File under bluegrass-surf-rock: Eaglesmith returns with new CD, local concert

By Eric Coker
   For Canadian singer/songwriter Fred Eaglesmith, a simple trip to the gas station can be the impetus for a tune.
   “A gas jockey put the wrong kind of gas in my car the other day,” he said. “And it was really smokin’ a lot … people were giving me the finger. I thought, `What if this was my life?’ So I wrote a song about driving a smoky car all the time.”
   Eaglesmith will bring his songs of everyday life to Oxford on Saturday, when he and his band, The Flying Squirrels, perform at 8 p.m. at The Night Eagle Cafe.
   On Tuesday, Eaglesmith will release his ninth album, “50-Odd Dollars” — his second for the nationally distributed Razor & Tie Records. It continues Eaglesmith’s evolution from a rural-roots sound to genre-crossing music that throws rock, country, folk and blues into a pot and boils over with dulcimers, fiddles, electronic harmonicas, Hammond organs and guitar feedback.
   The musically adventurous “50-Odd Dollars” ranges from the rockabilly of “Gettin’ to Me” and the old-fashioned, Hank Williams-like country of “Crazier” to the humorous country-rock of “Mighty Big Car” and the solemn folk of “Carter.”
   Eaglesmith said he had “no idea” he would make a diverse album when he entered the recording studio with his longtime producer, Scott Merritt.
   “I’d like to say I thought about it, but I didn’t,” Eaglesmith said from his Ontario home. “We’re still learning and growing together.”
   Eaglesmith brought 20 to 30 songs into the studio; a dozen were selected and put on tape. The result is what Eaglesmith calls “Bill Monroe meets The Ventures — a bluegrass-surf record.
   “‘Lipstick, Lies and Gasoline’ (1997) had more of a country attitude,” said Eaglesmith, who jokingly admitted to being considered “alternative country” last year. “This is a rock ‘n’ roll record. Rock is such an experimental genre. It’s always taking people up.”
   Still, a bluegrass-surf record with a rock attitude isn’t the easiest thing to market for an artist who can be found in rock, folk and country bins at record stores. It doesn’t translate into platinum records or hit songs.
   “That’s not what I’m about,” Eaglesmith said. “There’s an old industry saying: When a record isn’t successful, it’s the record’s fault — but when it succeeds, it’s the company.”
   Fortunately, the adage doesn’t apply to Eaglesmith and Razor & Tie.
   “It’s hard to grab ahold of what I do. They allow me to be the artist I am,” he said of the label that is also home to Dar Williams and Marshall Crenshaw. “The company doesn’t say, `Add a Celtic thing like Rod Stewart is doing.”‘
   Instead, Razor & Tie is saying rock ‘n’ roll is in Eaglesmith’s future.
   “We’re trying to get Fred in the rock section (of stores),” said Mark Lipsitz, national marketing director at Razor & Tie. “More people are likely to find him there.”
   The label will try to pair Eaglesmith with touring partners who will take him into rock venues, Lipsitz said, but the new record will be sent to Americana and AAA radio before rock stations and rock specialty shows get a listen.
   “Radio is such a hard animal for the indie world,” Lipsitz said. “The last record was No. 1 at Americana and the new record is already climbing AAA and Americana. We start there because that’s where he’s been played. That’s where his fans are.”
   Lipsitz said he’s optimistic about expanding Eaglesmith’s audience.
   “He’s done well enough that he has a good fan base, active Internet support and the music stores like him,” he said. “I have more and more interest in the record as the release date approaches.”
   Raised in southern Ontario by a large farming family, Eaglesmith was pointed in the folk/country-rock direction as a teen by the music of John Prine.
   “I couldn’t find a place I wanted to go,” said Eaglesmith, who also lists Mickey Newbury as a key influence. “I heard (Prine’s) first and second albums and thought `This is the direction I want to go.”‘
   In 1980, Eaglesmith released his self-titled debut album. Three more albums followed in the next 11 years on his own small labels. He even released a “box set” by putting two cassettes and a booklet in homemade wooden boxes.
   But Eaglesmith said he was just “a curiosity” in Canada until he made a “last gasp” trip across the border to Nashville in 1993. Songs in hand, it was the turning point of his career, he said.
   “I had never been out of Canada and they said, `Where have you been?’ I had six deals on the table. From then it never quit.”
   After getting the publishing deal, Eaglesmith released two acclaimed albums, “Things Is Changin”‘ (1993) and the live “From the Paradise Motel” (1994). His next album, “Drive-in Movie” (1995), won a Juno (the Canadian Grammy) for Best Roots Traditional Solo Album. America caught on with “Lipstick, Lies and Gasoline,” thanks in part to constant touring by Eaglesmith and The Flying Squirrels.
   Eaglesmith plays more than 200 nights a year, opening for acts such as Cowboy Junkies, Willie Nelson and Cry Cry Cry. With self-deprecating humor and a high-energy show featuring longtime cohorts Willie P. Bennett and Ralph Schipper and percussionist Washboard Hank, Eaglesmith and the Flying Squirrels have a special bond.
   “I don’t tour without them,” he said. “We have this `million times method.’ We’ve played so many nights in a row. It’s like going out with a girl 200 times. Something’s gonna happen.”
   Eaglesmith said he won’t restrict his Night Eagle show to songs from the new CD; he’ll play old songs, recent songs, even new songs that aren’t on a record yet.
   “I’m into making sure that people spend their coal-mining dollars on an entertaining show. I’m supposed to be promoting the new CD — wink, wink, nudge, nudge. I
entertain people.”

This story was published June 11, 1999

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