Corb Lund: The Thinking Cowboy’s Troubadour
In Steve Earle’s book of short stories, Doghouse Roses, he introduces Billy, a rare gem in a stream of Nashville songwriters: “…when he sang you believed that he had been a foot soldier at the Battle of Shiloh or a train robber or a rodeo clown. He had songs that could transport you down to Mexico or across the Rocky Mountains or deep into the Louisiana bayou country…He was young but wise, weathered but innocent, possessed of a tough hide and a tender heart.”
I read this passage the day after I interviewed Corb Lund and immediately thought, this is what he does. Earle’s story endeavours to explain the inexplicable in great songwriting, that ability to “dissect an otherwise ordinary moment” that so few people possess. But Lund does, and this passage said what I had been thinking but couldn’t put into words. You see, Corb Lund might be the smartest musician I’ve ever encountered.
Ten years of listening to his music has brought me to that conclusion. I remember leaving work and speeding from Edmonton to Calgary in 2002 – around the time that I got the trip down to just over two hours – to see him play a concert with several other local musicians. I dragged a friend along, who complained that he’d never heard of this “Corb Lund guy”; by the end of the show all he could do was keep reminding me of how great it was. Lund gets into your brain and knocks your way of thinking around a bit. Even if you haven’t heard them recently, you absentmindedly hum his tunes. You look up the stories behind the events and characters he sings about because he makes you want to find out more. Still, he doesn’t leave you hanging. Every song is a carefully constructed package, whether it’s a drinking song, a tale of heartbreak, or a tiny slice of an historic battle told from one ordinary guy’s perspective.
Yet he’s awfully modest, suggesting that his musical technique is the result of “sheer stubbornness and farm boy work ethic.” He pauses and thinks carefully before responding to questions; then the answer he gives reveals some pretty sharp thinking. He reads a lot, not only to relieve his tendency to get bored quickly, but to keep expanding the catalogue of ideas that inspired a collection of songs which range from the silly and funny to the mess of politics that characterizes places like rural Alberta.
And if you’re looking for seriously political country music, he’s the guy to start with. Although his songs might describe specific situations on the Canadian prairies, they have a universality in the message that can be translated across eras and geographical regions. For many, Lund is the voice of the young hipster whose identity has been carved out by urban living, idealism, and a good dose of nostalgia for a vague idea of rural life while for others, he is the mouthpiece for the common, hard-working man whose beliefs have been shaped by a more conservative stance. He laughs at the contradiction that keeps him on his toes when meeting fans: “We’ll play some honky-tonk in Texas where there are lots of military people and I’ve had guys come up and say that they’re using my Cavalry song as a regimental theme song. And then the next night we’ll play some kind of indie show and people will come up and say ‘That’s the best anti-war record I’ve heard in years.’ Which is kind of interesting, because on Horse SoldierI was trying to present different viewpoints. It’s kind of like a mirror, people take what they want from it, and end up seeing themselves in it. They can take completely different things from it depending on what their own belief system is.”
“One of the things I’m most proud of is how diverse my audience is,” he adds. “When I look out in the audience, it’s a real mix of people.” This might be because his politics are issue-based; he denies a clear lean to the right or left. Though these days, what he has previously termed “neo-prudent” – I take it to mean the avoidance of greed in the interest of common good; a recognition of individual people over corporate profit and environmental destruction; living by an ethical code that you can feel good about on your deathbed – might seem kinda left. Still, some of those basic values come from an earlier generation of labourers and cowboys who would have been viewed as conservative in their time.
It’s not all about politics though; if it were, Lund might be forced into a restrictive genre identity like the one offered by folk. On his new album, Cabin Fever, he balances commentary against more typical country fare: songs about cows, drinking, and well-placed bibles. And love gone wrong. The first official single, “September”, is a romantic plea for a girl to leave the big city behind in favour of a slower pace. The minimal, pretty lyrics, combined with shots of Calgary and its surrounding, breathtaking landscape (home!) almost had me ditching my Toronto apartment for a life-long dream of living on a ranch in Alberta:
And isn’t dreaming about the country what country music is all about? Lund had no shortage of western influences growing up, between riding in the rodeo, living on a ranch, and listening to cowboy songs passed down by his grandfather. Like, real cowboy songs, ones that predate Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. “See, the reason those songs are interesting to me is because they pre-date the ‘music business’, and back in those days, before the prevalence of recorded music, people just sang as personal entertainment. Before there was X-Box and stuff, people would sit around and sing songs. And a lot of the cowboy guys when they’re working out on the prairies, they would sing out of boredom. It also functioned as an oral tradition transmitter. I already had those songs in my head and then I got a hold of a couple Marty Robbins records and heard the same songs on the records. I was mystified by it because I’d heard these songs from Grandpa.”
As many underground metal fans know, Lund abandoned western music for the 12 years that he was in The Smalls, a metal-punk-jazz group that fared well in the 90s Canadian indie scene. Black Sabbath and Slayer proved to be too enticing for a young, energetic guy looking for new inspiration. That, combined with his studies in jazz guitar at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton, Alberta, remains a ghostly presence in his music that might not be overt unless you’re looking for it. But check out Lund’s discussion of “Gettin’ Down on the Mountain” in his new series of songwriting videos that are, as he puts it, “one third lyrical explanation, one third discussing the topic, and one third guitar lesson.” Here, he describes the main riff, an aggressive opening to the apocalyptic tale, that consists of open fifths and the occasional flattened third…pretty metal, no?
“Everything that you do adds to your general core identity as a musician,” says Lund. “We did all kinds of freaky shit in The Smalls, so I think that that stuff had a permanent effect on my songwriting, so now when I come back and write country songs, I approach the whole thing with abandon because of my past. The metal years, combined with the pretty rural cowboy upbringing, are what make up my writing style.”
Whether it’s metal-informed songs like “Gettin’ Down” or western swing numbers like “Cows Around,” Lund comfortably drifts between seemingly incompatible genres, and worlds. I suggested that he’s the perfect modern day cowboy, balancing the urban and rural, tradition and modernity; he’s accessible and mysterious at the same time. “Well,” he concedes, “to a point. I’m awfully sensitive about going around saying I’m a cowboy because I grew up that way and I did all those things when I was young but I’m definitely not a working cowboy anymore. I’m a songwriter and a musician with cowboy roots, which is different. Out of respect to the guys who are still actually working as cowboys, it’s kind of like saying you’re a gangster when you’re not anymore (laughs). In the broad strokes, you’re right. Because I have that background, combined with the indie thing for ten years, I think I can speak the language of both worlds well enough to draw people in from both sides.
“I don’t actually think about these things much until I get asked them. I’m mostly just thinking about songs. I would never presume to say that’s what I’m doing, but if you’re asking, if I had to come up with a reason why my audience is so diverse, I think that’s one of the reasons.” Whether he’s a modern day cowboy, or the thinking cowboy’s troubadour, Lund’s carefully crafted albums each stand on their own as snapshots of a particular time and atmosphere that is meaningful to those who know and love the West.
Lund is on tour in Australia right now; he’ll be back through the U.S. and Canada in the fall. You can find dates here and his latest album, Cabin Fever, here. If you’re a budding guitarist or just want to know what he was thinking when he wrote those lyrics you love, look at his songwriting video series.