Zen and the art of Fred Eaglesmith

It was easy to spot Fred Eaglesmith at the Westmark, but he had trouble finding me. "I walked up to this woman and said, 'I can always spot a reporter in the crowd,'" said Eaglesmith with a sheepish grin.

It was easy to spot Fred Eaglesmith at the Westmark, but he had trouble finding me.

“I walked up to this woman and said, ‘I can always spot a reporter in the crowd,’” said Eaglesmith with a sheepish grin.

But she wasn’t a reporter, and had no idea what he was talking about.

“Hey, maybe it’s the girl carrying the recorder and the notebook,” said his bandmates, laughing, when we eventually shook hands.

Luckily, Eaglesmith doesn’t take himself too seriously.

“As a reporter, you’re talking to my big ego,” he said.

“But that’s not really me.”

Eaglesmith is a “really normal guy.

“People think I’m the kind of normal guy who comes and fixes your fence,” he said, taking off his huge white cowboy hat before settling into a chair.

“But, at the same time, I’m really fucked up.

“We all have a fucked up nature, but we still have to do the dishes.

“And I’ve figured out the marriage between the two.”

Eaglesmith’s compromised normality appeals to his fans.

There’s a whole group of them that travel from show to show calling themselves Fredheads.

“I’ve had people drive thousands of miles to see me,” said Eaglesmith.

“It’s crazy—I have nothing to do with that.”

But there’s something about Eaglesmith’s music—songs about tractors, bench seats, dead dogs and farm foreclosure—that speaks to people.

“I used to say my songs were based on truth,” he said.

“But I could be full of shit.”

“Through all the baloney, people hear an inherent sadness” in the music, he said.

“It could be our souls screaming—our souls are sad because we make so many mistakes.”

Eaglesmith paused.

“Or maybe I’ve just been doing too much Zen lately,” he said with a smile.

Eaglesmith’s an accidental Buddhist.

He had a Zen neighbour a number of years ago who left him a note in his mailbox.

“Do you know what a Buddhist is?” it said.

“No,” said Eaglesmith.

“Well, you are one,” said the neighbour.

The conversation changed Eaglesmith’s life.

The Ontario farm boy started performing when he was 10.

“I knew when I was young, I was different,” he said.

“I remember being up in the hay barn throwing down bales when I was just eight-years-old and I knew something was up.”

It was tough being a freak on a farm with eight siblings.

The more Eaglesmith was rejected, the more stubborn he got.

“You want to prove you’re not a freak,” he said.

So, Eaglesmith started performing.

“I wanted to make you very impressed with me,” he said.

It worked.

With bigger and bigger gigs and a cult following, he got the fame he was chasing.

“But it didn’t give me the bang I thought it would,” he said.

“The fix was not as good as the drug I was seeking.”

Then Eaglesmith started getting letters from dying fans.

“I just got one this morning,” he said.

“I’ve had people stay alive until I got there.

“There’s some sort of inherent connection that I have no control over.”

That’s where the Zen comes in.

“I realized I have a big life—way bigger than just being famous,” he said.

Eaglesmith likens it to sex.

“It’s like having sex when you love someone, versus having sex with someone when you don’t,” he said.

“In the one case it’s, ‘What can you do for me?’ But when you love someone it’s, ‘What can I do for you?’”

Zen is all about giving, said Eaglesmith.

There’s a dog dying in a ditch, he said, reciting a Zen teaching.

A Zen master puts his coat over the dog, and when the dog dies, fearing the fleas will also die, he puts the coat back over his own body to sustain them.

Every little action changes the world—even killing a mosquito, said Eaglesmith.

It’s a far cry from the stories he used to tell about chasing people off the family farm with a 12-gauge.

But growing up on a failing farm left its mark on the songwriter.

“We were poverty stricken,” he said.

“Dad sold off the farm in pieces—we were left with 25 acres out of 200.”

Eaglsmith eventually bought his own farm—he grew weeds.

“It was a complete disaster because I had one foot on the road,” he said.

But after he headed to Nashville, Eaglesmith had no trouble paying off the mortgage.

Now, his sons live at the place.

“They’re hillbillies,” he said with a grin.

“The fields are overgrown and there’s piles of wood everywhere—they really are their father’s sons.”

Eaglesmith still has one foot on the road.

“I’m loving touring again,” he said.

It’s been a while since he came through town, but not much has changed here, he said.

“It’s like the world stops—a single car comes by and then it goes and it’s still again—no wonder people come here and never leave.”

Eaglesmith is touring with his most recent CD, Tinderbox. It’s a concept album inspired by an imaginary woman weeping in the very back row.

“The album’s about her and the people around her,” he said.

Eaglesmith recorded it in an abandoned Masonic lodge “with vaulted ceilings and no windows.”

“I’d be up there at three or four in the morning with the door open and the birds singing ….”

It was the last album to feature Eaglesmith’s longtime collaborator Willie P. Bennett, who died of a heart attack in February 2008.

The album is a departure from Eaglesmith’s earlier hillbilly rock and roll, and that’s the point.

“I am more than just, I Shot Your Dog, or White Rose Filling Station,” he said, referencing some of his classics.

“That’s why I hate old folkies, they play the same songs again and again.”

Eaglesmith also hates “pussy protests,” like boycotting Wal-Mart or Starbucks.

After growing up in a town with one overpriced general store, Eaglesmith appreciates Wal-Mart.

“You can go in there at midnight and get something you need for cheap,” he said.

And the people that boycott Wal-Mart—“how come they’re not mad at Canadian Tire?” he added.

Eaglesmith tries not to talk politics.

“I’d like to see everybody do nothing,” he said.

“Not use the bank machines, not turn on the TV.”

Eaglesmith contributes by turning off the news.

“They pick and choose,” he said.

“There are hundreds fleeing in Pakistan, but what about the child killed in Somalia—who picks what’s news?”

Eaglesmith is trying to be less political.

“But my soul screams to be,” he said.

He channels all that angst into his music, singing with a voice that sounds like “a rusty old nail that scrapes along a chalkboard.”

It’s like an old car, he said.

“You don’t always love it the first time you see it, but the more you ride in it, you grow to love it.”

Eaglesmith is performing with Kori Heppner on drums, Luke Stackhouse on the upright bass and Matty Simpson on the manjo.

A manjo is like a V8 banjo, said Eaglesmith. “It’s a banjo with a humbucker” electric guitar pickup.

Gordie Tentrees, opening for Eaglesmith, is releasing his most recent album, Mercy or Sin on the tour.

Tentrees and Eaglesmith played Skagway, Haines and Juneau, and are hitting Haines Junction’s St. Elias Convention Centre on Wednesday.

Eaglesmith is at the Yukon Arts Centre on Thursday, and is heading to Dawson for a show Friday at the Odd Fellows Hall.

Contact Genesee Keevil at