There must be a rule that you’re not supposed to ask executives at a commercial country music awards show to think about the oil companies in their stock portfolios. Corb Lund broke that rule.
Last year, among the rhinestone cowboys and heavily marketed “crossover” artists at the Canadian Country Music Awards (CCMAs), Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans, recipients of the Best Roots Artist award for the seventh year in a row, busted out “This Is My Prairie” for their live performance, a song about Alberta ranchers who see their land ruined by oil and gas companies. “Prairie” opens with Lund’s voice floating above accordion, and describes sick kids, dead calves and oil companies gunning for a pipeline on ranchland that’s already been wasted by drilling and mining. Once the banjo and guitar enter in the second verse, we’re reminded that nobody blames the guys driving truck for the mess, but take a good look at the stock that you own… This is my prairie, this is my home.
Lund could’ve chosen any of his more genteel songs from his sixth album, Losin’ Lately Gambler: “Long Gone to Saskatchewan” has a more radio-friendly twang; “Chinook Wind” is a more polite evocation of life in rural Alberta. Lund has any number of songs that could be classified as straight-ahead country tunes, especially on Gambler, his first album to get full US distribution. But he didn’t. He chose one that put the Alberta government and Big Oil squarely in his crosshairs.
In Longview for three sold-out live shows at the community hall, Lund is having breakfast at noon with me at Heidi’s Food & Saloon, where the portions are positively Texan and the coffee’s not even terrible. Lund half-nods when I ask him if anyone shifted uncomfortably in their seats when he and the Hurtin’ Albertans (Brady Valgardson on drums, Kurt Ciesla on bass and Grant Siemens on guitar) did “This Is My Prairie” at the CCMAs. But he says that wasn’t the intention. “I thought it would stand out—not only for its subject matter,” he says. “Just the type of song it is. It’s different.”
In what I come to learn is characteristic, Lund is even-handed in his appraisal of Alberta’s politics and environment. Things are this, but they’re also that. It’s not equivocation or weasel-words. It’s a full reckoning of the situation. “The oil and gas industry is reflective of the duality of the province,” he says. “I mean, I drive a truck too, so who am I to say? We’re all hypocrites. But [what] it comes down to: not only in Alberta, but all over the western world, governments are in the pockets of corporations.”
The rhyming couplets of “This Is My Prairie” state what is usually considered—in the rural landscapes Corb writes about, where conservatives (federal, provincial, personal) reign unquestioned—political heresy. “Prairie” lays it out in plain speak: you can’t necessarily blame the riggers or the truck drivers, but you can blame the government and companies that trample the environment and collude to deny people control over their land. Bear in mind, though, that Lund is also the guy who penned “Roughest Neck Around,” the anthemic tribute to Alberta’s oil patch workers.
In short, he has a clear-eyed understanding of what makes Alberta tick. The world’s largest oil companies, people’s need to make a living, the government never saying “no” to corporations—all compete for supremacy in our collective understanding of where we live, and all bubble underneath Lund’s music. “I might be pissing off half my audience when I write these songs,” he admits. His brother works in the oil patch, he tells me, as do a handful of friends. But Lund says it’s his job. “That’s the role of the artist, isn’t it? To say what’s [unsaid] in the room?”
Longview seems a fitting place to meet with Lund—picturesque and true to his songs, which are often preoccupied with cowboys, horses, rodeos and other rural themes. Longview is the home of Ian Tyson and backdrop for Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. It’s like driving in the Alberta flag, farmland giving way to foothills and rocky ranges, rolling hills dotted with red barns and well-appointed farmhouses.
Today, Lund may be something of an icon to many Albertans: the new Tyson, a young guy keeping the old cowboy traditions alive and bringing our ranches, coulees and farms to life in fairly mainstream country tunes. But there are lots of us Albertans—small town or city kids who went to high school in the ’90s—who knew Lund in a previous lifetime.
We watched him at gritty all-ages punk gigs in the early ’90s: Lund was the guy playing bass at stage right, holding together the low end of the screeching, Black Sabbath-style wall of sound that was the underground and legendary band the Smalls. Part speed-metal, part punk, part jazzy rock ’n’ roll, the Smalls were sonically unclassifiable. All you knew at the end of the show was that you had a few new bruises, ringing ears and quite possibly the desire to start a riot. The Smalls had that ass-kicking effect.
When the Smalls called it quits in 2001, they had accomplished more than most noisy rock bands, selling over 40,000 albums and thousands of T-shirts and hoodies—the band’s swag was practically a uniform for skaters, freaks and “alternative” kids all over Alberta. In the early ’90s, before iTunes or downloading, kids like me passed around copied cassette tapes, waiting to buy a better version when the Smalls came to play the Elks Hall or the rec centre in our small town. We were sure to do our shopping after the show, just in case any stage diving should divest us of our purchases.
Corb Lund 1.0—with all the dirty vans, mosh pits and sticky-floored bars—seems a long way from a Longview diner. But Lund doesn’t actually think so. “I’m not the first one to do it… lots of people get older and boring, start playing country music,” he jokes. “I don’t know what punk rock kids don’t like Johnny Cash—and maybe more so [here] than kids in Toronto. Practically everyone our age in Alberta grew up listening to country music with their dad in the ’70s. It’s in our DNA.”
When Lund started playing solo country gigs in Edmonton about 15 years ago, all us dutiful hipsters traipsed down to bars such as the Black Dog—“he’s the guy from the Smalls, you know, and his kind of country music is actually pretty cool”—and left with an inkling of the possibilities brewing in Canada’s nascent alternative country scene. Lund’s road to the CCMAs, country music festivals and even the main stage at England’s world-famous Glastonbury Festival was paved in part by western Canada’s hipsters, who thought they’d give country a shot and go to a Corb Lund solo show.
“On the face of it, it seems like a jarring transition,” he says. “But it felt organic, pretty natural. Lots of kids who listened to Iron Maiden listen to Willie and Waylon now, or newer bands like Hayes Carll or Steve Earle, right?”
Lund even thinks the years of long hair and loud guitars made him a better country musician. “My first ten years [were in] an environment where uniqueness and your own sound is really important. That forged my writing style. It’s almost 180 degrees from regular country music, where you’re encouraged to be homogeneous. I’m not judging; that’s just how it is. If I hadn’t had those years in the Smalls, I wouldn’t be the same writer.”
Lund also thinks his first career prepared him for the life of a musician in the age of downloading, file-sharing and free music. “We used to give away our music. That was how it was done.” He says that the Smalls built their career from what Canadian punk pioneers SNFU were doing—selling T-shirts, giving away tapes, playing small towns. “What the music business geniuses are saying now is that it’s all about live shows. Well, of course it is! It’s the way things have always been done in indie bands, so I’m quite comfortable with it. I’m not counting on anyone else… not the label, the press or anything. My thing has always been to get in the van and play lots.”
Corb Lund was raised on a farm outside scruffy Taber, and he initially went to the University of Lethbridge, to study general arts. But at 20 Lund moved to Edmonton to enter Grant MacEwan’s jazz guitar program, then bounced back and forth between MacEwan and anthropology studies at the University of Alberta. The years at MacEwan were a musical gift, he says, giving him more chords in his quiver and a deeper understanding of contemporary music.
Though Lund’s parents hail from a Mormon background, their son’s decision to study music didn’t relegate him to black sheep status. He figures he did raise a few eyebrows in the early years, however. “The long hair and the rock ’n’ roll probably did freak them out a bit,” he says. “But at the same time I have to hand it to them; they were always supportive.” Lund’s dad was a veterinarian and a steer wrestler and worked on rodeos all over the place, including Africa and Europe. His mother “has always been unique,” and both parents have travelled a lot. He says his parents are proud of his career, but his mother still “really wishes I’d just finish my BA.”
You can hear those years of music school and the Smalls in Lund’s early country albums, and even in his more recent work if you listen carefully. There’s a driving, complicated riff underlying many of his songs; nothing simple, twangy or honky-tonk about tunes such as “Expectations and the Blues,” which, with its rhythm and arrangement, could just as easily be rock ’n’ roll. The songs with more accessible subjects are also simpler compositions—the predictable three-chord progressions in “Time To Switch to Whiskey” or “Roughest Neck Around” are the sort we’re used to hearing on commercial radio.
But with Lund, simple composition is a style choice rather than a necessity borne of not knowing how to do anything else. He’s not afraid to challenge his listeners or, it seems, his band and himself. Even simpler songs such as “Five Dollar Bill” are full of trickier chord progressions than one would ever hear in commercial country singalongs. And the more complex the subject, the richer the composition. “The Truth Comes Out,” another of Lund’s environmentally themed songs, starts out in an ominous D minor, setting the tone for a song about climate change, loss of wildlife and rampant Alberta growth:
Connie says she’s never seen the cougars so bold
they’re comin in the yard and they’re stealin young colts
they drag em in the brush with the claws sunk in their nose
the weather’s been funny thirty years or so
the winters got warm, not as much snow
hear the big cats comin cuz there’s nowhere left to go
Lund also breaks from the commercial country mould in shying away from whining about heartbreak. Spanish armadas, cocaine addiction, Chilean dissidents and reflections on apocalypse, Norse gods, triple-headed serpents, Ottomans and Vikings populate Lund’s songs. “Love songs are just a default for so many guys,” he says. “I write those songs if it’s real. You can usually tell it’s a default—it betrays a lack of things to say.”
His subject is often an eclectic blend, but from the beginning of his solo career, cowboys—and what they represent in our provincial heritage, from settlers and stewards of the land to booze, gambling and chewing tobacco—occupy much of the lyrical space. This comes from his upbringing and his father’s rodeoing, he says. “I’m rooted in this place—both sides of my family go back 100 years in Alberta.”
Corb Lund’s tunes go over just as well at the Longview community hall as among the urban hippie/yuppie set.
Lund says he also likes to reach back into old western stories because he’s a “nostalgia nut… I like old guitars, old clothes… old cowboys. There’s so much rich history—not just here in Alberta, everywhere—that people could write about. I don’t know why more people don’t use it. It’s just sitting there.” Same goes, he says, for the history of country music itself. “There’ve been five or six subgenres of country music over the past 50 years, and dipping into them—putting a few more styles or chords in your palette—that’s something I like to do.”
As the band continues to grow, Lund takes a philosophical view of its relationship to the world of commercial country. “I like to think of us as having our foot in the door—opening it a little for people in our world [of independent music]. You can look at it and go ‘Okay, most of those acts [on commercial country radio] aren’t my kind of music,’ but a lot of rural people don’t have a whole lot of choices. They watch CMT or listen to country radio ’cause that’s the closest to what they like, right? But when bands like mine get exposure, it shows there are other things out there. Ironically, even though we’re outsiders in that world, our stuff has more rural content and more things people can relate to than most of the stuff on country radio.”
Lund knows that different songs of his resonate with different audiences, and he’s proud of that. The band has grown beyond Canada; they now play bars with 200–500 people throughout the western US, especially in Montana, Colorado and Texas. They play across the UK and even at rodeos in France. Their success abroad matches what they were achieving at home five or six years ago. Lund now plays hockey arenas and theatres in Canada and headlines festival bills. “At first I wasn’t sure if the cowboy/Alberta stuff would resonate anywhere but here,” he says. “But Canadians pick up on different aspects. In Ontario and out east I think they go for the music—the similarity to Johnny Cash or Stompin’ Tom. In other places, it’s the rural themes. And you know, Ontario is a big province. It isn’t just Toronto. There are a lot of places where they’re just as hillbilly as we are,” he jokes.
After producing his last three albums through Alberta’s Stony Plain Records, Lund has been picked up by New West Records, where his new labelmates are some of Americana music’s most legendary names: Steve Earle, John Hiatt and Kris Kristofferson.
Lund thinks part of his success comes from the schizophrenic nature of Alberta culture—at once redneck and conservative, but with a heavy dose of what he calls “independent progressivity.” “The West is just so roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-it-done, you know, and it’s so wide open you can start something and actually succeed… it’s part of the culture. More so than the 400-year-old culture out east. We’re viewed as redneck cousins, and that’s true to some extent; I certainly know those people. But we also have a streak of independent thought, progressiveness, ingenuity and innovation that isn’t recognized as much.”
I hadn’t planned to talk politics for our interview—it almost felt unseemly in an unassuming foothills diner, where Lund was reminded by no fewer than three different people that “Ian was in… looking for you…” and “Ian” later calls the restaurant to track him down. (Ian Tyson, it seems, does not mess around with cellphones, and if the Canadian country music legend wants to track you down, he will.) But as the coffee kicked in, blowing out the cobwebs of whatever was consumed the night before or preoccupied Lund earlier today (“I’m having lady troubles” he told me about two minutes after we met), it became pretty clear that Lund’s got a big brain under that cowboy hat.
“There are just too many people,” he says. “I mean, a billion Chinese and a billion Indians are aware of how we’ve been living for the last 50 years, and why shouldn’t they want the same things? They want to drive cars and have the good life. Slightly less than half the time I think we’ll figure it out, and slightly more than half the time I think we’re screwed as a species. That’s kind of dark, but it’s where I’m at. You can’t discount human ingenuity, though. It’s more a matter of will than ability.”
Lund thinks that governments—Alberta’s in particular—need to consider life beyond oil. “Remember when Klein sent out that questionnaire asking what we wanted the government to do with our money? I wrote that we should spend every spare dollar on developing ourselves as a new energy province so that when the time comes—and it will, whether it’s five or 50 years from now, when the world moves on and needs a new energy source—we can be ready. It would behoove us to look to the future. If you take away oil and gas, all we’re left with is tourism and agriculture. We’re just lucky we sit on a bunch of old dinosaurs.”
That night, during the show at the hall, I look around at the Smithbilts, Wranglers and belt buckles. I conclude that this has to be the most straight-edge audience I’ve ever seen at a Corb Lund show, recalling all the ironic cowboy shirts I’ve seen at past gigs. In Longview, the opening riff of “Roughest Neck Around” elicits more hoots ’n’ hollers than I recall at folk festivals, and “Hard on Equipment”—a song about screwdrivers and wrenches and trouble getting the floorboards to level—merits giddy head-bobbing from the old guys, probably because they all know somebody who, just like in the song, blames the government for his crooked floors. The standby foot-stompers that made Lund famous—“Five Dollar Bill,” “Horse Soldier” and “Shine Up My Boots”—are well received. It occurs to me that the Longview crowd might be astonished to learn that these tunes go over just as well among the urban hippie/yuppie set at the Edmonton Folk Festival.
The encore showcases Lund’s careful and deliberate crafting of his live shows. “The Truth Comes Out” renders the audience hushed and introspective, as almost everyone in the crowd surely understands how you’ve now got to be careful out fly fishin’, ’cause there’s “grizzly bears where there were no grizzly bears before.” (The First Nations critique of western economic growth—“white man builds a big fire, still cold”—may, however, be lost on those who don’t study the album liner notes.)
But Lund would never let folks go home with that kind of buzzkill. The finale is what Corb calls his “traditional spiritual” song, and the crowd cheers, sings along and raises their Pilsner cans. It’s no longer time for reverence of prairie history, cowboy culture or pristine landscapes. It’s time to switch to whiskey.
Shannon Phillips is a Lethbridge-based journalist, researcher and communications consultant for the Parkland Institute.