Fred Eaglesmith may be the biggest cult figure in alt-country, but the ironic thing is that at best, he's ambivalent about it, and at worst, he doesn't give a damn at all.
Eaglesmith's rabid fans, the Fred Heads, are a motley and highly outspoken global crew who travel far and wide to Eaglesmith gigs la the Dead Heads. But Eaglesmith's latest album, Dusty, has brought a bit of dissension to the ranks. Eaglesmith expected that, and he can live with it.
"We're always gaining fans and losing fans," he says from his tour bus as it rolls through the West Virginia mountains. "We lose some every time we put out a record, but I can't concentrate on that stuff. We're doing more shows each year and the audience is growing."
Producer Scott Merritt stands at the center of much of the Dusty controversy. Eaglesmith gave the producer/multi-instrumentalist such a free hand that Merritt is conspicuously acknowledged on the album cover.
"Scott is one of the few Canadian producers I trust completely," Eaglesmith says. Dusty is the fifth Eaglesmith album Merritt has produced, but this time the process was different.
This time, there would be no guitars.
No guitars on an alt-country record? What gives?
"I had been working a bit with a string quartet," Merritt writes via e-mail, "and was newly inspired by all that that brings with it. After listening to the old discs that Fred called his current inspiration, I felt kind of liberated from the recently worn-out routine of alt-country recording. Actually we were both a little queasy about that world. Neither of us really wanted to make another one of those records to throw onto that heap. Some things -- like some people -- can be better defined by what they don't want or do."
Like stick with the tired old guitars. "Fred had a bunch of new songs, subtly different from the bulk of his past catalog," Merritt continues. "He'd been listening for a while to new 'old things,' a lot of it pretty elaborately orchestrated stuff. Chet Baker, Dusty Springfield, Mickey Newbury, some opera even. It may have challenged his previous ideas and habits about chord structure and songwriting. He'd been writing songs with this flea-market Wurlitzer Funmaker chord organ. It has a real primitive beatbox in it. Beautiful, real low rent-sounding, pushbutton chords. I suggested we just demo the songs that way. We demoed about 25 songs over two days, then he just left me alone to listen through. The more I listened, the more I loved most of the vocal performances and really didn't want to muck with 'em. I liked the range and unaffected delivery."
Eventually Merritt scrapped the organ but kept the vocals. These naked vocals unleashed the composer in Merritt. While Eaglesmith was off on tour, Merritt deconstructed and reconstructed the songs. He would see how far he could take things on his own, always without guitars.
"I'd just write new parts around his vocal only, and it opened up all kinds of possibilities," Merritt elaborates. "New chord structures, almost infinite instrumental options. Felt real creative. The whole thing started to make the most sense to me after I finished the string part for 'Dusty.' Suddenly I saw someone [the narrator] not nearly so self-assured as others might have hoped for, maybe even a kind of humbled person and real tired. He was walking through the awful smoke of...9/11, maybe just in his own head. That guy seemed most like the real deal this time around. I was pretty sure the Fred Heads and the alt-country institutions would want to stone us for it, told Fred as much. But I think he saw the same guy I did in the smoke. He encouraged me to buy a helmet."
Eaglesmith chuckles at the depth of Merritt's analysis and his fears of alienating portions of Eaglesmith's fan base.
"I wanted to do something different this time and I found myself drawn by some specific old records. Dusty Springfield's Dusty In Memphis was probably central, but I was also listening to old pre-Rhinestone Glen Campbell, to guys like Jimmy Webb, Mickey Newbury, especially his over-produced stuff with the strings. All this pre-Beatles Invasion stuff."
Eaglesmith realized how great that 1961-era pop music was and began to think in terms of where we might be today if the Beatles hadn't come along. "Like that incredible stuff Roy Orbison was doing. It wasn't rock, it wasn't country, it wasn't really like anything. But it was great pop music. I'm so tired of songs that start with four drum beats and a twanging guitar. Alt-country has become a bit of a ghetto, there are so many records out there now. It's like it has become some kind of religion, and the labels and radio people are trying to make people act the way they want them to behave."
Not that Eaglesmith's appeal is without religious qualities. Beaumont restaurateur/Fred Head Donnie Courville recalls seeing one of Eaglesmith's earliest Houston gigs at Rudyard's in the mid-1980s. "There were 15-20 people. But we must've all gone out and told somebody, because the next time he came there were about a hundred."
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"Texas has been great for me and we've grown a huge group of fans down there," Eaglesmith says. So much so that he now has an annual festival in New Braunfels (Fred In Texas, March 10-13). He also describes himself as a fan of numerous Texas acts and regularly includes the likes of Robert Earl Keen Jr., James McMurtry and Hayes Carll at his annual festivals in Canada and Vermont.
Like Woody Guthrie, Eaglesmith's greatest strength is his blue-collar worldview. "We still do better in the small towns than we do in the cities. I may only fill half a theater in Toronto, but people come from miles around to our shows up in Central Canada. Those are the folks I write my songs for. The guy on the tractor, the truck driver, the guy at the feed store. "
Eaglesmith, a prime mover behind the Canadian Farm Aid program, is a Dutch-heritage farm boy with the singular ability to enunciate the unnoticed but nonetheless brutal tragedies and setbacks that grind down the rural and small-town little man. Dusty opens with a dirge-like delivery of the chilling lines that paint a portrait of decay and resignation: "You're just dusty, there's flies on you / Your guns are rusty and your soul is too / The Texas is wearin' off your leather boots / You're just dusty, there's flies on you." Such telling observations and painstakingly drawn vignettes are at the heart of what makes Dusty an exceptional record even if it features more organ, glockenspiel, drum loops, cello and string arrangements than twanging guitars.
Fred Eaglesmith appears Wednesday, March 9, at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk, 713-528-5999.