Raised on a farm in southern Ontario, Fred Eaglesmith has nevertheless found himself grouped in with the type of outsider Texas songwriters who came of age in the late '70s and '80s.
Though it's not a designation that comes with huge album sales, Eaglesmith says he's proud to find his name uttered alongside acclaimed songwriters like Steve Earle, Guy Clark, Tom Russell, and James McMurtry.
"I was raised listening to old country music and a lot of Texas music is steeped in old country music. I don't know how it happened, but I identify with those guys," Eaglesmith says.
"It's so funny because that happened right away when I came to the States in the early '90s. Everybody said, 'You're from here,' I said, 'No I'm from Canada.' But I was raised on a farm, raised with religion, raised in poverty. So the songs came from the same place."
Increasingly, Eaglesmith has moved away from his rootsier music into a rock 'n' roll realm, writing the type of songs like "Your Sister Cried," which in a famous interview Tom Waits said moved him to tears.
"I really started listening to Elvis and rock 'n' roll and then got caught up in the folk music thing when I was a kid in the early '70s. I got into the roots thing and left behind rock 'n' roll, but more and more especially these days, I find the roots thing is pretty tapped out. Now I'm playing much more rock 'n' roll and this highway leaves me a lot of room to not be overlapping with everything else," Eaglesmith says.
"I just try to be more of an artist than a genre. Whatever feels alive to me, I try to do that."
With 20 albums to his credit, Eaglesmith has earned his reputation as a songwriter's songwriter. He can handle heartache like few others, but can evoke humor just as easily. His songs move easily, the words and style often existing more in the realm of short stories than pop music.
And Eaglesmith is a workhorse, with an unrecorded bank of well over 100 songs, on top of the three albums (Cha Cha Cha, 6 Volts, and Tambourine) he's pumped out in the last five years.
"I have so many songs right now I can't even believe it. I'm looking at three or four albums I could record tomorrow," he says. "I'm very lucky. I have a really deep well of songs and creativity and it's really, really nice to me.
"I have so many friends who get writer's block or they can't get inspired. I'm still very excited about writing songs, recording songs. I really felt as a kid that rock 'n' roll and pop culture liberated me and I still feel that way. I'm an artist, I'm on the road, I'm writing songs, and I still get to do this. I'm still out there plugging away."
For the last five years, Eaglesmith's performances (more than 200 a year) have been part of what he terms the "Traveling Steam Show," taking inspiration from the vaudeville tradition and presenting a full-band experience.
"Some of our fans didn't take to it, didn't like that I had backup singers. They wanted that folk sound," he says. "I lost a little bit of ground, but I felt like it was a good decision. It was a little tough for us for a while. We were sleeping at the Wal-Mart for a while. We were on the road like vaudeville and we were traveling under our own steam, so we called it the steam show one night. It was sort of a cool thing to go through this late in your career, but now it's really good again."
Now 57, Eaglesmith says he's still inspired by the purity of that rock 'n' roll era that drove him into music in the first place. And he sees the same things in his fans.
"I'm finding a lot of people my age or a little younger who are really excited about rock 'n' roll, not so excited about this new country going on, but excited about what rock 'n' roll is and could be still," he says. "A lot of people come to me and say 'You remind me of why I got into music.'"
Whether it's a legend like Bob Dylan or a relative unknown like Mickey Newbury, Eaglemith's heroes are still on his mind.
"I'm really trying to walk the line of rock 'n' roll, which to me was much more about integrity than business," he says. "Rock 'n' roll was liberation for a whole generation and could have been for the whole world if we hadn't screwed it up. People wanted money and they got greedy, but I still 100 percent believe that rock 'n' roll is liberation."
The Fred Eaglesmith Traveling Steam Show is scheduled to perform Thursday, Feb. 5 at the Rhythm Room
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