The roots-oriented Canadian singer and songwriter Fred Eaglesmith has charted an independent career path that has rarely intersected with the mainstream activities of the music industry. For the most part he has distributed his own recordings and made a living touring a circuit of small venues in Canada and the United States. Eaglesmith's music has been difficult to keep in one pigeonhole for long, although the label of country music, broadly defined, will fit most of it—his songs mostly deal with the hardscrabble life of farms and small towns. Eaglesmith's powerful voice, energetic live shows, and uncompromising attitudes have earned him an unusually faithful following; his fans, known as Fredheads, will often travel long distances to see him perform.
Eaglesmith was born Fred Elgersma in 1957 in Brantford, Ontario, Canada. The sixth of nine children, he grew up on a 200-acre farm near Brantford. The atmosphere was strict. Day in and day out he helped with farm chores, and his evangelical minister father took the family to church five times a week. Eaglesmith grew up hearing country music on small-town U.S. stations whose signals crossed Lake Erie. When he was nine, he saw Elvis Presley perform on television. "I thought, 'Man, this is all this guy has to do and he's rich and happy? That's what I'm gonna do,'" Eaglesmith told Joshua Ostroff of JAM! Music. "I wrote my first song that day." By the time he was 16, he had had enough of farm life. He took off on a cross-Canada hitchhiking and rail-riding trip, performing in youth hostels or wherever else he could.
Friends had already given Fred Elgersma the easier-to-pronounce nickname of Eaglesmith, and when he was 18 he adopted that name for professional use. Dreaming of a music career, and seeing his parents lose their farm and possessions in a foreclosure auction, he wrote songs prolifically, a habit that never left him. Eaglesmith once quipped that for him, having writer's block meant that he hadn't written a song for two weeks, and he could write several dozen during a short burst of activity. In 1980 he released the album Fred J. Eaglesmith on his own label.
By that time Eaglesmith was married to his high school sweetheart, Mary, and the pair were soon raising three children. They bought a 100-acre farm near Alberton, Ontario, and to make it pay they began raising flowers to sell wholesale in the farmers' markets of Toronto. The flower business grew, eventually employing 28 people and reaching $6 million (Canadian) in annual sales. The family's move to Toronto gave Eaglesmith the chance to perform in clubs a couple of nights a week and to hone his songwriting skills by listening to Toronto folk performers like David Essig. He released the albums The Boy That Just Went Wrong in 1983 and Indiana Road in 1987.
Eaglesmith's leap to making music full time came after his flower business went bankrupt in 1991. Although the family's financial condition deteriorated, Eaglesmith took the career change in stride. "I believe you can't write good material when you're on safe ground," he explained to Susan Beyer of the Ottawa Citizen. "You have to live on the edge to write on the edge." With country music on the rise in popularity, Eaglesmith began traveling to the country music capital of Nashville, Tennessee, trying to sell songs to performers and publishers. His bleak, hard-edged songs about farm families in trouble found few takers, although one song, "Thirty Years of Farming," later became a top bluegrass success for vocalist James King. But Eaglesmith's songs and his soulful roar of a voice began to earn him fans in small U.S. venues, especially in songwriter-loving Texas. He released several more independent albums; 1994's From the Paradise Motel was drawn from a concert he gave at the La Casa folk music series in Birmingham, Michigan, outside Detroit.
By the mid-1990s Eaglesmith was trying to broaden his songwriting beyond farm themes. Touring with his band, the Flying Squirrels (who included Canadian songwriter Willie P. Bennett on harmonica and the wildly spontaneous Washboard Hank on percussion), he began to add a rock edge to his songs. Eaglesmith still had little success in cracking the mainstream country market, but with the albums Drive-In Movie in 1995 (voted one of the top 50 releases of the century in a Dutch poll) and the grim Lipstick Lies & Gasoline (1997), he gained wider recognition. "Wilder Than Her," from Drive-In Movie, gained airplay with its edgy yet catchy chorus (I'm wilder than her/Drives her out of her mind/I guess she thought that she/Was just one of a kind). The song was later covered by U.S. folk singer Dar Williams. Lipstick Lies & Gasoline was released on the large independent Razor & Tie label and rose to the top five on the new Americana chart published by Billboard magazine. The album contained another dark Eaglesmith standard, "Spookin' the Horses" (You're spookin' the horses/And you're scarin' me). Eaglesmith kept up the momentum with 1999's 50-Odd Dollars and 2002's Falling Stars and Broken Hearts.
Touring and performing up to 300 shows a year, Eaglesmith gained a strong following in the United States, Europe, and Australia. In August of 2002 he performed at a large festival devoted to Canadian songwriting held at New York's Lincoln Center, but ironically he remained less popular in Canada than in the United States. Eaglesmith moved into a house and recording studio in a converted bait shop in Port Dover, Ontario, on Lake Erie. He continued to visit and work his family's farm but lived away from his wife and children.
With his fan base expanding, Eaglesmith might have chosen to solidify his position in the roster of new country rockers who mining the vein in which he was already successfully working. Instead, the resolutely independent-minded performer changed course several times in the early 2000s. He turned to bluegrass with 2003's Balin, and Dusty, released the following year, was an entirely original departure, using the styles of the 1960s blue-eyed soul vocalist Dusty Springfield and the grandiose, romantic country-pop songwriter Jimmy Webb in the service of a bleak portrait of the rural poor during the time of an unpopular war. "It got a tough reaction from the old guard," Eaglesmith admitted to Greg Quill of the Toronto Star. "They prefer the raw stuff I play with the Flying Squirrels. They want the jokester. A lot of them think the songs are too sad, too dark. But what's the point of writing positive songs when democracy has been cancelled and we're staring down the apocalypse?… The people I'm writing about, the rural working poor, are really tired…. all this war stuff is just one more burden for them."
Eaglesmith returned to more familiar territory with the reflective 2006 release Milly's Café, which featured the Flying Squirrels and once again reached the Americana top ten. Selling his albums mostly on his own and keeping the profits, Eaglesmith had prospered financially. But that year his world seemed to be overturned once more: his home and studio in Port Dover burned to the ground one night in February, with Eaglesmith himself narrowly escaping death—he was asleep on the building's second story when the fire broke out. An adherent of the Buddhist faith, Eaglesmith was philosophical about his loss. "It's a reminder that I don't need all this crap," he mused to Quill. "The Buddhist way allows 17 possessions—I had too many." The experience, perhaps, would have its main effect as a new stimulus to the songwriting of one of roots music's most imaginative and prolific creators.
Fred J. Eaglesmith, Sweetwater, 1980.
The Boy That Just Went Wrong, New Woodshed, 1983.
Indiana Road, Sweetwater, 1987.
There Ain't No Easy Road, Sweetwater, 1991
Things Is Changin', Sweetwater, 1993.
From the Paradise Motel, Barbed Wire, 1994 (live).
Drive-In Movie, Vertical, 1995.
Lipstick Lies & Gasoline, Razor & Tie, 1997.
50-Odd Dollars, Razor & Tie, 1999.
Ralph's Last Show: Live in Santa Cruz, Signature, 2000.
Falling Stars and Broken Hearts, MAPL, 2002.
Balin, AML, 2003.
The Official Fred Eaglesmith Bootleg, Vol. 1, 2003.
Dusty, AML, 2004.
The Official Fred Eaglesmith Bootleg, Vol. 2, 2005.
Milly's Café, AML, 2006.
For the Record …
Born Fred Elgersma in 1957, in Brantford, Ontario, Canada; married; wife's name, Mary; three children. Education: Attended high school in southwestern Ontario.
Left home at age 16 and hitchhiked across Canada, performing in hostels; released album Fred J. Eaglesmith, 1980; owned and operated wholesale flower business, ca. 1980–91; released three independent albums; began performing and writing music full time after bankruptcy of flower business, 1991; signed to Vertical label; signed to Razor & Tie label, 1997; has released 16 albums, including Milly's Café 2006.
Addresses: Home—Port Dover, Ontario. Record company—A Major Record company, 243 Main St., Port Dover, ON, Canada N0A 1N0.
Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), August 17, 2002, p. R9.
Ottawa Citizen (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), December 3, 1992, p. G1; November 30, 1995, p. E1; November 29, 1997, p. H1.
Sacramento Bee, March 16, 2003, p. TK8.
Toronto Star, January 30, 1993, p. H2; July 28, 2002, p. D1; November 25, 2004, p. J4; February 23, 2006, p. A18.
Toronto Sun, September 29, 2003, p. 38.
"Fred Eaglesmith," Fred Eaglesmith Official Website, http://www.fredeaglesmith.com (November 16, 2006).
"Fred Eaglesmith returns home," Jam! Music, http://jam.canoe.ca (November 16, 2006).
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