Bradenton-bound Fred Eaglesmith on trains, guns and Toby Keith: interview
It all started with hearing Fred Eaglesmith's “Wilder than Her” come through my pitiful car speakers while listening to Tampa-based community radio station WMNF (88.5) in the late 1990s. The song is a mid-tempo acoustic number that finds the singer bragging about his reckless ways while also pledging his love to a woman who brings him peace. “Wilder Than Her” is humorous and poignant, emblematic of Eaglesmith’s many memorable songs.
While maybe not as dedicated as some of the Fredheads who will gather again at Ace’s Live in Bradenton on Saturday, I have been a fan of Eaglesmith ever since that morning I heard "Wilder Than Her" while driving to classes at the University of South Florida. For the uninitiated, Eaglesmith’s songs have been covered by country stars Toby Keith, Miranda Lambert and Alan Jackson. The 56-year-old Eaglesmith and his fellow “Travelling Steam Show” musicians, though, prefer a rawer presentation. It's folk-rock peppered with backwoods blues and ample country soul. In addition to being an expert singer-songwriter, Eaglesmith also excels at between-song comic monologues.
I talked to Eaglesmith by phone recently about everything from his superb new album “Tambourine” to my undying fondness for “Wilder Than Her.”
The tracks “Engineer” and “Train Wreck” off your new album “Tambourine” made me recall your previous songs “Freight Train" and “I like Trains.” When did your fascination with trains begin?
I left home at 15 and hopped freights in Canada for four or five years. I’d go home and leave again. In those days, the cops would just throw you off, or maybe even turn the heat up, because you’re a kid. At age 21, they would beat us up. That’s when it had to stop.
“Whip a Dog” also adds to your impressive collection of dog songs, which includes the mistaken-identity comedy, “I Shot Your Dog,” and the loving tribute to man’s best friend, “He’s a Good Dog.” How many dogs do you have at home?
I have zero dogs. Tell you why: I have had so many dog deaths I just can’t take another one.
The new album is called “Tambourine.” Is that an instrument you encourage people bring to the show?
No, actually, I have another song and the first line is, “Step away from the tambourine, man, you’re not in the band.”
Describe the average Fredhead?
The average Fredhead is somewhere middle-aged, a broad spectrum of middle-aged, and they’re reasonably intelligent, searching, they’re lookers. They have had some success and are not ready to fold. They still have that spark. They’re still in on the rock and roll deal.
What’s the key to coming up with a great comic story like the ones you tell in concert?
Most of those are written on spot, on stage. It’s really, really trusting yourself to go there. It takes a lot of confidence and a lot of experience.
Toby Keith did a nice job covering your song “White Rose” on his album “Big Dog Daddy.” Are there any of his songs you would consider singing?
I always thought “How Do You Like Me Now?” was a pretty funny song with darn clever lyrics. I’m not into that genre but Toby knows what he’s doing and does it really well.
Since Miranda Lambert’s recording of your song “Time to Get a Gun” - about a man feeling a need to purchase a firearm so he can protect his family after his neighbor’s car gets stolen - did you find yourself pulled into the gun control debate again?
They tried it up in Canada with me and then with her but she shut them down. I never thought the song was about a gun anyway. It’s just a song that actually happened to me. It’s completely true.
No guns. I don’t need a gun. I don’t even kill mosquitos.
You have a song about liking to drive at “105” and another about a “Benchseat” and your love of a “Mighty Big Car.” What do you drive?
The best machine I have in my driveway is my 1991 Blue Bird bus. It’s a tank that runs on vegetable oil.
The hilarious “White Trash” features some fine falsetto vocals. Was that the toughest singing you’ve ever done?
No, that wasn’t hard, I can sing falsetto all day. Singing like a real guy is hard for me.
In describing yourself, is the song “Pretty Good Guy” (co-written with Chris Knight) pretty autobiographical?
Yeah, I think the song is really good. I think that song was my idea and Chris really helped … It’s what I believe about most people. I try to be the best I can, that’s the goal. I’m trying.
Your songs “Alcohol & Pills” and “Mrs. Hank Williams” both refer to Hank Williams. Is there anyone more legendary than him in country music?
I guess not. That’s a good question. I think Johnny Cash had achieved more pop culture status. But Hank is more legendary, a better songwriter, he hurt more. Johnny was more show business and Hank was bleeding from every pore. Johnny got a sense of himself. Hank was too young to sober up and go to church and go to A.A. I don’t appreciate those guys who go to A.A. I like you better as an addict.
“Wilder than Her” is one of my favorite songs. Not just by you, by anybody. What do you think that says about me?
That’s a lot of people’s favorite song and I don’t really know why. I was indifferent about it at first. Twenty years later, they all like it and I like it and it’s OK, but not my favorite song … Sometimes a song grows on me, though. “Wilder Than Her” did grow on me.
Fred Eaglesmith’s Traveling Steam Show
8 p.m. Saturday; Ace’s Live, 4343 Palma Sola Blvd., Bradenton; $20 (advance), $25 (at the door); non-smoking show; 795-3886; aceslivemusic.com.