Fred Eaglesmith - Songs inspired by a lifetime on the road

Fred Eaglesmith remembers the moment when he decided to become a songwriter. He was eleven years old and the farmhouse on the plains of Southern Ontario where he lived with his parents and eight siblings had just had a television installed. Young Fred came in from working in the barn, frozen stiff, sat down and saw Elvis Presley onscreen, surrounded by beautiful young women in glorious sunshine, singing and playing guitar.

“I assumed, wrongly, of course, as I later discovered, that Elvis wrote all his own songs,” says Eaglesmith, “and when I saw him standing there, with all those girls and probably more importantly, warm, I said to myself: that’s what I’m going to do. I went upstairs and wrote three songs straight off and I’ve been writing songs ever since.”

His early songs, as he readily admits, weren’t of the standard that has earned Eaglesmith a large following – the Fredheads, as they’re known - all over American and Canada, as well as cult status here in the UK. He had to do a little living and eat quite a lot of humble pie before he started to impress himself, let alone anyone else.

In his teens, by which time not only had his own family lost their farm but he had watched neighbours’ farms all around them go to auction, Eaglesmith lived on the road and not infrequently on the railroad. Having fallen under the spell of Woody Guthrie’s music, hopping freight trains, as his hero had done before him, seemed romantic. It was anything but.

“I’d met some guys who had done it and I suppose I got into the culture of it through Woody,” he says. “Then one day I was trying to hitch a lift on the highway out of Sudbury, Ontario and couldn’t get a ride. So I hopped a train and got the fever. I travelled all over but I was never a freight bum and in those days, if you got caught, they’d just throw you off. Now it’s a felony. I got into a few scrapes. I had guys try to steal my stuff and guys pull knives on me but I could look after myself. I ended up in jail overnight a couple of times but I usually came out of tricky situations okay.”

Although he occasionally reflects on those times in his songs, a more frequently recurring theme is farmers down on their luck. Eaglesmith worked on his father’s dairy farm from the age of five and watched as “the health inspectors made things impossible” in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

“Farming went from Canada’s No 2 industry to No 7 pretty quickly. It was a horrible time,” he says. “Rock ‘n’ roll was going to be my way out. My school didn’t approve of that so I began going to the coffee shops where you could get a twenty minute spot on a Thursday. It was great training. I’d play a few songs, tell a joke and nobody would like it, so I’d go home and try and figure out how to improve. I had to make myself interesting and catch people’s ears. So I worked and worked on my music and then I got booked at a club or two, then a folk festival or two and it began to grow. And it’s still growing.”

These days Eaglesmith spends two hundred days on the road in America and Canada, running a travelling show with his band, playing three shows a night and living in one of his two tour buses, which run on used cooking oil. “That’s French fry grease,” he translates helpfully. It’s a hard life, although not as hard as the early rural experiences that taught him his motto: really living is when things aren’t all that good.

“The road’s good for songwriting,” says Eaglesmith, a staunchly independent artist who has distanced himself from “the suits” who run what’s left of the music industry. “If you have to spend three days in a truck stop, trying to fix your bus and waiting for parts to arrive, as we’ve just done in freezing temperatures, you’re bound to get a song out of the experience. And music is all we have left. Rock’n’ roll is a cause not a business. You won’t find us talking about shifting units, we’re more interested in the quality of our lives.”

For his upcoming Glasgow concert, he’ll be back to basics, just himself and his guitar, singing about his experiences and speaking out about injustices but, he hopes, not preaching to his audience.

“I’m always aware that people coming along to listen to me could have just lost their spouse or their house or that their dog just died,” he says. “So I don’t try to guess how they’re feeling or pretend to know the answers to their problems. All I do now is hope that, through my music, I can do something for them.”

From The Herald, February 8, 2013.

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