Chop Wood, Carry Water, Pay Dues with Cash
Chop Wood, Carry Water, Pay Dues with Cash
A Q&A with Fred Eaglesmith
By Geoff Gehman
Fred Eaglesmith’s song “Johnny Cash” is a front-door slam at Johnny-come-latelys who began liking the Man in Black when he was fading to gray. It’s also a back-door salute to dyed-in-the-cotton Cash fans like Eaglesmith’s father, who put his hands on the sides of a radio just so he could come closer to embracing “A Boy Named Sue” with his ears. The radio, by the way, was perched on a clothes dryer, a typically practical setup for an 11-member farm family in rural Canada.
Eaglesmith has staked his remarkably rich career at this kind of remarkably rich crossroads. For 30-plus years he’s been creating characters with distinctive dilemmas. A guy who could afford to buy a gun if only he gave up drinking. A long-distance trucker whose lover is giving him the long-distance treatment. A cowboy in a nursing home who writes a letter to cheer up a worse-off cowboy in a nursing home.
These are stories that stick to souls—and soles. Eaglesmith makes them stickier with a wide range of treatments (alternative rock, Celtic punk bluegrass), bands (the Flatland Noodlers, the Flying Squirrels) and venues (a blues cruise, a railroad ride to a polar-bear paradise). He embellishes them with a gruff, gentle voice and tough, tender technology. His latest record, “6 Volts” (A Major Label, 2011), which includes “Johnny Cash,” was preserved with reel-to-reel tape and one microphone, the way things were done in 1954, when rock ’n’ roll began flourishing on transistor radios powered by six-volt batteries.
On Jan. 26 the Mauch Chunk Opera House will be jolted by Eaglesmith’s Traveling Steam Show, which travels partly in a school bus that runs partly on cooking oil. Expect a vaudeville circus of music touching and torching, yarning about Eaglesmith’s many careers (hobo musician, café owner, farmer) and jokes (sample: “How do you get a Canadian farmer off his farm? Ask him”).
Eaglesmith, 55, turned a recent telephone interview into an around-the-dial festival. He discussed the loyalty of his ever-ready fans (diehards are nicknamed “Fredheads”), the Zen of being a patient professional musician (it involves chopping wood and carrying water) and the decline of Western civilization (hint: it began with “Afternoon Delight,” that infuriatingly catchy 1976 hit from Starland Vocal Band).
Q: I just can’t forget that image of your dad putting his hands on either side of that console radio on the clothes dryer, just so he could give a good stiff listen to “A Boy Named Sue.” Did you have that image in mind when you wrote “Johnny Cash”?
A: Oh for sure I did. My dad was a true Johnny Cash fan, not like so many fashionable folks who decided to start liking him after he was dead [line from the song: “You sure do like Johnny Cash now that they put him in the ground”]. They tell me they’re Johnny Cash fans and I ask them: “Oh yeah? Name me 10 Johnny Cash songs.” They can name four, maybe. It’s like people will brag: “Oh, I’ve got 10,000 songs on my iPod.” And I’ll say: “Oh yeah–you got any good ones?”
The industry is fooling us all into believing that more is better. It’s like they introduced a new religion and it’s shocking to me how people embrace it. They actually think we’re all good people if we exercise our ego on Facebook.
Q: Did you have any role models when you put together the Traveling Steam Show? Is it your version of Mr. Dylan & Co.’s Rolling Thunder Revue?
A: This is much more a vaudeville circus. It has nothing to do with rock and roll or anything industry-driven: nothing big, nothing above the radar. It’s all about us driving endlessly in an RV and a school bus, cooking our own meals, pulling into places where we can get cooking oil for fuel, breaking down endlessly and having real small shows—sometimes great, sometimes decrepit.
Q: You’ve said that “6 Volts” has been one of your best-received records, that it’s opened new doors for you. Did you learn anything from making it that you plan to apply to future recording projects?
A: Since I’ve gone back to tape I’ve really realized that digital music is a mathematical process, and that listening to that mathematical sound makes us tired because we’re always making calculations. Two plus two plus two is boring, so we’ll change the album, change the song, change anything to keep interested. Whereas with analog or reel-to-reel, you just feel it; it actually touches us. It’s sort of voodoo listening.
Q: Have you written songs with other people in mind to sing them? I’m thinking that Neil Young could really tear apart “Johnny Cash.”
A: I don’t really think about other guys singing my songs. My songs have been recorded by over 100 people, some of them pretty famous [i.e., Toby Keith and Miranda Lambert]. Really, I’m really, really happy when they’re played by the guy in his garage, or the guy around the campfire. I think the people with the best karma are the two women who wrote “Happy Birthday [to You].” Just think about it: For a hundred years they’ve produced thousands and thousands of smiles.
Q: I’m always fascinated by the afterlife of songs—how they become staples at weddings, funerals and other important events. Have any of your songs become part of rites of passage?
A: Well, a lot of people listen to my songs when they’re dying. Which is really, really heavy for me.
Q: Then there’s “Time to Get a Gun,” which apparently inspired listeners at a Texas gig to bring their own guns.
A: I think it’s when I told them to shut up that they went outside and brought in their guns [laughs]. I was very surprised by two things about “Time to Get a Gun”: One, how literally people took the song, and, two, how literally people didn’t take it. It’s not as much about getting a gun as about a guy looking for a way to exist. The singer is really confused; he’s just tired and looking for something better. The sympathy was taken out of that song; it turned into something less intelligent.
You know, I haven’t sung “Time to Get a Gun” in a while in light of what happened in Newtown [the December shooting deaths of students and staffers at a Connecticut elementary school].
Q: You’ve written several songs that address hardships in the music business. Do you have any colorful back stories about the creation of “Betty Oshawa” [a standout track on “6 Volts”]?
A: That’s actually about a couple sidemen who were in my band, and how bitter and cynical they were. They pretended they didn’t want to compromise even though they knew they had to. Now they’re working at menial jobs and they’re still bitter, yet they sort of knew they blew it.
Their attitude is very prevalent in the music industry. I just had this conversation with a horrible songwriter who told me what a sellout Rod Stewart was. That’s like saying Barry Manilow is a sellout, which I don’t believe. I believe that he’s doing what he wants to do, what he’s supposed to do. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
I do have a hard time with these boy bands when I hear them in the store. There’s nothing in what they sing that resonates the truth to me. It’s much like I didn’t hear the truth when I heard “Afternoon Delight.” I think that’s the preface to the foreshadowing to what we have on the radio now: no substance, no value, no intrinsic goodness, no searching.
Q: What was your toughest time in the music trade, a time that really tested your will and sanity?
A: [laughs] Every day. Every day I realize I’m just the luckiest guy to do what I do, and every day I realize what I do could be over just like that. I could have an accident and get sued for $100,000 and be out of the business. So every day is the best, and every day is the worst. Every day you have to get up, change the grease filter, slug it out.
One of my favorite pieces of advice is this: Before the awakening and enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After the awakening and enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. Probably the best piece of advice is: If you’re not in doubt yourself, don’t let anyone else inflict doubt on you.
Q: In 2008 you lost Willie P. Bennett, your mandolin-playing, mouth-harping comrade in the Flying Squirrels. What do you miss most about not being able to perform and hang with him?
A: We were like brothers; we fought tooth and nail, in a sort of tongue-in-cheek way and a not so tongue-in-cheek way. But at the end of the day, no matter how bad it was between us, Willie would just play like a motherfucker. In the ’80s we were always tired and we had no money. In the ’90s we had no money but we had some business, because people were getting onto us. We just did it because there was nothing else to do, and because we had a hunch. Willie would sometimes give me the energy when I didn’t have it. And when I was getting into trouble with the audience for being belligerent, he would be the one laughing, going “Good for you! Good for you!”
Q: How would you like to improve as a musician?
A: Well, I’ve been working at playing jazz for the last four or five years and I’m really bad at it. I love it, even though I don’t understand it. [Trumpeter] Chet Baker is my favorite musician; I’ve been listening to him for 20 years and I’ve never gotten tired of anything he’s played. If I could play the trumpet, I’d give up my whole career.
Q: How about a dream project? I know you have a jones to do a five-tent sideshow with a clown, a magician and an elephant.
A: [laughs] Yeah–a rented elephant and a rented rhinoceros.
Q: You’ve said that you would have dinner with 95 percent of your fans. Most performers would kill for that high a percentage—that is, if they actually cared about dining with their fans. Why are you and your people so harmonious?
A: You know, there’s a club in Hudson, N.Y., where they tell waiters and waitresses to get to know the musicians well before the show. They know that if the musician is a dick, chances are his fans will be dicks, too. Other clubs I play won’t have my whiny, fussy friends because their fans are so whiny and fussy. It just translates.
I just attract people who like me, and who are like me. They’re not really in the modern world as much as other people might be. They want to make the world a better place. When they hear me the first time, they’re not going to say: “Well, isn’t that beautiful?” They’re more likely to go “What is this?”—and then follow their curiosity. They’re like me: they’re searchers.
Fred Eaglesmith: The Scoop
He was born Frederick John Elgersma, one of nine children in a Canadian farm family so poor, he wore a sister’s coats.
At 15 he left the farm for the road, playing music for fellow youth hostellers, hobos and forest-fire fighters.
His 1991 record “There Ain’t No Easy Road” consisted of two cassettes and a booklet in a homemade wooden box—another kind of boxed set.
Famous folks who have recorded his songs include Toby Keith (“White Rose”) and Miranda Lambert (“Time to Get a Gun”)
He owns the Hobo Java & Legendary Guitar Café in Port Dover, Ontario, which is run by his son Tim and his daughter Jessi, who opened for him during his recent solo tour of the Netherlands.
Last year he entered the North American Railway Hall of Fame.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He became a Johnny Cash fan in 1969 when he began watching the Man in Black’s colorful television variety show. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.