Fred Eaglesmith – Prairie pearl
On “Water In The Fuel”, a trucker addresses his lost love and bemoans that he didn’t take her advice and settle down (“I’ve got a left front tire throwing thread/By tomorrow morning I could be dead/Baby maybe you been right all along”). “Alcohol And Pills” is a roll call of the pantheon of musicians lost to that fate, including Hank Williams and Elvis Presley. “It’s really about all of us,” Eaglesmith reveals, “about how we don’t mean to and how we don’t intend to get in trouble. We all have this thing where we’re going to walk the path, you’re going to be the good guy, and the next thing you know we find ourselves staggering out of a club somewhere…which is the famous ‘musician’ thing to do. You’re going to do this tour straight, you’re not going to get out of control on this next tour, like, ‘Okay, guys, let’s be focused, it’s a lot of days, let’s do this tour really good.’
“The trouble with a tour is once you get started on that sort of road, it’s real hard to get off it. A tour has a rhythm…we’ve learned that the beginning of the tour will sort of typify the end of the tour. People are always around that want to buy you drinks, want to take you out and party with you, not understanding that you might be in the middle of playing 45 days with one day off.”
Much of Eaglesmith’s touring in recent years has been in the United States, where he has found an audience for his music that has finally allowed him the opportunity to think of it as a career.
Not to imply that the bigwigs bent over backward for him. “When I went to Nashville in 1993, in a very short time I had many publishers interested in me; it all happened very quickly,” he recalls. “Quite a few publishers wanted to talk to me, were sort of sniffing around. The reason most of them gave for not wanting to sign me was they didn’t want to change me, and they couldn’t use me the way I was. Some of them would say, ‘I can’t sign you but don’t you ever change.’ I had a big kind of ‘schlock’ publisher say to me, ‘Don’t get Nashvillized, whatever you do.’ The guy who signed me finally, Brownlee Ferguson, who has become a good friend of mine, he said to me ‘Y’know, I’m not an art collector, I’m in this business to make money, but I might have to make an exception in this case.'”
Ferguson created Vertical Records to release Eaglesmith’s Drive-In Movie in 1996. It’s a comparatively smooth-sounding record, with a veneer of production gloss that Eaglesmith says happened in the mixing and mastering. That aside, there’s no getting past his rich characters and driving rhythm. The title track, a tale of woe about a woman long gone, is typical of Eaglesmith’s songs in that his sense of detail puts you inside his characters in an undeniably concrete manner (“I just stare through the door screen and watch the cars come down the pike/Their lights against the sky/Like a drive-in movie on a country road/That I’ve seen before and never liked the first time”).
Eaglesmith received a Juno Award (Canada’s equivalent to a Grammy) for that CD. The night of the presentation, Eaglesmith and the Flying Squirrels were playing a ‘gas gig’ at a tiny bar in Memphis en route to Texas. “I thought, ‘This is the way it should be: I won a Juno tonight, we’re playing in a bar, it’s not particularly full.’ Willie said to me, ‘Wow, we won a Juno! What are we gonna do tomorrow?’ And I said, ‘We’re gonna get up and go to Texas.'”
With the new record deal, one worries what will happen to the mythology of the man whose sold most of his records for the past dozen years out of the boot of his band’s 1958 Wayne bus. Since touring became a constant awhile back, Eaglesmith can add another vocation to his resume: auto repair.
“I’m the good mechanic if it comes to it, but all three of us have put on the coveralls and crawled under it. We had a little bit of a fire on the Philadelphia turnpike one day,” he chuckles, “burned some wiring out, so we spent three hours rewiring the bus. Willie and I had grease up to the elbows…A trooper came by and gave us a boost and we made the gig. I have a 1956 GMC too, which I just bought and fixed up. It’s a lot like the Wayne. Just painted it — the old way, y’know, with a roller. Hopefully it’ll be on the road for the next tour. Despite all the notorious stories of how much it takes to keep these things fixed up, we have few problems compared to our friends with their little Dodge vans. It’s pretty darn good, except you get no gas mileage.”
I asked Eaglesmith whether he knew if John Prine had ever heard his stuff, and he doesn’t believe it matters now. “He did something for me that was great, and that’s what art should do. Hopefully instead of John Prine hearing my music, some 14-year-old kid hears my music the way I heard John Prine’s music and goes, ‘Yeah, I can be that sarcastic, I’m going to start writing songs like that,’ and it gives him a path to go on. Then the circle will be complete.”
Chris Vautour is a freelance writer who grew up in New Brunswick, Canada, where four out of every five dysfunctional homes have a John Prine record.