Fred Eaglesmith makes a living in music without selling his soul



By Steve Newton

From the sound of his new 50-Odd Dollars CD—which includes gritty, rough-edged tracks like “Blue Tick Hound”, “Ten Ton Chain”, and “Georgia Overdrive”—you wouldn’t expect that Ontario tunesmith Fred Eaglesmith is best-known in folk circles. He sounds more like a cross between Neil Young and Steve Earle than your typical coffeehouse crooner.

“I was actually playing some rock and country music on my very first album,” notes Eaglesmith, calling from his home near Guelph, “but people mostly know me for my middle work, which was sort of Texas singer-songwriter–orientated. So that’s when people started latching on to me. But I don’t really have a genre, you know, I don’t have a home.”

Eaglesmith will make Vancouver his home—for an hour or two, anyway—when he plays the WISE Hall on Friday (July 30), with a band that includes bassist Ralph Schipper, percussionist Washboard Hank, and Canadian songwriting legend Willie P. Bennett on mandolin, harmonica, and vocals. He’ll be showcasing tunes from the Scott Merritt–produced 50-Odd Dollars, which also features performances by Blue Rodeo pedal-steel guitarist Kim Deschamps on five tracks and organist Richard Bell from The Band on three.

A prolific songwriter, Eaglesmith says he trusted his “gut instinct” more than his brain when it came time to choose the tunes for his latest, totally original, collection. “I write tons and tons of songs,” he says, “and I usually have a lot of time to think about it. But with this one I didn’t have a lot of time, so I just had to go ‘Okay, I know these songs are pretty good, I’m just gonna have to go with it and trust my hunches.’ And it worked out okay.”

A hard-core do-it-yourselfer, Eaglesmith doesn’t rely on any hot-shot managers or suit ’n’ tie–wearing A&R types to suggest which songs he should release. In fact, until he scored North American distribution by New York’s Razor & Tie Entertainment in ’97, he was his own top salesman, dealing most of his CDs right off his bus. He even put out his own box set—literally.

“In 1991 I had no money, so I went with my band and we stood around a couple of microphones in a little hall in a little town. Then I went and got this wood and made these boxes and stuck a label to it, and photocopied a bunch of pictures of my farm and my tractors and my cows and stuff. I put it all in this box and just started sendin’ them out, you know, mail order. I made the first 500 copies and then I farmed it out, and they just keep sellin’.

“That’s the other music business,” he adds, “the music business nobody talks about. But it’s much more to do with reality, and how to make a livin’ and how to not have to sell your soul.”

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