Working Man's Muse 

Fred J. Eaglesmith, winging it

Fred J. Eaglesmith, winging it

Fred Eaglesmith is a songwriter, damn it. As a vocation, he’s not sure he trusts it. But as an avocation, he knows he can’t help it. A late-blooming student of psychoanalysis, he figures his fate was sealed at an early age. For that, he blames Elvis Presley, John Prine and a counterculture book about getting back to the land.

Eaglesmith knows all about working the land; that’s clear when listening to his songs. He was born into a strict Christian family in the austere farming region of southern Ontario, where he grew up around people who work hard and wind up with little to show for it. He realized at an early age that he wanted more and that music might provide his ticket out.

Elvis was the first to prod him to look beyond the fields and country roads. It happened, as with so many others, when he saw Elvis perform on television. “It looked like so much fun,” Eaglesmith recalls. “I didn’t know anybody who had fun like that.” By the next week, he was practicing performing. Within a couple of years, by age 12, he was writing songs.

Then, in the early 1970s, he saw Prine interviewed on the David Frost Show. Eaglesmith was 15 years old at the time. “He was so sardonic and sarcastic,” Eaglesmith remembers. “I was very sarcastic as a young person, too. I had started doing a man’s work at age 8, working the fields. I’d had a hard life already. There was trouble in school and a lot of turmoil. The goings were real tough in Southern Ontario then. When I saw John Prine, I thought, ‘This is what I want to write like.’ I started mimicking him a lot.”

The same year, he left the farm. He traveled on his own, taking labor jobs or working in kitchens. While working in a youth hostel at age 18, he received a book written by “a bunch of hippies from Vancouver.” The book suggested that modern life was doomed by technology, recommended a return to an agrarian society to preserve mankind and to lead lives of moral value. “The book was very idealistic; a lot of what they proposed was impossible,” Eaglesmith says. “But it did bring everything home for me. All of a sudden, I realized that a lot of what came natural to me—the farm, the rural life—was good. That’s when I started writing about the things I knew. I took what I learned from John Prine and Bob Dylan and mixed it with my roots. That’s when I became a songwriter.”

He wrote 60 to 70 songs in six weeks, started playing live at the hostel, and then got jobs performing in coffeehouses. He put out his first album at age 23 on a Canadian independent label. After he discovered guitarist Norman Blake, Eaglesmith created an album of bluegrass-oriented death songs. “The records were selling, like, 600 or 700 copies,” he says, “but I was making money on them.”

Meanwhile, he had no problem working other jobs. He worked as a carpenter, a farm laborer, and a high-pressure water blaster. He saved his money, bought some land of his own and started a flower supply business. In 1987, he quietly released another album, Indiana Road.

Eventually, a club owner in deep south Ontario tracked him down. “Turns out I had this cult audience down there that I didn’t know about,” he says. “Not too many copies of Indiana Road existed, but this guy told me that hundreds and hundreds of homemade tapes had been made of it. All of a sudden I was getting hired for $1,000 a night.”

Eaglesmith “never looked back,” he says. Working with acoustic musicians Willie P. Bennett and Ralph Schipper, he recorded There Ain’t No Easy Road, a double-cassette box set of his own songs. He photocopied a 20-page booklet for each set, which consisted of old-fashioned cigar boxes that Eaglesmith and his bandmates made by hand.

His efforts didn’t go unnoticed in Southern Ontario. “The thing took off, at least for me,” he says. “In a year or so, I had sold 2,000 boxes. The whole thing had cost about $800 in all;. we sold them for $25 apiece. I was making a living. I started playing all the Canadian festivals and getting a lot of good gigs. Between that and selling records, I had a career.”

Eaglesmith felt content about what he had achieved. But word spread, and among those making offers included a Nashville record producer. He agreed to visit and record some of his songs and showcase for song publishers and record labels. “I’d kind of gotten used to overwhelming people, just taking them by storm,” he says. “When I came to Nashville, that didn’t happen. On the one hand, there was this great over-response. But in another way, there was a real under-response, too. I kept getting the same thing: We love your songs, but we have no idea what to do with them.”

One music publisher responded slightly differently. Brownlee Ferguson of Bluewater Music, one of Music Row’s more successful independent song publishers, told him, “I love your songs, and we’ll make something happen.” It was an important difference. Less than two years later, Ferguson founded an independent record label, Vertical Records. Eaglesmith’s Drive-In Movie is Vertical’s debut release.

With his new album, Eaglesmith purposely left the farm behind—at least in subject matter. “I think I’m finished with that topic,” he says. “I’ve written about 10 or 15 songs about a man losing a farm. I’d written about it from every angle I could.”

But Eaglesmith’s characters still reside in smaller towns, and they remain remarkably real. In “Good Enough,” for example, a man perceives his woman is about to leave. When they met, she was on parole, couldn’t say no and carried a knife of her own, and he had helped her regain confidence. Now she’s wearing store-bought clothes and brand-new shoes. She’s got a new look and attitude. “But it was different when I was good enough,” he sings in the chorus. At song’s end, he steals a car just to drive it into the hills and watch it burn. It’s not as much fun without her, he discovers.

Already, positive response to the album has taken Eaglesmith from California to New York’s Bottom Line. Still, he continues to keep up alternate work. Not long ago, he was selling chickens. These days, he hits flea markets and garage sales looking for antiques, which he buys and sells.

“I have never relied on music for a career,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot more of the music business since I’ve been coming to Nashville, and I don’t like the adversarial part of it. I don’t want to worry about whether someone’s playing my record or whether someone’s promoting it right or whether I’m getting cuts. It doesn’t make me excited in the same way writing a good song does, or hearing one. My friend Lynn (Miles) played me a new song yesterday, and it was so good. That makes me excited. When I listen to Lucinda Williams, I get excited. I don’t think I could get that kind of excitement worrying about how my record does. But I’ll tell you, being here in Nashville with a record out, that’s already way over the line of where I expected to go. I know how I got here. I did my work and stayed true to myself, and I got here. But I never expected it.”

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