On The Line With… Corb Lund
Here’s a recent chat with Corb I’ve also just posted on my blog, heartbreaktrail.wordpress.com. It’s also at www.exclaim.ca.
Hope you enjoy!
It’s ironic that the head Hurtin’ Albertan’s first album to get a wide release in the U.S., Losin’ Lately Gambler on New West, is packed with Canadian references, but it is precisely Lund’s ability to write honestly about his background that has made his voice unique among North American singer/songwriters. That point is made right from opening track “Horse Doctor, Come Quick,” a tribute to his father, a veterinarian, and reinforced throughout the rest of the album on “Steer Rider’s Blues,” “Long Gone To Saskatchewan,” and “This Is My Prairie.” Lund’s familiar bare bones sound remains intact courtesy of usual producer Harry Stinson, but “Devil’s Best Dress” has a distinct Marty Robbins flair, while “Chinook Wind” chugs along like a classic Waylon Jennings track. Some of the album’s best moments are in fact the ballads, where Lund clearly displays how much his singing has improved, but his trademark lyrical playfulness on “Talkin’ Veterinarian Blues,” and “It’s Hard To Keep A White Shirt Clean,” will surely satisfy longtime fans. Whether Americans get it is hardly the issue; Lund has made another solid record that proves he’s in this for the long haul.
First off, you must be happy to have this new record coming out on New West.
Yeah, definitely. We’ve struggled to build a grass roots following down in Texas and the west. It’s been coming along, but it’s happened without any support. I’m really excited to see what happens with those guys helping out now. I couldn’t have picked a better label, based on what I do.
So how did the deal come about?
I can’t really remember for sure. My manager was talking with them for a while, I think. I’d sent them a copy of one of my early records a long time ago, and I don’t think they even remembered it. But I take it as a huge compliment to be on New West because they’ve got a small roster, which happens to include three of my heroes [Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, and Dwight Yoakam].
I just got Kristofferson’s new album and it’s really good.
I was obsessed with Kristofferson in my early twenties. He was the guy; I even got into his movies. Dwight’s music was a major thing for me too when I was younger.
How are things shaping up so far with the album’s release in the U.S.?
It’s too early to really tell, but as far as working with them so far, it’s been awesome. They didn’t put any kind of restrictions on my tunes at all. It’s the first time I’ve been on a label with clout like that, so I’ve been wondering at what point would someone come in and start telling me how I should make my records. But they didn’t say a word beyond ‘Go do your thing, that’s why we hired you.’ ‘Hired’ probably isn’t the right word…
Did you have this record planned out before the deal happened?
No, it was ongoing. It took a while to work out the details, but when I found out it was happening, I was thrilled. I’ve always viewed label stuff as a bonus, because I’ve gone on the assumption that you can’t count on being on a good label. You sort of always have to do it yourself anyway. Stony Plain’s been great too, but they’ve never really had a U.S. presence.
To me, the coolest thing is that for your first album for a U.S. label, nearly all the songs reference Canada in some way.
Yeah, I guess we’ll see how that all works out. The story I’ve been telling is that the first batch of songs we recorded and sent in had “Long Gone To Saskatchewan” and “Alberta Says Hello.” I don’t think it’s a big deal, I’ve always written from kind of a regional perspective.
I remember talking to Hayes Carll last year, and he said that when he toured with you in Alberta, it felt almost the same as being home in Texas. Do you feel like that when you’re down there?
Yeah, it’s been good. We decided a few years ago that instead of trying to cover all of America, we’d concentrate on two or three spots and hammer the shit out of them. We’ve played in Texas more than we’ve played in Alberta the past two or three years. I have to say it’s working, though. We have a good following there. But like I say, it’s just been from touring and satellite radio, so I’m really enthused about what might happen with a well-known label behind us. The thing I like best is that the guys who run the label are basically music historians, so I feel like I’m being supported by people who know the territory I’m working in really well.
You worked with producer Harry Stinson again, as you have with nearly all of your records. Do you feel like the two of you have a natural rhythm at this point?
Yeah, it’s like he’s part of the band. In fact, I’m trying to get him to go on tour with us. That makes a big difference for me to be totally comfortable in the studio. Someday I might change it up, but why fix it if it ain’t broke? He’s really fantastic at a few things too, like arrangements, which is a great help for me because sometimes I spend so much time writing the songs that I get too close to them. He’s outstanding when it comes to saying, ‘Let’s try it in a different key,’ ‘Let’s add a piano,’ or ‘Let’s slow it down.’ His singing has also become a big part of our records. Have you seen him play in Marty Stuart’s band? It’ll just melt your face off.
Do you feel that playing in the U.S. so much has given your own stage presence a boost?
Yeah. I’m a lifer, so the goal is to keep doing this until I’ve got that kind of power a lot of those guys have to just go out on stage, and within three bars just have the audience in the palm of their hand. You can’t fake that with computers or any of that shit.
That’s the thing I always enjoy most about your records. The sound is so pure, with the focus always being on the songs and the performances.
I’m actually not sure how I feel about that. I know some artists like to use a different producer every record to try to get different sounds, but I like having a sound that I guess is my own, you know? In our case, the producer, Harry, is a really important part of that, so I don’t really foresee changing, unless I make a punk or metal record.
The differences I noticed this time might be in how some of the songs seem to pay tribute to other artists. “Devil’s Best Dress” has that classic Marty Robbins sound, and “Chinook Wind” has a real Waylon Jennings vibe.
Yeah, it’s fun to give nods to that stuff. Sometimes when I’m writing I have that in mind right from the start, and sometimes it just happens spontaneously in the studio. With “Devil’s Best Dress” I knew from the beginning that it was going to be a Marty Robbins gunfighter ballad, so we went for it with all the man-harmonies and the reverb.
You mentioned “Long Gone To Saskatchewan” already, and I have to ask if that came out of an encounter with Stompin’ Tom Connors.
No. The point of the last verse is just a nod to his song “Roll On Saskatchewan.” What the song is really about is this current phenomenon of the foothills of the Rockies in western Alberta getting way overvalued for its recreational value rather than its agricultural value. Lots of oil guys are buying up acreages and dividing them up, so the rancher guys who have been raising cattle there forever can’t afford to expand or even keep the land they have anymore. They’re going to Saskatchewan and buying places that are in some cases five or six times as big.
I’m sure most people in the east aren’t aware of that.
Yeah. I’m pretty committed to the idea of regionalism in music. I think it’s important.
Well, I know early in your career it was a struggle to build an audience in the east, possibly for that reason. How are things now?
It took longer, but we have great shows in Ontario now. I think you can sing about specifics in your area and have it be intriguing if you do it right. I mean, there are plenty of guys who pretend they’re from Nashville, and that’s especially endemic in Canada. I’m not gonna mention any names, but these guys that go to Nashville to make a record and come back with a southern drawl. I record in Nashville too, but it’s more out of convenience. I guess it’s the same with any kind of music; it’s all about honesty, right? Hip-hop artists get criticized all the time for not being from the streets, and it’s the same with roots music. If you’re singing about the American South and you’re from Winnipeg, it doesn’t really make much sense. There are exceptions of course, but if you adopt a persona, it’s like, what the fuck? Why can’t you just be yourself?
That leads into my questions about “This Is My Prairie.” Just from the title, I got an idea of what the song might be about, but it turned out to be almost the complete opposite.
What did you expect?
I guess a more right-wing message. I have to admit it was kind of a knee-jerk reaction reflecting what a lot of Ontarians might think about Albertans putting oil above everything else, and I’m glad I was wrong.
Well, that’s always been there, but what’s interesting is that there are a lot of generational landowners who are standing up and talking about some of the environmental stuff that’s going on. It’s kind of weird – there’s actually more kinship between ranchers and environmentalists than either side probably thinks. Some guys that I know who have ranches that have been in their family for 120 years, they want to keep their land natural. It is a complex issue because I’m all for moving on to a post-petroleum technology – we all know that’s coming – but in the meantime I’m not that much of a hippie to think that we’re going to get off oil tomorrow morning. We have to keep drilling for oil for the time being, but having said that, it’s ridiculous to dig up every square inch of our province. There are some places that should be kept beautiful. It’s tough, because I’m probably less of a left-winger than some musicians – most probably – but still, I feel that unbridled multinational corporate greed isn’t good for anybody. It’s more prevalent in the States, but to some degree here the conservative movement attempts to convince the little guy that they’re on his side when really they’re backing the corporate guys who are screwing the little guys. I’m not against business or personal initiative – I’m not a communist – but corporations have no conscience. Their stated goal is to make money for their shareholders, and I know people who have had their places dug up for that reason. In the end, you can slow them down, but you can’t prevent the government from allowing oil and gas companies to dig up your place. Any bit of advertising Shell does is just window dressing. Shell doesn’t give a shit about your place; they don’t care about turning it into a cesspool and then leaving when the oil’s gone. The only way that it can be protected is if our government stands up for us.
I think you really captured those complexities in the song. I was really impressed.
Well, I do bring it up in the song that you have to be really careful. It’s hard to voice those kinds of opinions here without having the working guys feel like I’m attacking them, and I’m not. My brother works in the oil field; people have to do those things to make a living. It’s the same in B.C. with logging. You don’t blame the loggers, they’re just guys. Fifty years from now, hopefully they’ll be technicians in the wind industry or whatever. Everyone’s got their own politics, but in the big picture it’s not their fault.
Right. I just think it’s cool that it’s the kind of song you don’t hear in country music that often, one that really tries to look at both sides of an issue.
Well, I guess to go back to the stereotypes about Albertans, there’s more of us that care than you think. It’s not just because I’m an artist. Both my parents’ families have been cattle people for 120 years, and my mom’s part of a landowner’s group in the southwest corner of the province that’s trying to work with the oil and gas companies to find a compromise that does the least amount of damage. I think we would feel pretty stupid if 40 years from now when everything’s run by electricity that we realize we’ve fucked up the entire province.
I guess in the same way, the two songs about veterinarians seem intended to give people a clearer picture of what working with livestock is really like.
Yeah, my dad’s a veterinarian, and everything in the talking blues come from true stories. I thought it might be pretty gory for city folk. I’m pretty fond of the opening track too, with the line about scoring dope off your vet. I think that’s an unexplored topic in music up until now. You know ketamine – vitamin K? That’s horse tranquilizer. I feel sometimes when thinking about all of these songs that I’m in a unique position of straddling two cultures in a way. I mean, my background is rural and I know that world very well. There are things about it that I agree and disagree with, and the same goes for the urban indie world that I’ve spent the last 20 years in. I’ve taken a lot of values from that too. I don’t agree with everything, but I’m in the unique position of blending these two things together. Sometimes it’s for the good and sometimes not, maybe, but it’s interesting. Some of my stuff kind of hints at those tensions, or those views that one group has of the other. I can understand where both are coming from. It’s interesting for me to bridge the gap a little bit.
I think most of your fans can relate to that. I know a lot of people in southwestern Ontario can.
You know what’s funny about that? My last record [Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier] has all kinds of points of view on it, and I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘What a great anti-war record,’ and I’ve had other people – military guys – say, ‘That’s the best shit we’ve ever heard to get us pumped up to fight.’ It’s like a mirror for people. I’ve heard that there are guys in Afghanistan who love the “Calvary” song. I didn’t set out to do that, and I’m not really in favour of being in Afghanistan, but on the other hand if it helps some 22-year-old who signed up to serve their country get through their tour, then fair enough. It’s like the oil thing – you can’t really blame the soldiers, just like you can’t blame the rig workers. I’m a firm believer in not necessarily supporting the leadership, but backing the rank and file troops 100 per cent, because they’re just kids who signed up and do what they’re told. That’s pretty heroic, I think. But when it comes to the mission, that’s a whole other story. If there’s any sort of theme to what I’ve been doing, it’s to show both sides of the coin. Things are never as simple as what the idiots on TV would like you to believe.
On another topic, have you been doing a lot of gambling lately?
No, I’ve been too busy.
The song that the album title came from (“A Game In Town Like This”) is a great gambling song though, and it’s nice to hear you sing in that balladeer way.
Yeah, there’s a lot of minor chords on this record. I wasn’t thinking so much of actual gambling; songs like that seem to be more about getting your ass kicked for showing too much bravado. The other song that means a lot to me is the one about Willie P. Bennett [“It’s Hard To Keep A White Shirt Clean”]. I went on an Eaglesmith tour years ago down to Florida, and Willie and I were roommates on the road. We played cribbage a lot. He was wearing that white shirt all the time because he’d always say that the ladies liked white shirts. I wanted to write that song for him.
Yeah, it’s kind of sad to think that he never really got the recognition he deserved.
I thought I was bitching about country music a lot five years ago, but it’s so bad now. Songs are just bumper sticker shit. I wonder sometimes, do I want to be on CMT? Do I want to be on country radio? But I think it’s good because it opens a lot of doors for all the people who only listen to country music. I’ve got about a third of my audience who are pretty hip to music, and the other two-thirds are people who just listen to country radio. It’s not their fault; they might live in a small town and have kids and can’t go to the record store and dig up interesting stuff. But if I can be the person to broaden their horizons and maybe get them to seek out interesting stuff, then that’s a good thing.