Country music sucks. It's disingenuous, as bland and unsatisfying as vegetarian bacon. If it's not some manipulative nostalgia trip like "You're Gonna Miss This" (Trace Adkins), it's Skynyrd Lite built around some worn-out cliché like in Toby Keith's "Get Drunk and Be Somebody." It's nothing but phony rednecks and tarted-up fake trailer trash taking shallow swipes at the rich vein successfully mined by their Nashville progenitors, and the sad result is a bunch of disposable fluff that pushes your emotional buttons like a Steven Spielberg movie. Even with the gratuitous fiddle or steel guitar embellishment, modern country is about as authentic as Coffee-Mate.
Any true country fan with a memory longer than Gretchen Wilson's hair should be downright insulted by today's shallow, formulaic lyrics and recycled classic rock riffs. Hell, it's so bad it makes me pine for the good old days of Garth Brooks. The templates are easy to identify: You've got your "I'm-so-country" category: mention trailer parks, payday, country girls or southern food, and you've made your bubba bona fides. And then there's the "sentimental-feelings" angle—hoary childhood memories, coldly engineered romance, or sensitive cowboys going all Dr. Phil like a bunch of big Nashville pussies. Timeless? Shoot. More like spineless.
Thank god for Fred Eaglesmith. He not only mines that rich country vein—he drives a bulldozer straight to the mother lode.
Although he's pigeonholed as a country artist, Eaglesmith's music transcends that label—he encompasses several styles, including folk, rock and blues. What sets him apart from the mainstream is his exceptional songwriting. He doesn't write songs based on a phrase that's printed on a T-shirt; he writes songs about damaged people who are at the end of their rope, like the snowplow driver in "Cumberland County." He doesn't pen cutesy songs around a clever phrase he saw on a bumper sticker; he writes about the desperate love a woman has for her rodeo man who "only gets into town twice a month and gets out as fast as he can" ("Summerlea").
Someone who writes songs this good should be a household name, but he's not. And he likes it that way.
Eaglesmith escaped the hardscrabble life of the family farm in Southern Ontario at age 15, and the clear-eyed themes of coaxing a living from the land continue to inform his music. He writes about trains, trucks, crops and machinery with the same eye for nuance he uses to explore the more universal subjects of love and loss among people living in the margins of normal life (whatever that is).
The grizzled road warrior is a hero of the Americana/alt-country world, but that's a status that was bestowed by default. He was already more than 15 years into his career before being lionized by the insurgent country movement of the mid-1990s, a direct backlash to the pop country being manufactured by Tracy Lawrence, Brooks and Dunn, Tim McGraw, and other big hats. Eaglesmith's music is more Lucinda Williams than Hank Williams, but it's honest. He has spent his career crafting smart songs that are emotional wrecking balls, and utterly devoid of artifice. He also writes a lot of songs that are forehead-slapping funny, which provides a great contrast to the more pensive stuff. "How's Ernie," for example, is a gut-busting look at a guy whose girlfriend dumps him, which he can live with, but he really misses her dad. And then there's "I Shot Your Dog," about a guy who accidentally plugs his neighbor's pooch.
Eaglesmith's fans, known as Fredheads, have created a demand that's kept him on the road literally most of his life, playing more than 200 shows a year. His tours are as constant as cigarettes to a chain smoker, but he'll pause long enough to record a new album every year or two with his band, the Flying Squirrels.
Like any artist whose work transcends fads and cultural trends, Eaglesmith doesn't appear to worry about whatever level of fame he might reach. The music world has been catching up to him, though, and his songs have been covered by Toby Keith, Casey Chambers, Miranda Lambert, Alan Jackson and other artists who are far more well-known than Eaglesmith himself.
But music just ain't big enough to contain Eaglesmith's wellspring of creativity. Oil painting is his newest passion, and his style is a bold frenzy of abstract expressionism, alive with color and movement. It's an interesting contrast to his songwriting style, which, while evocative, is very focused and economical. Maybe painting with mad dashes of color and frenetic designs is Eaglesmith's way of rebelling against the traditional borders of writing music for the Western ear. We need our contemporary music to be logical; it needs to make sense. Build-up, then payoff. Tension, then release. The freewheeling character of Eaglesmith's paintings is unrestrained blasts of color, evoking a mood through your eyes instead of your ears.
With 18 albums under his belt, Eaglesmith has produced a vast collection of songs that maintain a wickedly high standard of songwriting craft. But his secret weapon surfaces in his live shows when he goes off on a hilarious, fifteen-minute monologue to introduce one of his songs. The man is a riot, and consistently slays audiences with his razor-sharp wit and twisted sense of humor. His shows, especially the solo gigs, are half music, half stand-up routine. His stories about hair-raising border crossings, marijuana farmers and various oddballs he meets are the stuff of legend.
Eaglesmith is currently touring behind his latest album, Cha Cha Cha. This album is Seductive Fred, more exotic-flavored rock than country. Hand drums and Latin percussion spice up the sophisticated sound, and the arrangements are lush and sexy, shining a big spotlight on the Fabulous Ginn Sisters, Eaglesmith's backup singers.
This is definitely not your daughter's country music. When Eaglesmith hits Montana this week, be forewarned: The freedom and confidence of the seasoned troubadour allow him his stylistic joyrides, and you never know what the quirky Canadian is going to pull out of his top hat. Be it wildly funny stories from the road, wry observations on current events, or a rambling prelude to a song, one thing will surely happen at a Fred Eaglesmith show: You will be massively entertained.
Fred Eaglesmith plays the O'Shaugnessy Center in Whitefish Friday, March 4, at 7:30 PM. $27. Call 862-5371 or visit whitefishtheatreco.org for tickets.