Fred Eaglesmith Carves His Own Path

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The world would be a much different place if singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith were running it. A musician whose work ethic is deeply rooted on the road – he played more than 200 dates in 2012 alone – Eaglesmith is almost as equally prolific in the studio.

With 19 albums to his credit dating back to his 1980 debut through to 2012’s 6 Volts, Eaglesmith has by and large made a successful career by doing whatever the hell he wants to do. As he blurs the lines between folk, country, rock, bluegrass and more, Eaglesmith’s outright refusal to abide by industry rules or expectations might have harmed his prospects of widespread notoriety. It hasn’t been able to stem the tide of critical acclaim nor has it stopped the likes of Toby Keith and Alan Jackson from covering his songs. That is perhaps the sweetest victory of all for the 56-year-old Eaglesmith.

“I was 12 or 13 years old when I started playing guitar,” Eaglesmith says. “I saw John Prine on television when I was 14 years old and got it right away. I moved to making roots music, singing songs about my life.”

Eaglesmith continued writing songs in the realm of folk music before moving into what is known today as ‘alt-country.’ He says that as alt-country began picking up steam, becoming more popular, Eaglesmith decided that time was as good as any to get off that wagon and move towards more of a pure rock ‘n’ roll sound.

He will perform at a sold-out show at Parkindale Hall on Sunday.

Eaglesmith just doesn’t play music, however; the musician lives and breathes it. In addition to touring throughout Canada and the United States, Fred also owns an independent record store in southern Ontario. The music business has, quite frankly, seen better days. Eaglesmith notes that record sales are in a virtual state of free fall and things don’t appear to be getting any better in the near future.

“My American publicist told me that three weeks ago, record sales were the lowest they have ever been since Billboard started reporting physical sales. In the past, all we had to go on when it came to buying a record was literally judging it by its cover. If you got lucky, seven out of the 10 songs would be good. You’d listen to the record 10 or 20 times because you couldn’t afford to rush out and buy another one.”

Eaglesmith says that while many largely see music as a disposable commodity, he is encouraged at the diverse tastes in music that his children and others have seemingly picked up on.

“Kids today aren’t trying to do the hip thing that we did in the ’70s where we would only listen to certain kinds of music. When I played Billie Holiday for my 16-year old daughter for the first time, she lost her mind,” Eaglesmith says. “My kids listen to rap, punk, R&B – almost anything and everything under the sun. I love that about kids these days; they are not locked in a box when it comes to their musical tastes.”

Whether or not you are a fan of Eaglesmith’s music, one can’t help but respect his strong convictions, for knowing what works in the world and what could use some fine-tuning. Interestingly, he says, things are coming full circle in some ways and not just in the music business.

‘The way that I see social media is like all things digital. It is not necessarily any better it is just easier. As a band, we travel with and set up our own PA system every night, at every show. We have a grand total of five components that we use for the PA but even on the worst night, these old school amps sound better than the best digital equipment that so many places use these days. The sound of analog is just so much warmer than what digital equipment has to offer.

“Look back to your family history,” he continues. “It is probably safe to say that everyone made bread at home. But then the marketing companies lured people out of their homes for sliced bread in grocery stores, which everyone went for despite not really being that good. And now in 2013, everyone is encouraging everyone to buy everything locally, which has seen people return to bakeries to buy their bread. It doesn’t mean we are smart now, it just means we were stupid before,” Eaglesmith laughs.

“No matter where we play, my group and I make signs for our shows, hanging them on the side of the road or placing a sign beside the drive-thru at Tim Hortons. We have done our research and bar none, the advertising we do is far more effective than anything that anyone else can come up with. Traditional ways of marketing will always win out over anything that social media has to offer.”

Article published in the October 4, 2013 edition of The Times & Transcript