Corb Lund Sweetheart of the Rodeo

Corb Lund Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Without flinching, Corb Lund grabs the remains of a gopher — more of a candy wrapper, really — and holds it up to the baby ravens in the rafters, the emotionless culprits in this small murder. It's slightly unfathomable, but we're handpicked guests at Ian Tyson's ranch in Southern Alberta, where the foothills start kicking up trouble on the prairie. It's a landscape currently washed grey by unceasing weather, a final echo of the Wild West. It's also the wellspring of many a rodeo boy and country singer, both of which Lund was and is. Not to mention a rabid head-banger, but we'll get to that.

Tyson's horses are hungry and the two singers, being natural ranchmen by birth and subsequent design, walk hay bales over to one of the chiselled creatures. The men's slickers are dripping with this incessant and almost "biblical rain," to steal from Lund's educated cowboy lyrics. Here, I feel like a computer nerd covered in pork chop grease in their manly, stoic presence.

Up close and in conversation, the two are very similar — frank and friendly guys with long histories. Both outsiders by choice, neither has the inclination nor the time for bullshit. Which is not to say that Corb won't "waste time" discussing political parallels between the American president and Emperor Palpatine at great length. But when he does it's with an eager seriousness that brushes away the usual sighs from the girls. Somehow, because of his height and credentials that allow him to essentially be a giant boy for life, he can get away with pretty much anything, from kicking over hotel chairs when he's drunk to falling asleep on my arm on a long drive into the comfortable hills.

I've joked with Lund about his musical obsession with the nouns of his immediate, rural biosphere. This is not to take anything away from his atypical and literate lyrical skills, but in these surroundings it seems easy to write country songs, particularly on the sprawling claim of Tyson, this country's most famous living cowboy. Around every corner is a weird insect, a tombstone, a soaked cat with tattered ears or a mounted steer skull whose horn-span you would never tease. Life and death. Cowboy poetry. It's a natural setting that Lund has drawn from many times in four albums, from its vistas to its oil rigs to its drunken fools. You don't ever get the sense that he's trying to succeed so that he can move to Nashville, which is part of his immediate charm. He is Alberta for life. He'll spend his earnings here.

Without prompting, Lund disassociates himself from the cheeseball hot country that flourished across the continent in the last decade and is since painfully starving to death. "Fuck that noise," he's said more than once. "It's the worst." Truthfully, he's anxious to fill the vacuum, rather than just spit at its occupants. And though he's much more fun, slick and polished than your average bootgazing alt-country act, Lund also steadfastly refuses to pander to the Tennessee industry formula that states you must falsely adopt its local accent, thank God in your liner notes and generally suck steaming bull eggs to sell records.

And sell he has. There has been much subjective debate around here about who the best independent band in Edmonton is. The hard-rocking Whitey Houston? Sweet and sassy Columbus? The intricate songwriting of Twin Fangs? Thunderous Choke? The theatrical panache of the Wet Secrets? But while these bands thrive on artistic reactions against their surroundings, Lund wholly embraces them. Adding to his Prairie city audience, who lap up an ironic taste of hillbilly "git-go," this has allowed the tall, dark songwriter massive crossover into rural communities that is spreading east. With almost 30,000 copies of 2002's Five Dollar Bill sold, he outclasses any other indie band at home, at least in sports terms. He's eager to match that again, you can understand.

There's a lot of animal stuff on the new record," 36-year-old Lund says, getting back to the country nouns thing. Back in Edmonton, we're finishing off a case of Pils; he sits with his legs open, tapping his foot to the Russian Gypsy music in the background. The slouching giant is finally at ease talking about his fourth album, Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer, due September 6 on Stony Plain Records after three years of dragged-out brewing up here and in Nashville. It's an album that makes you smile a lot, almost a resurgence of "take this job and shove it"-era country, but mines its depth, too. We'll get to that later, as well. "I didn't realise it till I went through the lyrics, but there are cattle and horses and bison and antelope and white-tails and bullfrogs and sheep, dogs and, uh, party animals."

Speaking of which, Lund has just returned from a somewhat localised tour (compared to some of his epic forays into Europe or Oz), driving with his band, his hardworking girlfriend and his D&D (drunken and dangerous) buddy from Edmonton to Regina. "I'm kind of in post-drinking depression," he admits. "Not based on anything in reality — just when you've been drinking for three or four days and you feel depressed. Super-packed life experience, all involving lots of drinking," he says with another swig of the unofficial beer of Alberta.

"It was a good cross-section, the trip. Part of it was because my friend John came with me. And he's never dealt with us on the road before and so I'm sort of looking at it in terms of his experience. The first day we were at a huge cowboy festival, Big Valley Jamboree — it was crazy and everybody got drunk and played cards and hung out with bullriders and John had a huge wrestling match. The next day we played in this little town in Saskatchewan called Meadow Lake — it was a town cabaret thing. And it was a little rough. Good enough show, but in a small-town cabaret there are often fisticuffs and that kind of thing. The next night we had off, and went to the Regina Folk Festival and the Good brothers [Sadies' Dallas and Travis] got us super crazy drunk, and then the night before last was another night in small-town Saskatchewan, Bengough, and it was like the Beatles had come to town or something. Then yesterday was ten hours in a van and this morning I woke up unable to speak.

"And here we are drinking," he smiles, as if just remembering he's the guy who wrote many of his songs to summon a party demon atmosphere, loudly hissing for whiskey instead of beer.

Corb Lund talks like a seasoned touring pro. There's a reason: the smalls, one of the greatest metal-punk bands this country ever knew. After some success as a bullrider in the rodeo circuits around his hometown of Taber, Lund moved north to Edmonton and enjoyed an entire other career writing and playing bass with the smalls, clashing with cops and grinning in photo sessions when he was supposed to be scowling.

The smalls were massively important to Western Canada, and toured the entire country, the States and Europe till it burned the damn band to the ground. Driving and heavy, bleak and technically fascinating, the hirsute smalls left an imprint here as big as their punker sister band, SNFU — another Edmonton export. You can still hear the smalls' tempo shifts in Lund's music, just as, thanks to some well-placed banjos and songs like "My Saddle Horse Has Died," the meaty metal minstrels earned a reputation of being slightly country. As Lund puts it, "I wrote maybe a quarter of the songs and that was kind of my trip, to blend Western shit with metal."

But in the midst of all this, Lund was casually laying the foundations for his current career as an independent country singer. He released Modern Pain as a "why not?" cassette in 1995, during the second half of his smalls life. When the band finally retired — in a mammoth arcade in West Edmonton Mall in 2001 — Lund was already saddled up and ready to ride all night into a new sunrise.

Still: "I have a real big loyalty to independent music scenes everywhere," he stresses. "But I also know that sometimes within that world is an elitism. I know that there are people who, once a band gets to a certain point, no matter what they've done to get there, will start turning their noses up at them. I can't control it, but I don't really agree with that."

He seems to be talking about both the smalls and his own band, which at first included since-replaced Nickelback drummer Ryan Vikedal. He just dropped the word "Band" from his own backdrop banner in an effort to not summon the spirit of Dave Matthews, or have people ask what a "core blund" is. Lund's Hurtin Albertans line-up now boasts the serial glare of stand-up bass player Kurt Ciesla, the new blood of versatile Winnipeg imbiber Grant Siemens and the road-tested blonde good looks of drummer Brady Valgardson. Brady also hails from Taber, land of famous corn. At the CanCon-fulfilling, $30,000-CMT-funded video shoot near there for "The Truck Got Stuck," the caterers made the mistake of importing their golden ears from "elsewhere." This was noted by the local extras as the farm dogs got something new to chew on.

"Part of my wide view towards this is I've actually lived in both scenes — rural Canada and downtown Vancouver. I don't have any prejudice either way. I've never been an exclusivity snob or an indie music snob or anything like that. I think that it's important to reach people. And the irony of it is that for as many years as I've spent in the underground music scene, my roots are actually from a small town. My family and my friends from back home are the furthest thing from boutique record labels that I can imagine. If all of a sudden everyone who likes to watch CMT decided to like this stuff, well, why not? I think to discourage that is being prejudiced."

This begets a nod to the barren, spent and humourless state of corporate country music in general. Especially concerning more than one promoter or label executive guessing that this fringe boy Corb Lund is the future of it. If you have a large record collection including albums by Will Oldham and Neko Case (for whom Lund recently opened in Toronto), you don't immediately trust these people who a few years earlier were pushing toxic acts like Regina Regina or Garth Brooks' meltdown alter ego, Chris Gaines. But being tall and handsome and funny with legit rodeo experience can only be damaged so much by the fact that Corb's also well-read and college educated and helped whip an independent music scene into shape. Throw in the fact Dead Reckoner Harry Stinson produced the new album, and Bob Dylan's old pal Ramblin' Jack Elliot guests, just for laughs. Lund has dual citizenship in both ends of the spectrum.

As a sign of faith, last September's Canadian Country Music Association gave the band two awards: best independent and best roots artist. (One wonders exactly what separates a "roots" artist from its country brethren.) Lund's up for more nods from the straights this year: best group, best independent, best roots artist and best video, specifically for the anthemic rig pig tune, "Roughest Neck Around." For it, he mined his brother's life on lyrical details, just as he goes to his pious, rancher parents when dealing with "horsey themes." It's all paid off on the new album. The buzz is strong, and this time, these pushers might be right about something.
The new record may come as something as a shock to stoner fans of the smalls, and even those who pledge allegiance to his first two albums. Decidedly upbeat, there are songs that seem specifically designed for every market: college radio, roots stations and mainstream country video networks, like the true story "The Truck Got Stuck." It is the first single off the new record and it's a good-natured yarn about being swallowed up by nature, the same kind of weather drenching us on Tyson's ranch.

"That fucking truck song — for the last year we've been playing it and people have been asking about it," Lund blurts out. He's not mad about it exactly, but it's here that you get a sense of where he wouldn't mind a little more careful attention from fans. "I like the two heavy, serious songs the best — they're probably not the obvious, fun ones that people will get right away. But those are the two most meaningful ones."

Lund is quite right. Along with the Tyson duet about aging cowboys, "The Truth Comes Out" is the best song on the album, a shivery lament in the Americana tradition, low-key and mournful with a metaphorical message about the savage beasts coming into the yard that could easily be read as political. "Connie says she's never seen the cougars so bold," the song goes slowly. "They're coming in the yard and they're stealing young colts. They drag them in the brush with the claws sunk in their nose." Later: "Half heard voices from the ghosts, from the graves. The grandfathers tell us at the mouths of the caves — only old chiefs older than Jesus can save us now, if we're lucky."

Lund smiled a lot and looked over when he first played that song for me in the middle of that weeklong storm; I smiled back. It's one that will play well on several front lines. "I can tailor my set enough that we can play a set with Ian Tyson in Elko [Nevada, at the cowboy poet festival] for the traditionalists, and we sold a whack of records there. And then we can play to a bunch of rock'n'roll kids at [Edmonton's] Victory. And then play at Big Valley. I'm quite excited about how far I can take that. It's actually the thing I'm most proud of.

"I've got four albums of material to draw from," the singer continues. "I'm all about the live show, eh? SNFU is my biggest non-country-influence ever, just the outlook and approach and business model. I've had it lodged in my brain forever that live is the deal. A lot of artists tour to support their records, but I make records so that I can make the tour better. A band that can come into your town looking all scruffy, have a couple beers and rock your ass off, that's the real thing."

Back at Tyson's ranch, the reclusive 71-year-old drives us around the property, revealing secrets and pointing out the shack he wrote "Navajo Rug" in with the same zeal Lund talks about Han Solo or his friendships with Ramblin' Jack or Stinson. The real men have gathered around Lund with a purpose, for through him, I think, they sense a chance to leave an extra mark on the world. "As you know," Tyson says, "he's really on the verge and he's gotta stick to his guns. He will. His roots are real deep. He's going to have a lot of people wanting him to do generic things."

Despite his assurances that the live show is ground zero, this is what's really behind Lund taking so long to follow up Five Dollar Bill. Same reason he wrote a song called "Expectation and the Blues." As he puts it simply, "Our album's finally fucking finished — a lot of pressure on me. People liked the last so you gotta make sure the next one's good.

"Heavy, eh?"