Canadian Born, but Texas Proud

Fred Eaglesmith may hail from Ontario, Canada, but he's constantly compared to a class of Texas singer/songwriters that includes Steve Earle, Guy Clark and the late Townes Van Zandt. Not that that bothers Eaglesmith any. His new CD, Lipstick, Lies and Gasoline, is a masterpiece of edgy folk and rocked-up twang that would make any Lone Star troubadour proud.

"I love your state, man," Eaglesmith gushes. "The land around where I grew up is similar in a lot of ways to parts of Texas. Southern Ontario is not like the rest of Canada. It's flat and dry and windy. It's dusty and hot in the summer, and it has a pretty big sky. I think I was influenced by the poverty, the religion, the agriculture and the weather of the area."

So comparisons to some of Texas's best, then, make sense on a lot of levels, even if Eaglesmith's name may be new to many. For quite a while now, Eaglesmith has been producing music that fits in a rustic backwoods niche already populated by scores of folkies. And it seems that his game plan of relentlessly touring and recording on his own dime has begun to pay off. Eaglesmith churned out seven releases over 17 years before Lipstick, Lies and Gasoline was picked up by New York-based independent Razor & Tie. One such release was a two-cassette package that came in a wooden box Eaglesmith put together himself. Meanwhile, he and his band have spent a good chunk of the last 13 years traipsing around Canada and points south in a '58 Wayne bus that breaks down often, which means he's had to learn the finer points of bus repair.

"Actually, I have two buses now, and they're both in a state of flux," he says with a laugh. "The Wayne is being restored by my brother, and it's almost done. The '56 GMC is sitting in British Columbia. It needs a transmission. But that's life, you know."

Eaglesmith has been the opening act for a rather diverse set of acts, among them the Cowboy Junkies (who covered one of his songs a while back), George Jones, Leon Russell and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. "The George Jones crowd in Oregon was great," Eaglesmith recalls. "I just went out there and did what I normally do. It was cool because they were kinda psychedelic seniors. There was a woman there who must have been around 75; she was in the back drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. Afterwards, she comes up to me and says, 'I used to be a Deadhead, now I'm a Fred Head.' That was a very cool crowd."

Like any quality performer, Eaglesmith is all about the songs -- ornery, detailed little ditties about fast cars, wild women, liquor, broken families, guns, lost family farms, dying horses, worn-out tractors and headlights piercing the murky night. He recorded some 42 tunes for Lipstick, Lies and Gasoline over the course of a year. Out of those -- and with the production help of fellow Canadian Scott Merritt -- he's crafted a stark trip through an American wasteland teetering on the brink of the millennium.

Eaglesmith points out that some of what Merritt contributed to the new CD was not of the typical musical variety. "I credit Scott with all the odd sounds on the record -- like the hubcap sounds. He'd go, 'Oh, that's a good hubcap sound.' I couldn't tell you a good or bad hubcap sound," Eaglesmith says. "Or the backwards banjo part -- he was responsible for that. My favorite records are produced in odd ways, so that's why we did it this way. Frankly, it's getting pretty boring out there right now. It's getting harder to listen to music again, because nobody's willing to step over the line. My job is to keep you interested. Not just with the song, but the production values and everything."

But obviously, laboring in the studio and performing in front of a crowd are two very different things. And until Lipstick, Lies and Gasoline, Eaglesmith maintains, his recorded work has never accurately captured what he does live.

At the moment, Eaglesmith is traveling through Texas with Robert Earl Keen, another singer/songwriter to whom he's been compared. "I love playing with Robert," he says. "He treats me like gold, the best I've ever been treated as an opening act."

"When I play on stage, that's a whole different level of interest that I have to pique," Eaglesmith adds. "I tell people that they have to think of [recorded and live performances] as two totally different things. What happened in America is that people saw my live show first, then bought the records and went, 'This ain't like the show.' But this record captures more of what I do in a live show. It's more edgy.

"When I'm on-stage, I'm yelling and screaming and I'm this frenetic guy. There's electricity in the air."

Fred Eaglesmith opens for Robert Earl Keen Saturday, December 27, at Aerial Theater at Bayou Place, 520 Texas Avenue. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $23.50 and $43.50. For info, call 629-3700.

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Jim Caligiuri