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Eaglesmith revs up career

By Jon Johnson, November 1997

Fred Eaglesmith is a country singer. Of that there is no doubt. Anyone who can write a stone-cold barroom weeper like "Drinking Too Much," a duet with Lynn Miles on his new Razor & Tie album, "Lipstick Lies & Gasoline," couldn't be anything but country.

Having said that, whereas country is usually measured to some degree by how much "twang" it has, "Lipstick Lies & Gasoline" has an awful lot of "clank" going for it, too. Many of the songs have as many thuds, clanks and whirrs as the more recent work of American singer-songwriter Tom Waits.

"I'm a Tom Waits fan, I guess," says Eaglesmith when asked about the Waits influence. "As soon as people hear clanking these days, though, they think of Tom Waits. But he doesn't own it. I really think it's more of a country record."

Eaglesmith's own country is Canada; in fact, he's currently on the phone from the small Vancouver Island waiting for a ferry. And though he's been releasing music in Canada since 1981's "Fred J. Eaglesmith," "Lipstick Lies & Gasoline" is only his second American release, following 1996's "Drive-In Movie," released on the small Nashville-based Vertical label.

Eaglesmith's upbringing, though common in the earlier part of the century, is one which is far more rare today. "I grew up on a farm in Canada. I grew up rural poor and with religion. Which, as they say, is probably the best combination if you want to end up playing rock 'n' roll."

Eaglesmith left the farm while in his late teens, travelled around Canada picking up odd jobs, and credits an early '70's appearance by John Prine on "The David Frost Show" with awakening his interest in performing.

Following the his debut record, he mixed performing with other jobs and eventually started a small flower supply business before releasing another record, "Indiana Road," in 1987, which won him a growing cult audience.

Over the next several years Eaglesmith toured around Canada, sold his records on the road, and made a decent living in the process.

"You know, I had a nice little regional career, developed a following, and thought 'I'm just going to stay a regional artist and do this for the rest of my life.' Then, I got a little bit of interest out of Nashville. One of my albums got reviewed in a little bluegrass magazine. The people dug what I did, but they hadn't seen me perform."

Eaglesmith capitalized on the review by heading for Nashville and signed with Bluewater Music as a songwriter, resulting in his songs being cut by artists such as the Cowboy Junkies, Chris Knight and Dar Williams.

Working in Nashville was a big change for Eaglesmith, as he soon found out.

"I have a much different take on things than what you normally find in Nashville. There's a large 'For Sale' sign on everything we see these days. It seems weird to me because I'm not from that school; in fact, I'm wary of it."

Eaglesmith mentions John Anderson and Vince Gill as being two country artists who he admires but adds, "I'm just not really from that genre. I'm interested in songs."

Bluewater eventually formed Vertical Records, which released Eaglesmith's "Drive-In Movie." The disc racked up critical raves in the American music press and decent sales.

So why the change to Razor & Tie?

"We just got tired of dealing with those guys (Vertical). We did well in America and started touring. The Razors really liked me and wanted to sign me, so we just went from there."

Despite the label change in the U.S., though, Eaglesmith won a Juno Award (the Canadian version of the U.S.'s Grammy) in 1996 for Best Roots and Contemporary Artist as a result of "Drive-In Movie."

"It shocked the hell out of me, you know?" he says. "I couldn't even believe we got nominated."

Eaglesmith's current plans include a tour of the U.S. with his band the Flying Squirrels, which includes Willie Bennett on mandolin, harmonica, and vocals (who Eaglesmith refers to as "the Townes Van Zandt of Canada"), Ralph Schipper on bass and vocals and Washboard Hank on percussion.

Eaglesmith and his band have appeared in publicity photos with an old touring bus, a 1958 Wayne. Far from being a prop, it's really the group's primary touring bus.

"I have two, actually: a 1958 Wayne and a 1956 GMC. I just find the things in the paper. I found the first one in a trader magazine and I found the second one in someone's garage, so I bought and fixed it. They don't cost much, really, and they're great touring buses for a band. I can't afford the big, huge touring buses, but these are great for what we do."

"We're out for almost two months straight right now doing our own dates and playing with guys like George Jones and Leon Russell."

"To be honest, I don't know what the music business is all about. There's just guys like me who do what we do."