“Americana” is such a slippery music label. Half the time, it really just means “country music for people who don’t want to admit they like country music.” And I’ll admit it: I fall into that trap myself sometimes.
But Americana seems the only way to classify Fred Eaglesmith’s stripped-down, bluegrass-tinged music. His songs have such an authentic prairie howl, I was surprised at first to learn that Eaglesmith is Canadian. But then, so are Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot and k.d. lang. Canada is, after all, part of North America, and we in the lower 48 have no monopoly on lonesome highways, calloused hands, and broken hearts.
Here’s the grass-roots deal you get with Fred J. Eaglesmith: you don’t learn about him from Top 40 airplay (even on the country stations) or profiles in People magazine or appearances on Saturday Night Live—you just hear him mentioned by friends whose musical taste you respect, and sooner or later you get curious enough to listen for yourself. I suppose it’s fitting, then, that I’m hopping on this bandwagon late, with his 2006 release Milly’s Café.
Eaglesmith aficionados, you tell me—has he had that faded-denim vocal quality and that less-is-more songwriting style from the get-go? It sure sounds like something that came gradually, hard-won over 25 years of dogged touring and writing and building a loyal fan base. Like Steve Earle, another immense songwriting talent who worked under the radar for years, Eaglesmith may be due (and overdue) for his moment in the spotlight—just promise me it won’t spoil him, okay?
Whereas mainstream country songs tend to go for straightforward storytelling, Eaglesmith’s approach is a lot more elliptical, and somehow more haunting. The album kicks off with a trucker song, “18 Wheels,” which seems like standard operating procedure for a country album—but what we get here is no three-verses-and-a-chorus truck-stop anecdote, just a litany of dark hints at all the sorrows leading this mournful trucker to a breakdown. From the road perils of spider-web headlights, lightning flashes, and blinding snow, to the grain alcohol and the misery of standing in a phone booth to make a futile call home, he slips us just enough details to write the story for ourselves.
Eaglesmith's more an observer than a self-mythologizer; he feels his characters' pain, all right, but I don't get the feeling that he's using his music to work out his own angst in public. Throughout the album, he sketches a whole gallery of forgotten Americans: the midway worker in the rueful waltz “Summer Is Over”; the aging cowboys in “Rocky” and “Tired”; the couple who run the backroads gas station in “Sign on the Wall.” Even when he gets to the gang of itinerant musicians in “Mrs. Hank Williams,” there’s no glamour to their life on the road: “Forty miles out of Nashville / I had to stop the car / We’d been driving all night long / And I didn’t know where we were / And whatever I took to stay awake / Had just given me the chills…”
Which is not to say that there’s no romance here—it’s just a Kerouacian kind of romance with grimy cafés and broke-down motels. The elements are familiar, a shorthand for a particular brand of American loneliness. Granted, the imagery runs perilously close to cliche at times; for me, the saving grace is the deliberately understated, almost homespun arrangements. Load up the track with just enough pedal steel and dobros and mandolins, and it can rise to its own poetic grandeur.
Looking through the lyrics, I see why the Canada thing confused me: these songs are larded with place names like Reno, Sioux City, Amarillo, Cincinnati, and Topeka, with only one despairing mention of Nova Scotia. In fact there’s an entire song named “Kansas,” my instant favorite track, a highway driving ballad with a wistful hung-up repetition in the chorus—“It’s always Kansas / It’s always Kansas / It’s always Kansas / That makes me think of you.” He never goes into specifics, but he doesn’t have to—the sagging tempo and the quaver in his vocals tell us more than words could say. Kansas is just a metaphor, somehow, for whatever your own personal last straw might be.
And Eaglesmith can tell a story when he pleases—there’s the title track, “Milly’s Café,” a Bonnie-and-Clyde adventure set to a Mexicali beat, with a twist ending that takes an unexpected political turn. “The Rains” winds up the album with a loping tale about a drought-stricken town where all hell eventually busts loose, a story that’s equal parts comedy and tragedy—just like life.
The trouble with that Americana label is, you can slap it on anybody from rootsy rock-and-rollers like Dave Alvin or John Hiatt or Joe Ely, to alt darlings like Wilco and Son Volt, to the folksy humor of Guy Clark and Robert Earl Keen, to the supremely unclassifiable Lyle Lovett.
Fred Eaglesmith sounds like all of the above, and yet like none of them. He’s like a pair of cowboy boots that’s been broken in just-so, every crease and scuff with a history behind it. Americana or not, it sure feels like home to me.Powered by Sidelines