hay of the experience in his early songs. In fact, he said, it was the heavy bummer factor of those early songs that inspired him to mix in a little bit of his funny side.
“When I was younger, in the '70s and '80s, I wrote these really horrific songs about farm loss, which was happening all around me, you know, about my neighbors losing the farm,” he said.
“The songs were so sad, people loved them but they wouldn't come back. It was too hard. I was young and didn't really know what I was doing. Then I started telling these jokes about people on the farm. They weren't that great of jokes, but I was always a pretty funny guy.
“And as I've gotten older, I've really learned my comedy well,” Eaglesmith said. “I've learned to just be a comedian. I could be a stand-up comedian if I wanted to.”
You should do it!
“Yeah, I could. I could if I wanted to,” he continued. “I've been offered it. But it's sort of really cool to do both, because people don't know what's going on. Someone will go, 'Well, what are you, a comedian or a songwriter or an entertainer?'
“You go, 'Who cares?' It's just different. Some people hate it. Some people leave. Some people tell me I should only do comedy. Some people tell me I should only write songs. It's sort of who I am. A lot of the comedy is about not allowing anyone to take me too seriously.”
Eaglesmith's recording career began in 1980, and his most recent album, “Six Volts,” has been received like none of his previous releases. The reaction from fans has been “just over the top,” he said.
“'Six Volts' just keeps goin'. It's almost like a brand-new record every day,” Eaglesmith said. “I've had records out for years and years, but nothing like this. No reaction like this.”
Funny he should use the term “brand-new.” Because “Six Volts” — a titular reference to the battery that powered transistor radios back in the 1950s — was recorded in a determinedly brand-old manner: one mic, on a one-track reel-to-reel recorder.
“I had a hunch,” he answered when asked what led to that recording method. “I started hating the sound of records a lot. I started hating the sound of digital a lot. I started to hate the multitracking a lot. I started to hear too many tricks, too much technology, too many guys making stuff. Like it wasn't real. The tension on records doesn't feel real to us anymore.”
With this record, “there's no faking it,” he said. And since it was made, two members of his Traveling Steam Show band, which has been on the road with him for three years, have recorded albums in the same fashion, Eaglesmith said.
While you probably won't hear Eaglesmith himself being played by mainstream country outlets, having hit-makers embrace what he writes accomplishes at least one thing, he said.
“What it does is it gives me a little credibility in places I might not have credibility. In other words, sort of mainstream people might come and see the show because those guys recorded my songs. It sort of gives (listeners) something to go, 'Whoa, Alan Jackson recorded your song.'”
But credibility is a two-way street. For all the mainstream types who might be drawn to him thinking Eaglesmith's somehow a safer, vetted bet, there are those for whom associations with polished “Nashvillians” present a real drawback.
“Believe it or not, in parts of my world, it's sort of a detriment,” he said, “because there are the cynical guys who go, 'How could you let Alan Jackson record one of your songs?'
“But I believe it all helps a little bit when you have a career like mine, which is staying under the radar. It's like I'm still staying under the radar, and as long as I don't push over the top — or try to, because I don't want to anyway — as long as I don't milk it, or try to take advantage of it ... I just go 'OK, that happened, that's nice,' and carry on with what I was doing before that.”
For the record, Eaglesmith has never turned down someone who wants to cover one of his songs.
“Oh, no no no. I have no business doing that,” he said. “They're not mine to say. I just happened to write them.”