With a passion for songwriting that started as a child and manifested into a career that’s enduring well past its fourth decade, Fred Eaglesmith has traveled roads that no longer exist while writing songs that cut to the chase and clean to the bone. His characters and the lives they inhabit are as colorful and cultivated as the autumn harvest while the man himself continues to remain inspired and in love with the craft. He’s a hero to his fellow Canadians, an alt-country, rock n’ roll poet with real dirt under his nails– and to the rest of his fans around the world, Eaglesmith is a gruff reminder of the often hard realities beyond what our small windows allow. Don’t let the sad songs fool ya’ though– Fred Eaglesmith is living his dream, embracing each show with an uncanny enthusiasm that might just move you to dance a time or three when he and his wife, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tif Ginn, roll through Macon and The Creek Stage on March 11th! Don’t have a ticket yet? Get it now because this show will sell out!
AI- It’s been largely just the two of you touring and performing for quite some time? Has it been like an extended honeymoon?
FE- Yeah, I guess so! We were going to get another band and then we went out and everybody said, “You don’t need to get another band, just go with the two o’ ya!” So it’s easy this way and it’s more fun.
It’s more fun than having the backing band? I’d wondered if perhaps you missed the extended backbeat?
No, I do. Sometimes I do, but Tif’s playing the drums and the bass and she’s playing eight instruments on the show. The show’s pretty rock n’ roll. Sometimes when I’m in a noisy place, I wish I had a band, you know what I mean? Where you just got to settle ’em down or they’re just gonna dance all night. But mostly, I don’t miss the whinin’ (laughs)!
Have you slowed down at all? Are you still doing 200, upwards of 300 dates a year?
No, this year I’m gonna do a hundred, I think. I got a hundred on the books right now. I did 150 upwards last year, but I don’t have to do as much as I used to do and I’m sort of picking gigs a little better than I used to. I’m being a little more selective.
Does that mean you’ve spent some more time writing?
Well, I write all the time. I write songs all the time. It’s my favorite thing to do and it’s the thing I’m very best at. So I write songs, man, I write songs… I got so many songs, I’ll never get ’em done. I’ll never get ’em recorded!
Do you have a home studio? Is that where you predominantly do your recording these days?
Yeah. We just moved about a year ago and when I get back in April, I’m gonna start recording with a new band in that studio. It should be almost finished, and we’re gonna work on that for a while. We have a new live album that’s supposed to be out now but it’s been held up. I’m hopin’ I’ll have a studio album by the fall.
Yeah, I was going to ask you about the live album. When and where was that recorded?
It was recorded at the Jammin’ Java in Vienna, Virginia. We recorded it, I guess last fall. It was just one of those nights, and the guy said, “Hey, do you want me to record it?” And I said, “Okay!” And when he did, he did a really good recording. It’s hard to get a great live recording– you know, the technicality of it. Just happened to be that we were on that night and he was on that night. We got it back and we were like, “Oh yeah! This one’ll do!”
You’ve been an independent artist really for your entire career– and you were doing it long before the internet, before streaming. Is it easier for Fred Eaglesmith to release music today than it was once upon a time?
Well, you know, I have a base. I have a base of people who listen to me and follow me and I have a nice solid… I always say that most of my friends are tryin’ to sell their music to the grocery store, and I have a little vegetable stand on the end of the road (laughs)! I got customers who come in every day and buy it! So it’s easier for me just because of that, because I’ve been at it so long. There’s nothing like time. There’s nothing like time as long as you’re pretty consistent. I didn’t go off and play disco or anything– ’cause that’ll wreck it, if you do that. But I’ve been pretty consistent and a lot of people have stuck with me. It’s really, really nice.
Despite the number of dates this year, you have stayed predominantly on the road in Canada and the United States, and I can only imagine it’s been interesting, possibly frustrating to be an artist and witness what’s been happening in this country. The farming industry, the ongoing debate about firearms and fossil fuels, women’s rights… These are all things that you’ve written about in one form or the other throughout your career. Now, I can’t picture you sittin’ in front of the TV just absorbing everything– but does it get to you?
I don’t want to be too opinionated here, but I am (laughs)! It all has to do with [how] nobody does anything anymore without showing somebody else. Basically, as much as I’ve had to show other people– because I’ve been an artist trying to get established, trying to get some kind of base– sometimes you just don’t have to take the picture of yourself. People call ’em selfies? I call them selfishes. There’s a woman crossin’ the border in Syria today, and she can’t be part of the Me Too movement. And there’s a guy hunting squirrels today to eat, and he can’t be part of the gun lobby. There’s a lot of people who aren’t on display, and those are the people I think about when I’m watching television.
And you’ve said before that, “People don’t like to listen to too much about their life,” but yet the songs you write have always struck directly to the heart of those individuals you just talked about– every working man and woman. Sometimes in this era, sometimes in others.
That’s true. I sort of figured out that you can go to a farming community, and you can only sing so many tractor songs. They’ve already lived it. So you can get away with three or four and that resonates. But my job now, I feel, is to just expand people’s horizons a little bit in a humorous way. If I’m in a right-wing situation, I’ll ask how many handguns that are in the audience. Sometimes there’s fifteen handguns if I’m in some right-wing place in Texas! And I’ll poke fun of ’em. I’ll say, “Why are you guys bringin’ a gun to my show for? There’s no trouble here. Let’s all get up and hug each other!” And then when I’m in the left-wing, I tease them about their obsession with local food! That’s sort of my job right now, I feel like, to get everybody to not take themselves quite so seriously. Because as I’ve discovered in 62 years of living, 30 years later, most of it doesn’t matter anyway.
Do you still paint?
No, I don’t paint ’cause I don’t have time! Tif paints. Tif is such a great painter. It’s unbelievable what a great painter she is, so I just let her do it. I like her paintings better than mine.
You’ve really been her biggest fan, and you’ve many times talked about what she’s brought to the Fred Eaglesmith show and to you as a writer. What’s that done for you at this stage in your career? To have this new voice along with yours on not only writing the songs but performing live?
I had this guy in my band for 25 years. His name was Willie P. Bennett. He was gold. He was a golden musician. Everything he did was beautiful. And everything I do is not beautiful. It’s cranky and edgy, my hands are too big to play the guitar, my voice is too rough to sing… But Willie was like gold, and Tif is exactly the same thing for me. She’s like gold. Everything she does is beautiful. I mean, she just walked in the studio and turned all my crankiness into beauty! I’ve had this all my life in one way or the other. I had a guy named Ralph [Schipper] in the very early years and he was a very great singer and had a musical sensibility. And I don’t! I’m sort of this weird guy that digs it outta the ground. I appreciate what I can do, but this thing that Willie wrapped around me and that Tif wraps around me is such a… I’m a lucky guy. I’m a lucky guy, and it stops me from being so much of myself and [able to open] up a little to what’s the possibility in this song here? Or because I can’t only think of myself– because this golden thing’s gonna walk in and surround it with this other thing. I don’t know if this makes sense to you, but it’s really uplifting and it really helps keep everything alive. So I feel very energetic and energized– as I have most of my career– because I don’t have to listen to my cranky self all day. I’ve got this other thing.
Have you taken the opportunity to write with anybody else in the last couple of years? I know it was something that you had done at one point in time. Any collaborations recently outside of your wife?
No. I wrote in the early years when I went to Nashville. I wrote with Chris Knight and some other country guys. Chris and I were real good together. And Mary Gauthier and I wrote some songs together I was pretty happy with too. But, generally, it was hard. It’s been hard for me to find someone who wants to go there. And Chris was really open to going there. So was Mary. To go into places that were like, “Okay, this doesn’t have to be a commercial hit song. This can just be a good song.” These days, it’s so industry-driven. Even my edgy old folk friends and country friends, they’re all going to these conferences and they’re all sitting on boards– so the songs tend to be all for, “Can we get this noticed?” And I never write songs that way. And so it’s hard for me to collaborate now.
I’m glad you brought up Chris Knight ’cause I’m also a very big fan of him and the songs that you have written together. I will throw this out into the universe, that if you two could ever get back together to write a couple more songs, I think that will be a wonderful thing.
Yeah. And I think about that with him. So the only person I write songs with now is Tif. And we write songs… You wouldn’t even believe! We write the cheesiest songs! We don’t care what they are as long as we like them. We’ve written a bunch of Christmas songs now that are so cheesy, but we’re so happy with them! We sit around and laugh when we write ’em! That’s songwriting!
I’d buy a Fred Eaglesmith Christmas album without a doubt.
Well, you know what? You would– and you’d laugh your head off! You’d think it’s funny ’cause it’s got integrity! It’s like all that fun stuff we do! So we write these jazz songs and all this stuff we do… And I don’t know when we’re ever going to get it done. But what a great thing to have too much stuff on our plate!
It’s 2020! It’s been 40 years since the release of the Fred J. Eaglesmith album. And I bring that up because I noticed when I was researching and watching videos, they put that album up on YouTube on the Fred Eaglesmith topic page today. So it made me wonder– is there a wider implication? Is there any plan for like a rerelease or a special retrospective?
You know what? I didn’t even know! I didn’t even know that this was 40 years! That’s funny. I just got a new deal with a new distributor up in Canada that’s small and great. So maybe they’ll do something? I’ll tell you the truth, I’m too busy doing the real stuff to mess with the business very much these days. I’m behind on the business and I’m okay with that because I have enough, you know? I have enough. I really have a hard time when I have all this work that I love doin’ so much to sit down and go, “Well, am I going to do rereleases? Or am I gonna start poundin’ out the YouTubes or whatever?” I always say I’m gonna– but I never do it (laughs)!
If you had to do it all over again, would you do anything differently?
Yeah, I would. I’d pay more attention. I was moving so fast. When I come down to the States in the ’90s ’til about 2010 or 12, I was moving so fast I don’t even remember half of it. People will say, “You’ve been here three times,” and I don’t remember ever being there. So that’s the biggest thing. I would pay more attention.
Well, maybe one day you’ll write a book and you can revisit those things.
(Laughs) Maybe… Maybe!