Covered In Folk: Fred Eaglesmith (12 roots and countryfolk artists interpret a Canadian storyteller)
Canadian alternative country singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith‘s down-to-earth approach to the universe comes from a rural farmstead childhood and a train-hopping past. And so, where other folk artists walk with their fans, Eaglesmith takes trains: both literally – Eaglesmith is known for his rail tours – and as a dominant subject, setting, and metaphor for a narrative approach more broadly grounded in engines, their various rural incarnations, and the escape they embody.
Eaglesmith’s delivery is raw as the bawdy stories he tells between songs in live performance: couched in a voice that speaks to the salt and gravel of the road, played hard and fast on fading guitars. His unreliable narrators aren’t sly; they’re just not deep thinkers, and so miss the nuances of their own stories even as those of us on the outside cannot help but empathize with their pain and ignorance.
It’s a poetic, Hemmingway-esque depth: easy to mistake as simple, more intelligent than it seems. And so, nineteen albums into a career which, like Springsteen’s or Steve Earle’s, ranges from solo acoustic performance to blasting roots rock, Eaglesmith is still not a household name, though his work is known broadly across both Canada and the US. Indeed, in many ways, Eaglesmith is a musician’s musician: not always well known to criticism, and not recognized beyond the borders of a dedicated fan-base, whose members call themselves Fredheads.
Both the pull of his songbook and the believability of his outsider stance have made Eaglesmith particularly attractive to a number of folk artists and roots rockers; of these, a surprisingly strong number, most particularly those who align themselves thematically and musically with bare-bones country music, have found their own voice inside the loneliness he paints. Our down-to-earth set of favorite coverage includes Mary Gauthier, who finds familiar demons of addiction and desperation in his street-level subjects; Kasey Chambers, whose covers of Water In The Fuel and signature song Freight Train span from gently pensive balladry to chug-a-lug barroom country; Heather Waters, whose Freight Train is equally frantic, just a little grassier, and a half-step up.
The Cowboy Junkies turn Carmelita slow and sultry alt-country, making the song inimitably their own. Todd Snider makes haunting hymn Alcohol and Pills a hard-beat country rocker for the fallen; Canadian roots rockers Blackie & The Rodeo Kings slide a rich contemporary bluesfolk tension underneath 49 Tons. Tamara Williamson strips down her usual indie alt-pop, transforming Spookin’ The Horses into a sparse, tender ballad with piano and classical guitar. Dar Williams brings an unavoidable sweetness to her version of Wilder Than Her, with Eaglesmith himself singing harmony, while Slaid Cleaves pulls post-Industrial Age poignancy from the loss of an old filling station in White Rose. We’ve even kept true-blue country artist Miranda Lambert in the mix, complete with country twang and harmonies. Together, they make an apt tribute to a grinning lifetime of gas and steel, illuminating the dark grim corners of life on the edge with laughter, grit, and precision.
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