My former husband and I were farming on Vancouver Island when we first heard of Fred Eaglesmith. The friend who introduced us to his music was another smallholder. We were all working as many jobs as it took to pay the bills for farms that fed our dreams but not our bank accounts.
The friend was driving home, listening to CBC, when he heard lyrics that made him pull over to the side of the road. He couldn’t see the highway through his tears. The song was “Thirty Years of Farming,” and it was lyrics like these that cut right to his soul:
Oh, and on the post by the general store
They’ve put up a little sign
An auction sale, day after tomorrow
At the end of the Lincoln Line
Thirty years of farming
Thirty years of heartache
Thirty years of day to day
Oh, my Daddy stopped talking
The day the farm was auctioned
There was nothing left to say
We were all living that heartache, though none of us had been farming for decades. Money mostly flowed in one direction, and that direction was not toward us.
Along with farming and performing and writing, Richard and I were also booking acts for the Cowichan Folk Guild. We knew our small community of “hobby” farmers would flock to hear someone who wrote lyrics like those. We gave Fred’s agent a call to see if he was coming our way.
He was, and in the days before his concert friends from all around the Cowichan Valley arrived at our farm with tool belts, hammers, and energy. We were still finishing the stairs to our barn loft when Fred arrived, along with Willie P. Bennett and Ralph Schipper.
With stage lights and a sound system, the old barn’s loft was the perfect setting for Fred’s country lyrics and the fine musicianship of the three young men. Every now and then our sheep would call out from below. That night in 1992 came as close to magic as I ever expected to experience in my life.
Yard concert in Cariboo
In 1994 Richard and I loaded animals, feed and furniture into Old Blue, our 1967 Ford truck, and hauled ourselves north to British Columbia’s Cariboo region. Our new place was an old ranch desperately in need of just about everything – house renovations, new fences, new water system, roofs on every building. We gutted the house, moved into a tipi and set to work.
When Fred’s agent called to see if we would host a house concert, we told him we didn’t have a house or even a usable barn. Undeterred, Fred came, this time with just Willie P. We advertised a yard concert and waited to see if anyone would come.
No one knew us in Cariboo. We were just the weird city folk, raising sheep in cattle country and living in a tipi. A couple dozen people showed up out of curiosity. Fred and Willie P. gave them a show worthy of high-price tickets in an upscale theatre.
Fred also gave us a lasting gift by letting the audience relax about the outsiders who had moved into their neighbourhood. We had brought along some Jacob sheep, brown-and-white spotted sheep that can have four to six horns. Sheep are social suicide in ranching country.
“You see the horns on those sheep?” Fred asked the audience. Then he nodded his head and said, “Antennae. These people are Communists, and those sheep are transmitting messages.” When the audience stopped laughing, they also stopped looking at us quite so suspiciously.
After the concert we sat around the fire and talked, with an easy give and take that burned the night into my memory.
Fred’s show comes to Kelowna
I didn’t see Fred again until October 2012, when he and his Traveling Steam Show made a stop in Kelowna. We both have grey hair now and extra pounds on our frames. But Fred is still making some of the finest acoustic music, still driving an old bus between gigs and somehow finding time to write lyrics that tell gut-grabbing stories.
His show brought back the loft of the barn on Vancouver Island, the campfire in Cariboo, and all the stories that brought me from that point to this. It was all swirling around inside me when the concert ended. I just wanted to go home and think. I told Robin too many years had gone by for Fred to remember a couple of gigs so long in the past.
We were out the door when I changed my mind and turned around. I knew if I didn’t speak to Fred, I would always regret it.
I’m glad I turned back. He did remember. The brief conversation, the quick hug carried me back to a very different time in a life that has been a series of unexpected episodes.
Life’s what we do with the detours
And isn’t that what makes life endlessly interesting? Smooth paths are easy, but they don’t make very good stories. What counts as we navigate the journey is what we do with the bumps in the road, the mighty storms, the detours.
Fred has turned the hard times, his and those he’s observed, into songs. He travels with other musicians these days. The night he was in Kelowna he brought along Bill Poss, Tiff Ginn, Kori Heppner and Kathleen Nisbet. They carried the first half of the show. Fred joined them after intermission.
The concert, both before and after the intermission, was pure Fred Eaglesmith – gritty, honest, funny and accepting of every variation of human foible in that book of humanity we are all writing together. Robert Thibodeau, reviewing his show for the Los Angeles edition of Splash, said it better than I can:
Eaglesmith makes you feel good, more human, more ready to see. Maybe that’s his talent and trick. He makes you feel that it’s OK to hurt, it’s ok to talk and sing about it, it’s ok to find humorous insight in each and every moment no matter how tragic, mundane, or simple….It’s like you suddenly quit love songs and start to defend the poor, the weak, the animal in every backyard. It’s like the insight everyone gets right before death, but we still got a few days to change, to wake up, to sing truth and what comes with it. It’s like you just realized everyone is friend but maybe you haven’t been enough of a friend to yourself. Eaglesmith makes you believe.
Fred’s music has long been background on my wandering path. Listening to his concert reminded me that all the twists and turns, the heartaches and disappointments, the craziness and fun have been about finding home.
This home has no address. It is the place where the spirit kicks off its shoes, leans back, and knows there is no place else it would rather be.
To get a sense of Fred’s talent, listen to snippets from his albums and then buy your favourites. This 2011 video of Fred singing “Thirty Years of Farming” at KDHX was recorded almost twenty years after I first heard him sing this song. Back then I could picture Fred as the young man aching for his dad. Now he sings in the voice of memory, not just Fred’s but any of us who have lived enough years to look back with both warmth and pain.