For a moment, Corb Lund couldn’t help but worry. There was a distinct possibility that his cheeky, rollicking brand of honky-tonk might feel a bit out of place. After all, he was traveling to the most unconventional of gigs—a dive bar, in a literally bombed out Bosnian neighborhood.
“Driving through the countryside there was unreal, because after all the ethnic cleansing, the houses were just burnt,” the Albertan troubadour (who just won “Roots Artist of the Year,” at the 2013 Canadian Country Music Awards on Sept. 7 thanks to his latest album, Cabin Fever), says of one of his earliest tours in Eastern Europe, just after the Bosnian war. He adds that the region’s urban squalor was even more severe— its towering structures marred by more than just bombs. “The apartment buildings were covered in graffiti, but it wasn’t gang signs. It was war graffiti.”
Lund, who grew up on a ranch near a southern Albertan town called Taber, has spent most his life balancing urban and rural living. In Bosnia those societal barriers were leveled, along with everything else— and it didn’t take Lund long to see other universalities peppered amongst the rubble.
“I was amazed by how young and happy and keen the kids seemed there,” he says of the Bosnian audiences he’d played for. Lund says he felt a similar sort of enthusiasm upon glimpsing punk troupes like SNFU (Society’s No Fucking Use) for the very first time after moving from Taber To Edmonton.
Lund says his down home upbringing certainly didn’t prepare him for the nuances of war Eastern Europe.
“The strange thing was, I thought the Serbs and the Bosnian Muslims all seemed the same to me. They were all really nice people, they just hated the guys across the road,” Lund says, but as he elaborates, it’s clear such bluntness isn’t due to back woods ignorance. “To me, from my outsider perspective, the guy’s across the road were exactly like the ones I was talking to. I mean, they had different religions, sure- Serbian Orthodox, Muslim and Catholics. But other than that they speak the same language, the food’s the same, they dress the same. It was the weirdest thing.”
Such statements, while far from PC, do stem from the honesty of an outsider, coupled with his longing to draw everyone in. To this day, attendees of a Corb Lund show range from country fans, to folksy singer/songwriter aficionados, to punks that can appreciate the Albertan performer’s lo-fi strumming— all of them adoring a song style far removed from the culture they came up in.
It’s a rare breed of eclecticism, a writhing, snorting beast that even the grandest of rodeo masters would be timid to mount. But Lund has the stirrups, and the stomach, for it. He’s more than eager to dig in, and ride it all the way to common ground.
During our phone interview, nothing knocked him from the saddle. He spoke with abrupt conviction, tossed off honesty, and wry wit. It was as straightforward as the fencing wire he’d unraveled and pulled taut as a boy, long before he realized the vast differences between himself and the kids in Edmonton that he’d go on to befriend.
“I thought that was normal, that everyone lived that way,” Lund says of the early years that he spent as a literal cowboy. Both of his grandfathers were cattle ranchers, while his father went on to be a country veterinarian, tending to ailing stallions.
“I grew up ranching and chasing horses. My family did that for generations. They came up from Utah around the turn of the century to do this, so it’s a big part of my psyche. I draw on it a lot.”
The influence of all that lassoing is more than apparent on many of Lund’s songs. Among them are the title track from his 2005 album Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer, or “I Wanna Be In the Cavalry,” from his 2007 album Horse Solider! Horse Solider! and especially “Cows Around,” and “(You Ain’t a Cowboy) If You Ain’t Been Bucked Off,” from Cabin Fever.
That latest release was celebrated not for its twang, but for its eclecticism. Aside from the ranch fare, Lund also branches out thematically on Fever with songs like “The Gothest Girl I Can,” about a lady that’s anything but a Southern Belle, and “Mein Deutsches Motorrad,” an ode to his vintage BMW steed.
“The way we recorded it was even a bit more raw than usual, which is cool,” Lund says of the CCMA winning Cabin Fever, his seventh album, released in August of 2012. “I just always liked records that leave the mistakes in. It makes it feel more real. Records these days are so pristine. Especially with computers, you can make them super precise. I like when there’s more warts on it.”
Those sonic blemishes and imperfections came courtesy of a special studio in Edmonton, and the fact that it was stacked with an assortment of beverages.
“I recorded Cabin Fever in this funky studio that belongs to a friend of mine. Actually, it was more of a hangout spot than a studio, a really comfortable environment,” he says of the locale he chose to record, which was cozy enough to compel Lund and his band to plug in and rattle off some rock riffs, resulting in a disc that was praised for its wide ranging sonics along with its numerable lyrical levels. Of the rollicking recording process, he adds: “We’d start late, end late, and drink a lot of beer. I recorded most of it half cut actually, which was good. We didn’t use any studio trickery, especially overdubbing. All the vocals were live and done at the same time. My band’s been together a long time, so I really can capitalize on that.”
That fast and loose vibe was a welcome relief from the strain of writing the album. Penning its lyrics and notes was a painfully slow process that took the typically prolific songwriter far longer to finish than usual. It resulted in tender songs like “September,” and bleak numbers like “Dig Gravedigger Dig.” While penning those tunes, Lund moved to a much less sociable locale than the one he’d go on to record in— in fact, that initial space was perfectly fitting for the album’s title.
“Cabin Fever lives up to its name, at least in part. I ended up spending a lot of time by myself, because I had this breakup stuff happen, and a few deaths in my family. I have a cabin in the woods outside of Edmonton, so I’d spend a lot of time out there. I think all those songs about gravediggers and the end of the world captured that.”
That return to his rural roots lead to accolades, aside from the CCMA trophy. Exclaim! magazine raved that “challenging the stereotype of the cowboy singer has always made Lund unique.” Meanwhile, a critic at Slant magazine wrote “the lack of refinement in the arrangements both nods to Lund’s punk-rock roots and allows the album to move from the swampy blues of ‘Dig Gravedigger Dig’ to the western swing of ‘Cows Around’ without losing any sense of cohesion.” It was the sound of worlds colliding, a genre thoroughfare mimicking his real life route from town to country. It may have garnered praise, but venturing between Edmonton and rustic retreats has long been a recurring theme for Lund.
“That heritage underpins all my points of view, lyrically,” he says. “I’m living in the city now, but I like trying to bridge that gap with the country. It’s quite the chasm, but music is a great way to bring that all together. One of my heroes is Willie Nelson. He brings hippies and bikers and cowboys all together. Music can help us all see that we really aren’t that different.”
Lund has never had the chance to praise Nelson in person, but he has met a few of his heroes after years of endless gigging and numerous festival appearances. In fact, one of his favorite memories is the day he was first introduced to alt country legend Steve Earle.
“Steve’s a little crusty. He’s nice, but a bit more reserved than most. He’s a fantastic songwriter though. So he deserves to be as crusty as he wants to be.”
But aside from the chances to rub shoulders with the greats, Lund has relished the far deeper benefits of playing on the alt music periphery, where genres blend wherever they’re ringing true. All of that was apparent upon his first arrival to the Albertan capital.
“What helped me adjust when I first went to Edmonton was being exposed to the punk scene,” he says of the alternative world that had suddenly opened up to him. “The bands were really raw, and it made us realize you can have your own career. When all you know is major label bands it’s discouraging, because all you can think is ‘how do you get from a to b?’ But in Edmonton there’d just be shows with punk kids at the hall. I modeled my whole existence after that— making my own CD sleeves, posters and t-shirts. Very DIY.”
That sort of roll up your sleeves, dirt under your thumbnail true grit formed the bedrock of his biggest hits. Lund wouldn’t be one to lean on a producer to record his finest songs, in the same way that he wouldn’t hire a mechanic or plumber to do his dirty work. That theme led to Lund’s biggest hit, a song about spinning your wheels when there’s no tow truck in sight. Simply dubbed “The Truck Got Stuck,” it features Lund cheekily rambling about a whole convoy of mammoth four wheel drive vehicles, all skidding in the muck.
“Literally everybody in the universe has come up to me and said ‘Oh, I got my truck stuck just like that once,’” Lund says. “It’s Western Canadians, Maritimers, people from all over the States, Australia and even England. I had no idea it was such a universal theme. But apparently it is.”
And once again, Lund’s authenticity is key to the tune’s popularity.
“Absolutely, it’s a true story,” he says with a chuckle when asked about the narrative in ‘The Truck Got Stuck.’
“Some of my stuff is embellished a bit, but that song is verbatim, exactly true. The one thing that didn’t happen is that I didn’t have to really pour out canola seed for traction. But I almost did.”
But thanks to that tune, he did gain traction with some of his fellow troubadours south of the border. After years of carving a unique Americana niche, Lund has become close friends with other alt-country up and comers, especially Texas’ own Hayes Carl and John Evans. In fact, the trio formed a side project.
“It’s called the Ego Brothers. Not ‘eagle,’ like the bird, but ego, like, ‘we’re awesome,’” Lund says with the same sort of youthful gusto that he used to describe his first punk show, and his Bosnian treks. His tunes have drawn him to the unlikeliest of amigos- be it singers from the Lonestar State, shell shocked Eastern Europeans, and everything in between. Lund can’t help but tread that common ground, no matter how narrow or rough that path may be.
But, for now, he’s content to brush it all off with nonchalance. Instead of drawing such highfalutin connections (as mentioned above), or bragging about winning over some of Texas’ most promising songwriters, Lund would rather crack wise about the juvenile tendencies he shares with those pals.
“All we do is sing songs about how sarcastic we are,” he says of the Ego Brothers, before rhyming off their ‘greatest hits.’ “We got a few songs, and even more song titles. One’s called “There Ain’t Enough of Me to Go Around,” and another one’s called “I Wonder What All the Ugly People are Doin’ Tonight.” And we got another one that we’re working on called “Hey Girl, My Eyes Are Up Here.”
And when asked about the challenges of singing his own praises, Lund chuckles and sarcastically replies: “It’s surprisingly easy.”
By Kyle Mullins
Corb Lund plays RAP main stage Saturday, Sept. 14 at 1:15pm.