by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
May 31, 2001
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- If there was anyone left in Nashville with a brain, Fred Eaglesmith would be selling CDs by the millions.
Instead, if you like sheer wildness, irreverent humor, fast cars, family farms, eccentric love stories and train songs, he remains the best singer and songwriter you've never heard of.
Fred, however, is not exactly an unknown. He's won awards in his native Canada, and his songs have been recorded by the Cowboy Junkies and Dar Williams.
Fredheads -- and there are many -- fall into two categories (according to Fred) -- the barflies who yell out, "I love you, maaan," and the well-educated professionals who follow him like lemmings. I have one foot in each camp.
Fred's songs are, to say the least, useful. Whenever unsteady piles of books, newspapers and magazines threaten to push me out of my house, I cheer myself up with an uptempo chorus of "When, exactly, did we become white trash?"
Whenever the politicians do something exceptionally stupid, which is most of the time, I calm myself with a rousing chorus of "Time to Get a Gun," the song that keeps Fred from being booked by the earnest promoters of the major folk festivals. ("Time to get a gun. That's what I was thinking. I could afford one, if I did a little less drinking.")
Whenever another rock star bites the dust, Fred's brilliant "Alcohol and Pills," a hymn to Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons and Jimi Hendrix, says it all:
"You think they might've been happy with the glory and the fame. But fame doesn't take away the pain, it just pays the bills. And you wind up on alcohol and pills."
Fred rocks. Presenting himself as a hell-raiser, he prides himselfon his wild, wild ways. His songs feature women that other men cross thestreet to get away from, like the lady in "Good Enough."
On parole and packing a knife, she "wasn't like anybody that you ever knew."
When she leaves him for "some guy who looks like he's in junior high," Fred steals a car, covers it with gasoline and sets it on fire. But it leaves him with an empty feeling: "It's not the same when she's not with me."
Fred likes trains - fast trains. He chases after them, dreams about them, and celebrates them in a series of songs that make your heart race: "I wish I was a freight train baby, I wish I was a diesel locomotive. I'd come whistling down the track, crashing down your door."
Fred's most heartbreaking songs are about the loss of family farming -his own family's farm was repossessed when he was 14.
In "Harold Wilson," a man explains why he's living at the Paradise Motel.
"Did you ever try to farm a farm with a pick and a shovel? Try to put a field into corn just wouldn't grow nothin'?
"Starin' down, across the town, you wonder why you even bother.
"When up the road there's a vacant room with climate control and color, and you can stay there by the month for a hundred dollars."
In "John Deere," a young man reluctantly writes to his father:
"It's rained for weeks, and it flooded the creek, and I lost the whole crop of grain. And the man at the bank wouldn't loan me the money to plant that field again. So today, Dad, I sold the old John Deere.
"The man who bought it is going to fix it up and put it in a museum. I guess that's where this whole thing's gone. A picture for people to pay to look upon.
"'That's how they lived in the old days, son.'
"Sheep's in the meadow, can't find the cows, Little Boy Blue's got a job in town."
Fred's love songs are miniature novels. In the haunting "Summerlea," he tells the story of a cowboy and the town-bound woman who loves him. "But he only gets into town twice a month and he gets out as fast as he can. And he don't have a phone so she can't call him up and she never knows where he is... She's been in love a couple times before but never quite like this."
My personal favorite, "Lucille," is a crowd-pleaser. Lucille is an older woman who once was his girlfriend. On their dates, they'd go screaming around town in his '65 Ford with its Cobra Jet 428 engine. Many years later, Fred's wife restores the old car as a 40th birthday present. Fred drives out to the old age home, picks up Lucille, and they go out for one last ride - "We took off like a dustbowl hurricane... It was crazy, but it sure was good."
Fred is one of the most dynamic stage performers around. If you want to hear what his shows sound like, Signature Sounds has just put out a terrific Fred Eaglesmith and the Flying Squirrels live CD called "Ralph's Last Show." I recommend that you buy it now, because, as Fred sings, "I like to drive at 105, better hurry up if you want to catch me."
Joyce Marcel is a freelance journalist from Dummerston whowrites about c= ulture, politics, economics and travel.