A Hero in his Homeland, Corb Lund Sets Sights on States
Twenty years into his career, Corb Lund has eight albums to his credit, not to mention a sizeable following in his native Canada, an affiliation with New West Records – home of Americana giants like Buddy Miller and Steve Earle – and a sound that toes the line between traditional country and contemporary Americana. So why isn’t he better known in the U.S.? It’s a bit of an enigma. While other young artists like Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Robert Ellis have plowed the same terrain and become instant darlings among roots music fans and critics, Lund remains only a notch or two above obscurity. Those paying attention know this is a shame. Lund and his erstwhile outfit, the Hurtin’ Albertans, have been responsible for some exceptional music – their sound is reverent to past precepts while leaning headfirst into the new and now. What’s more, in recent years it’s become apparent that Lund has all the makings of a star, a notion that seems to be affirmed anew with each new album.
His latest, the boldly imprinted Things that Can’t Be Undone (released Oct. 9 on New West Records), is his most fully formed effort yet. Produced by Dave Cobb – who chipped in on Isbell’s last two highly lauded recordings, among others – the album is chock full of songs that make a decisive impact even on first listen, and then resonate fully from that point on. Lund’s approach is resolute, often reflecting the twin themes he tends to favor: military adventurism and reverence for ranching. His cool Canadian attitude is clearly contagious, indicative of an artist whose squinty-eyed perspective goes a long way toward ensuring a closer connection. But of course, when his songs veer toward Western themes, that’s coming straight from his family tradition.
It’s a Family Tradition
Lund’s forebears were ranchers who left Utah and Nevada at the turn of the 20th century and eventually planted roots in Alberta, where Lund grew up. “Both my mom and dad were rodeo people and they raised cattle,” Lund says over the phone from his home, which he still makes in Alberta. “Until I was about 15, everything in my life was about Western stuff. I was in the rodeo as a kid. I worked with cattle with my dad and spent a lot of time on our family ranch. That was very important to my family and it goes back many generations, so that was kind of ingrained in me. When you’re really young, you don’t realize there’s anything else.
“The only musical influence I had was what my parents listened to around the house,” he adds. “[They] were not musical, but I remember my grandfather used to sing these old cowboy folk ballads. He couldn’t really sing, but he didn’t care. Guys his age were catching the tail end of a time when music wasn’t thought of as a career, but more a means of transmitting culture. It was also a form of entertainment because there were no stereos. They would sing to each other, and they’d sing these old cowboy ballads, and I would sing along with them. And I’d listen to Marty Robbins and Johnny Horton and Jim Reeves and Glen Campbell and Waylon [Jennings].”
Despite the deep-seated nature of country and Western music in his family line, Lund ironically found himself wandering into other realms of music. A school friend introduced him to Black Sabbath and that heralded a turn toward heavy metal and his first professional music venture with a band called The Smalls. That band spent a decade touring and recording, eventually releasing four albums. “It alienated the hell out of my parents,” Lund admits, “but they were as supportive as they could be.”
The Smalls disbanded in 2001 – though they reunited last summer for a tour, “and it was just killer,” Lund says – but his tenure in the group allowed him to focus on writing songs.
“I was the bass player and one of the songwriters,” he recalls, “but I was always trying to tie Western themes and a little bit of country into it. I put out two solo albums while the band was together and then when the band retired I put out Five Dollar Bill in Canada. That was my first album to have a real producer. Harry Stinson produced it. He was in the Dead Reckoners back then. It was a real stripped-down record and a couple of the country stations in Alberta started playing the crap out of it. So that got us on our way and helped us get a little income.”
"You have to have the right mental perspective to go from playing arenas in Canada to getting into a van and playing to 300 people in another country. I love it myself."
A great divide
Even as his career started to take off in Canada, Lund found it to be a little slower going on this side of the border. That’s nothing new, though. While Canadian artists have always played a crucial role in the broader American musical mix – the Band, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and the Guess Who, for starters – there seems to be a divide between the U.S. and Canada at times. More contemporary artists like the Skydiggers, the Sadies, and Blue Radio – and for some inexplicable reason, Corb Lund – haven’t amassed anywhere near the following they’ve accrued at home. Lund suggests that it has to do with more than merely divergent tastes.
“Some of those bands do so well in Canada [that] they don’t have to go to the States,” he says. “I think you have to have the right mental perspective to go from playing arenas in Canada to getting into a van and playing to 300 people in another country. I love it myself ... I relish getting into a van and sweating it out. But a lot of Canadians have given up on the States because they’ve tried it and maybe they draw 100 people, whereas at home, they can draw thousands. So screw it, right? It’s a double-edged sword.”
Still, in Lund’s case, the music crosses so many boundaries, it ought to make crossing the U.S. border just as easy.
“I tour constantly,” he says. “I put out records doggedly, I’ve worked really hard for 20 years and I’ve established a comfortable career, but I’m not huge. To become huge, you have to get lucky as well. When it comes to story songs and the kind of stuff I do, we are at a bit of a disadvantage.
“It’s hard working a city like Dallas into a lyric,” he explains, “because there’s already a predetermined context to it. You could say the same about New York City or San Francisco. Putting them into a song is difficult because those cities have a built-in shorthand for what they represent. [But] it’s much harder to put Calgary or Montreal into a song and make it palatable to outsiders. I’ve had to really think about that a lot because it’s important to me to sing about my area, my culture, and my region, but it’s hard to do it in a way that doesn’t alienate people who aren’t familiar with it. I try to incorporate my history and my background and the area that I’m from [in a way] that’s universal. The Rockies come up a lot in my music because that’s something that people understand internationally. Plus, my family history is full of cowboys and ranchers and that sort of thing. I go deep into that, and it helps. I can go all the way to Texas with that. Colorado certainly seems to get it. So there are at least certain people who do understand what I’m singing about.”
A variety of viewpoints
As strong as Western themes are in his music, they’re also replete with military adventures, notable on two of the most compelling entries on Things that Can’t Be Undone, especially – “Weight of the Gun” and “Sadr City.” Each of these benefit from rousing sing-along choruses as well as a decidedly dark delivery. Lund is a master storyteller and the characters he creates help meld a bond that makes these melodies all the more gripping. Still, it doesn’t take heady narratives to allow these songs to fully sink in. The pensive “S Lazy H,” the jaunty “Run This Town” and the twang-infused rockers “Alt Berliner Blues” and “Goodbye Colorado” all testify to the diversity of Lund’s motif. In fact, there’s not a single song here that doesn’t demand an intensive opportunity to listen and absorb, and Lund knows well that once he’s written a song, it’s out of his hands.
“Our fans pick a particular song and that’s what I represent to them,” Lund observes. “It’s a mirror. I’m comfortable taking on these different roles. For example, I took a stance glorifying oil riggers in one song and in another song I wrote about trying to keep oil and gas exploration out of the ranch land on another record. So I’m comfortable with exploring these different perspectives.
"Some bands don’t like the straight country following because they consider that unhip. But I never had a problem with it because I come from a rural area where there’s a unique blend of music."
“I’ve done a lot of songs about military history and I’ve had lots of soldiers come to the shows and love it and show it. One of my songs was used as a regimental theme song. And then I have total lefties tell me I write great anti-war records. There’s this thing that happens where people pick stuff out of my catalog that speaks to them, and then they assume that’s my personal view. … But I’m really just in character. I think people can tell that I’m speaking with an authentic voice. I kind of go out of my way not to be overtly political. There are plenty of viewpoints you can extrapolate from it, but I try not to be too heavy handed about it. I think there’s a place for art that transcends that bullshit. So I deliberately I try not to be too strident about my viewpoints and instead to do it so subtly that people come to accept them on their own. And if they don’t, that’s okay too.”
The disparate audience of lefties and conservatives, anti-war folks and military alike, is something Lund has acquired from Canadian country radio as well as more Americana-leaning singer-songwriter clubs in the lower 48. “Half my audience are mainstream country fans,” he says, “while others are admirers of Americana/singer-songwriter types. So we can play straight-up country shows with people like Big & Rich or Dierks Bentley, or we can do indie folk festivals. It really doesn’t matter. It’s a unique position to be in. … Some bands don’t like the straight country following because they consider that unhip. But I never had a problem with it because I come from a rural area where there’s a unique blend of music. I’m proud that we can draw a mix of people from both sides of that spectrum.”
Of course, Lund’s determination to maintain that middle ground may be partially responsible for his inability to garner a greater audience in America, where audiences like being able to attach a clear handle to their heroes. Lund himself eschews the typical categorization that people are prone to put on his music.
“I like old music a lot,” he explains. “But I’m not too reverent about it. I like to embrace old sounds and old idioms but I like to fuck with them too. I think it has the effect of drawing people who wouldn’t go out of their way to find underground music, but still hear enough that’s familiar that makes it palatable to them. The lyrics also have a slightly irreverent message to them that wouldn’t normally be associated with that kind of music, so that makes it cool and subversive. … I’ve been doing this long enough where, in the beginning, people were calling it alternative country. Then it was outlaw country, and it became insurgent country for a while. Then it was the whole Texas, red dirt thing which we were into for a while. Now it’s all Americana, but I call it subversive country.”
One Texan who seems to share a certain simpatico sentiment with Lund is Hayes Carll. The two met at a music festival in the mid-2000s and became fast friends. “We both had mild gambling addictions, liked to talk history, and loved drinking and country music,” Carll recalls. “We did have very different upbringings, but we were interested in a lot of the same things and I think had a lot of similarities in how we approached being an artist and an entertainer. I can't speak for Corb, but I felt like I had found a kindred spirit. He's a smart guy with an interesting background, and I could talk to him about art, life, and business in a way that I couldn't do with a lot of people.
“I appreciate the fact that Corb can write with depth, intelligence, and honesty, and still make people dance and lose their minds,” Carll adds. “His crowds are made up of the cowboys and the punks and the intellectuals and the hipsters. There is something for all of them in his songs. He's got that legitimate cowboy, country background where he can sing about that stuff and be believable. It never feels like there is any pretense about it.”
And there is no pretense. In fact, Lund seems well adjusted to how his music career is panning out. “It’s been interesting. I didn’t get on one trajectory and suddenly find that I’m known. It’s been really piecemeal, but I kind of like that. In Canada we play three- or four-thousand-seat hockey rinks and it’s pretty cool. But there are times when we go to the States and get only 20 people. It’s gotten better in the last year or two and I’ve been able to see the development. … We’ve been able to make a living at this for a while, but whether we make it bigger in America remains to be seen.”
Lund’s popularity at home is reflected not only by his fans but also by the critical kudos he’s received. His 2012 release, Cabin Fever, was shortlisted for a Polaris Music Prize, but it hasn’t gone to his head. “I don’t measure my work based on career success,” he says. “It’s measured by how happy I am with the last record. … [When I write,] I’m thinking about expressing myself. … Ideally it’s best not to think about career motivations, but rather what I think is good.”
In fact, that may be one of Lund's most important assets – the ability to stay true to his roots while bringing his listeners into the fold. And while he's clearly an accomplished storyteller, it's his authenticity and commitment to craft that make him worthy of wider acclaim. Carll, for one, is quick to concur.
“Corb is curious and knowledgeable and not afraid to write about whatever he's interested in at the time, whether it's politics, or love, or any human experience, and that keeps it really interesting,” Carll says. “There's an incredible craft and knowledge of history in his records that makes them fascinating to me. He's just a great writer and puts on a hell of a show.”