Published Oct 15, 2019Sometimes it takes 47 years to travel 1,100 km and that feels about right. Just ask Fred Eaglesmith, a Canadian singer and songwriter from rural Ontario who's going to play the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville for the first time on October 19.
"When I was 15, I played a wedding for a neighbour who was an old aspiring musician. He told me that I needed to go to Nashville to play the Grand Ole Opry, and [almost] 50 years later, I am," Eaglesmith tells Exclaim! That neighbour was the first of several guides who have given him direction that changed the course of his life and career.
In the 1990s, Eaglesmith made his first trip to Nashville. "I was six months behind on the mortgage and went to Nashville. A month later, I came home with the cash to pay that mortgage, plus, plus. I got signed immediately. I had a publishing contract for many years to write songs.
"I struggled in Canada for so long because I played Americana music (as it's called now)," he continues. "I was too early to be well known in that world, but I was part of the ground-breaking. We were the underground in that music."
Listening to Wilf Carter and the Cowboy Singers first inspired Eaglesmith. Then, his interest in music "catapulted" with Elvis, but it was John Prine who influenced his songwriting. "He was a sardonic writer and it wasn't pretty, but it was beautiful. A lot that was going on then wasn't pretty. He was writing about the edge that I'd been living on. The only thing I had to do was plug the holes and write the truth, like he did."
Eaglesmith has written, performed and recorded his truth on 21 albums. His 1996 release, Drive In Movie, won him the Juno for Best Roots & Traditional Album. "One night I was in Memphis and my manager called and said, 'We just won a Juno award.' And the guy that was with me said, 'What are we gonna do now?' I said, 'The second set.'"
Ask Eaglesmith, and he wouldn't say all roads lead to the Grand Ole Opry, but after a successful career touring, performing and writing songs he and other artists have recorded, it feels like a graduation.
"For me, when you go play the Grand Ole Opry, it's affirmation. It's a bit like a diploma, like you've put in the apprenticeship hours and these are your journeyman's papers," he says. "We've been out there for 40 years. Eventually, that's just who you are. I've worked and that's how I got here."
In fact, he says he can appreciate the opportunity more now than he would have in his younger years. He was imbibing in the rock'n'roll lifestyle when another neighbour sent him on a life-changing journey. "He was a practising Buddhist and he invited me to come over and learn from him. That was the start of me becoming a better person."
Eaglesmith uses an amusing analogy to describe his interpretation of the Zen philosophy. "Zen, the 'cold religion,' doesn't lead to happiness, but it leads to contentment. It's like when the lawnmower doesn't start. You can get the rifle and shoot the lawnmower, or you can fix the lawnmower. When we're drinking and partying we're sort of shooting the lawnmower. When we fix it, we can listen to the engine and hear it running beautifully."
His gratitude for being able to do what he loves on his terms has added to his sense of contentment. "I think I'm incredibly fortunate, because I wasn't interested in fame, but how do you build a career without getting famous? I wanted to become known enough to make a living, but I dodged getting too famous. If I never got the Grand Old Opry, I'm still happy. I feel lucky every time. I think every day's special."
While fame may not have been a driver in Eaglesmith's career, he appreciates that his songs resonate with people. Many of his fans have made the trip with him — some for decades, singing along with him in the audience. "I have songs that are really well known on the back roads of the South and the Grand Ole Opry is really part of that. The South and the Grand Old Opry are synonymous."
When Eaglesmith gets to the Opry, he'll be taking the stage with his wife and talented musician, Tif Ginn. "We've been travelling together for so many years now. It's been ten to 15 years that we've been out there in every situation possible. We share this ideal, which is not a reward but the lifestyle. That is our reward, that we get to live, drive down the road and stop and love our life."
When asked what he would tell 15-year-old Fred about life in the music business, he laughs and says, "I would tell him to get a really good GPS. It's the most important thing. You have to get to work."