If I had to guess, after listening to Fred Eaglesmith's latest I'd bet he was another of those tortured-soul, hard-drinking Texas singer-songwriters swerving down the road paved by Merle, Johnny, Willie and Waylon. Joe Ely, Robert Earl Keen, Billie Joe Shaver and the other outlaw heirs now holed up around Austin come to mind.
Wrong, at least geographically. Not that it matters, but Eaglesmith is a Canadian. Hold it. Maybe it does matter, at least if your idea of Canadian singer-songwriter folk roots is Bruce Cockburn. Let's just say Eaglesmith has a sense of humor and isn't at all self-important or pedantic in his approach. Anything but. He's a lot closer to the aforementioned Texans and their out-of-state road poet compadres: Dave Alvin, John Prine, John Hiatt. He's as crazed and driven as Hiatt was at his best/worst. And, like Hiatt and Prine, he is willing to confess all the dirt and let us have a laugh at his expense. He's a twisted wild man with a heart of -- uh, a nice guy -- most of the time. His gasoline, booze and demon-powered stories ring true. He's neither lecturing nor bragging. He's confessing over a beer.
"Good Enough," from his 1996 masterpiece, Drive In Movie, shows the potential intensity of the crazed mood: "She's quieter now. She's not as tough. But it was different when I was good enough. -- When I was good enough, and we lived the life. Good enough and she carried a knife."
Live, he and the Flying Squirrels go after "Good Enough" at breakneck bluegrass speed, skidding around the corners an inch from disaster, just like the jilted nutcase in the song. It ends with Eaglesmith giving us the goods on this quitter, as if he were jamming home the slam-dunk incontrovertible proof. Seems the singer stole a car last week. He drove it up to Willis Peak, torched it and, damn, little miss high and freakin' mighty was toooo good to come along for the fun. There you go. She's gone soft. And Eaglesmith sells it. By the time he's done telling his side, it sounds reasonable that he's disappointed in her.
Most of these stories, live remakes of Eaglesmith songs written since 1996, come off as not deliberately menacing. (This is not Warren Zevon doing his "I'm a scary guy, really, I am" thing.) You can laugh along, maybe sympathize, maybe even identify a bit, with his crazed character. (You can also imagine the court-appointed therapist nodding those non-committal professional $100 an hour "mmms" and thinking, "Jeez, I hope to hell this guy isn't in the parking garage when I leave.")
This is a truly live recording, complete with Eaglesmith's unadorned hoarse bark of a voice and a few clams. The main musical flavor is bluegrass, but that's more to do with the unplugged instrumentation and high lonesome harmonies than an attempt to be true to the genre. Ralph Schipper, Eaglesmith's longtime harmony singer and bassist (and for whom the CD was named, in honor of his last tour), nails down the bottom with Canadian legend Willie P. Bennett (Blackie and the Rodeo Kings) on mandolin and backing vocals. Washboard Hank is credited with percussion and backing vocals.
The recording shows Eaglesmith's apparent influences more clearly than his slightly glossier and electric studio recordings. The most obvious influence is Prine. It's not just humor ("White Trash," "How's Ernie?") that brings Prine to mind. It's the quirky sentimental streak, as in "Lucille," a bizarre/tender story about a 19-year-old's Last Picture Show-style fling with a 50-year-old woman. It balances the twitchy, prospective tower sniper in many of Eaglesmith's other songs.
Eaglesmith means it all, whether he's lovin', hurtin', pissed, clueless or--sometimes--all of them at once.