Cam Penner - Soothing trouble with mercy
Cam Penner was nineteen when he struck out for Chicago. For a boy from Canada’s prairie country in Southern Manitoba, where the highest buildings were grain elevators, it was a culture shock to suddenly be among skyscrapers. Other aspects of the windy city were less ostentatious, though, and in the soup kitchen where he found work Penner met the kind of characters who would inhabit his early songs.
They’re inhabiting his songs still. On his splendid new album, Trouble & Mercy, Penner adopts the persona of a man down on his luck. “There’s a bank around the corner, don’t even think I haven’t thought it,” he sings in Roam.
“That’s not based on any one specific character,” says Penner down the line from his home in Calgary. “But in the society and sub-culture that I was around for thirteen or fourteen years, there was so much to draw on and there probably wasn’t one of the characters I met in that time who didn’t have one eye on that bank. I mean, half of the population these days, people who’ve lost the family business, lost their jobs, probably have one eye on the bank – or at least one eye on the bankers.”
Penner knows what it means to lose the family business. His parents ran a restaurant in the small town where he grew up. When the bank foreclosed, they lost the restaurant and their house. So they opened up another establishment, an illegal roadhouse based in a small hall that at weekends would fill up with revellers who’d dance and forget their troubles with the help of some potent raspberry hooch, supplied by the local bootlegger, who just happened to be Penner’s grandfather.
“It was a born-again Christian Mennonite community,” says Penner. “So the town was dry and there were about one hundred and fifty churches serving a population of seven thousand who were given a list of dos and don’ts on pain of eternal fire and damnation. I’m sure my parents brought more salvation to that town than all the churches combined, not just through the roadhouse as a means of escape. They were always helping others, taking in runaways, putting hampers of food and essentials together. The code was simple: be kind.”
It was in his parents’ roadhouse that Penner (the Cam is short for Cameron but his bloodlines are mostly Eastern European) began to take an interest in music. One day, when the young Cam was about eleven, his father brought him home a guitar that he’d bought for $25. The budding musician promptly broke his arm the following day and began by learning to play the guitar on his lap, a style he later rectified.
Music wouldn’t become a potential career move for many years yet, though, and when some friends announced that they were heading off to live in a “weird Jesus hippy commune” in Chicago, Penner tagged along, thinking he might take in some baseball and generally check out all that the big city had to offer. He wound up living in the commune for a year, worked initially in the aforementioned soup kitchen, then a women’s shelter and when he moved back to Canada he continued working with the homeless into his thirties.
“I’d come home at night and pick up the guitar and start writing stuff,” he says. “I suppose that was my release. But I’d find that I’d taken in so many other people’s stories and because I felt comfortable with these people and was prepared to listen, they’d tell me all sorts of things. Everybody needs to be heard and in the end what they really want is for you to understand their problems. So I was getting all this raw material and it started coming together in songs.”
A circle of local gigs around Calgary grew and audience response developed to the stage where Penner could turn to music full-time, spending up to six months at a stretch on the road, touring Canada and the US and getting more ideas for songs in his travels. Two EPs and two full-length albums recorded with his band, The Gravel Road, helped to spread the word further and now, with producer and accompanist Jon Wood adding just the right sounds – be they a frailing banjo, pedal steel guitar or knee slaps – to complement Penner’s compelling storytelling, Trouble & Mercy is reaching a receptive audience in the UK.
“What I want to present to people is honesty,” says Penner in a speaking voice that’s immediately recognisable as the narrator behind the weary but undefeated Once a Soldier or the condemned man’s defiant tale that is Thirteen from Trouble & Mercy. “These songs come from flashes of memories that I’ve worked into short stories or mini movies, I suppose you could say. They may not be my memories but I’ve heard them first hand and they’re certainly real.”
From The Herald, May