By Doug Pullen
(Oct/Nov 2012/vol. 5 – Issue 5)
When it comes to famous things Canadian, the average American can usually rattle off a handful of our northern neighbor’s greatest – or at least best-known – hits: extremely cold weather; ridiculously good manners; generous universal healthcare coverage; toothless hockey players; Canadian bacon; Celine Dion; and funny accents. Oh, and maybe Rush.
Some day, maybe sooner than later, the name Corb Lund might make that short list, too. Hell, ask some Americana music fans, and Lund might already be No. 1 with a bullet.
The 42-year-old former steer rider and fourth-generation rancher has the rugged good looks of a Hollywood leading man and a rare gift for writing songs full of honky-tonk grit and splashes of classic lit wrapped in deliciously subversive wit. And though he may not be a household name south of the northern border yet, Lund has already been hailed aplenty by critics — who sometimes get things right — and no less than Ian Tyson, the Canadian king of Western music, with whom he played some concerts over the summer. Some of the Lone Star State’s finest are onboard, too, including Lund’s drinking buddy, Hayes Carll.
“What jumped out at me first was how smart he was and his authenticity,” Carll says. “He’s not just rhyming shit and calling it a song.”
Songwriter Tom Russell, El Paso’s sage of the Southwest, is another Lund convert. He says he met Lund six years ago, when Lund “was the up-and-coming big thing in Alberta” and “driving the girls nuts.”
“He’s like a movie star up there — he’s got the looks,” says Russell, who admits that all made him a little skeptical at first. “(I thought), ‘Yeah, sure, another half-assed songwriter,’ … but it turns out I got to know him and he’s a great guy, sincere, and he knows a lot about the West. He’s really serious about his writing. I think he’s the real deal.”
Tell Canadian roots-music fans something they don’t know. Lund’s already won a Juno, Canada’s version of the Grammy, and 11 Canadian Country Music Association Awards (including Roots Artist of the Year from 2004-2010). He routinely plays to big crowds and gets lots of face time on TV and in the press up north.
Here? He’s still pretty much unknown, though he’s slowly building a following in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Texas. Back in 2010, he was nominated by the Americana Music Association for its Emerging Artist Award — at age 40. Two years later, he’s still emerging.
Carll is at a loss to explain why it’s taken his Canadian peer so long. “From the first time I saw him, I thought he would kill in Texas,” he says. “The crowds up in Western Canada are not all that different than here, and he plays for thousands every night. But he comes down at least twice a year and it seems like it builds a little every time. I think when people hear him or see him live they get it. It’s just a matter of getting that exposure. This scene can be a tough nut to crack sometimes, but I’m betting this record will get him over the hump.”
That record is Cabin Fever, Lund’s seventh studio album to date but only his second American release. Issued Aug. 14 on New West Records, it’s been getting some of the most glowing reviews of Lund’s career. “Cabin Fever is a doozy — a soft-hearted, ice-pick-eyed album that toggles between old-school honky-tonk and rambling, misfit folk,” raved the Washington Post, calling Lund “a revelation, laconic and scary smart with a devil’s eye for details.” The New York Times called Cabin Fever an album of “pithy mischief and roguish charm,” while NPR Music praised its modern take on what country music used to be about: “Guns and graves, bovines and bikers, whiskey and women — even with all the references Lund crams into his new record, it rarely feels gratuitous, and that’s impressive. It’s because he’s experienced much of what he sings about. Rural living isn’t easy, as he shows, and that’s why it makes for such great songs.”
The album’s selling, too – debuting at No. 13 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart (not to mention at No. 1 on the Canadian Top 200.) Not too shabby for a collection of songs mostly written during a period of snowed-in retreat in what Lund calls a “very secluded” cabin on the Pembina River in the Rocky Mountain wilderness, an hour northwest of Edmonton, Alberta. “I got my own beach,” he says proudly — not that it did him much good in the dead of last winter, when he spent weeks inside the cabin trying to thaw out his songwriting muse.
“Two or three weeks in a cabin in winter will make you a little nutty,” Lund says. Hence the album’s title.
Lund built the cabin with his uncle, former bronc rider Lynn Jensen, about five years ago. It was meant to be a refuge for him and his girlfriend, a place to “hang out,” as he puts it. Coming off the 2009 issue of his first American release, Losin’ Lately Gambler (Lund released his first album in Canada in 1995), he was on a bit of a roll. But then Jensen died and Lund broke up with his girlfriend of 13 years. Though he tried, the songs didn’t exactly pour out right away.
“It took me longer to write this one,” Lund says. “The first year and a half I didn’t have any luck. Nothing would come that was any good. I drifted around a couple of years. I went to Las Vegas for a few months, New York a few, Austin, trying to write. But in the end, I just spent a whole lot of time in the woods. That helped break the dam.”
The songs finally started flooding in after he shut himself off from civilization. “Writing is elusive,” Lund explains. “You try and try and try and nothing comes. But once you get onto something, it all starts gushing in. It’s a cycle for me, as it is with most creative people, and sometimes you go through ones where you don’t have anything to say.”
But the guy who had alt-country hits in Canada with songs like “Roughest Neck Around,” “Five Dollar Bill” and “Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer” had a lot to say once he struck musical gold. “Some of the better ones came at the end of that session — and a whole bunch of rejects that I just threw away,” he says. “I’ll write stuff to write stuff, to get the juices flowing. It seemed like the longer it went, the better it got.”
Out of all that came songs like “Bible on the Dash,” a knee-slapper of a duet with Carll, who cowrote it with Lund and Jason Boland and sings on it. It’s about a lead-footed band’s use of the good book to avoid arrest. “I had the chorus for years and years and tried to flesh it out but it didn’t work,” Lund says. It started coming together over a night of whiskey at Carll’s place in Austin.
“Corb had the idea and the chorus already banged out,” Carll adds. “I just gave him some insight into dealing with an Alabama state trooper at 2 a.m. when you have a van full of pharmaceuticals.”
“Better yet, he flew up to record it with us,” Lund continues. “We were live in the same booth together, which is way cooler than doing it by emailing the tracks down or what have you. (We got) quite drunk while recording. Very late at night.”
The somber ballad “September,” one of the few to come out of Lund’s time in New York, is about losing his girl to the big city. “I can picture how you’re living, in a tiny fourth-floor flat,” he sings plaintively. “Well there’s times that a thousand acres and the Rocky Mountains can’t compete with that.”
“I don’t really make up love songs … unless something happens and I’ve gone through something specific to the situation,” he says. “It seems like all the radio guys’ default setting is to make up a love song out of nowhere. This is way more interesting.”
Another song, “Cows Around,” warns city dwellers seeking the country life that it ain’t as easy as it seems — sage advice coming from a guy who grew up on ranches in small Alberta towns such as Taber and Rosemary before lighting out for the big city of Edmonton, where he tried college and wound up playing bass and singing in a punk/metal band.
An avid reader, Lund lists Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and the poetry of Gabriel Garcia Marquez among his favorites. He’d been reading “dystopian shit” like 1984, Brave New World and A Handmaid’s Tale in the run-up to writing Cabin Fever’s opener, “Gettin’ Down on the Mountain,” from the perspective of a gun-toting survivalist stocking up for the day the world’s oil wells run dry.
The stuff he reads and the things he sees tend to make it into a lot of Lund’s songs. “I don’t do it on purpose,” he insists. “I don’t write a lot of love songs, but when I’m in a card-playing phase or a military history phase, it ends up in the songs. The petrol situation and the potential currency collapse and all those people saving ammo and cans of beans for the apocalypse came out.”
That sense of humor is part of Lund’s appeal. He can write a weeper with the best of them, though he doesn’t write many. His offbeat humor is unique and something fans have come to expect. “I’ve built an audience that’s prepared for me to write about weird shit,” he notes. “They sort of expect it, which is kind of good; it pretty much gives me free range. I’ve got a song about Goth chicks on the record.” (“The Gothest Chick I Can.”)
Inspired by Steve Earle’s stripped-down Train A Comin’ album, Lund and his longtime three-piece band, the Hurtin’ Albertans (acoustic bassist Kurt Ciesla, drummer Brady Valgardson and guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Grant Siemens) cut all 12 songs live in the studio, the better to bring out the raw immediacy of the songs.
“Every time I hear records that were rough around the edges, I always like them,” Lund says. “You have that thing in the back of your head to make it professional sounding, but I just kind of said fuck it. My band’s been with me 12 years, we’ve played thousands of shows together. It’s better to just hit record and put the stuff down. It worked out really well. It was mostly four guys in the room.”
As an added bonus, deluxe editions of Cabin Fever come with live, acoustic versions of all 12 songs. “The acoustic thing is a side of the band I just wanted to show people,” he explains. “The guys are good playing that way, but we never recorded [ourselves] that way before.”
Lund got to this point by slowly building his career in his native country. The people, things and animals he writes about are rooted in real life, a life that dates back to 1969, when he was born Corby Clark Marinus Lund and raised on ranches in rural Alberta in Western Canada. “My grandpa was Clark Marinus Lund, so we’re kinda namesakes,” he says. “He was an old rancher and bronc rider. He won the Calgary Stampede all round in 1939, which is a moderately big deal around our parts.”
Lund, who performed at this year’s Calgary Stampede centennial celebration, comes from a long line of rodeo people. His father was a steer rider, his mother a barrel racer. Lund tried his hand at it, too, but didn’t have their success. Instead, he gravitated to the big city to study jazz guitar and bass at a small college in Edmonton, which led him to the Smalls, a technically proficient band of musicians who played what he calls “underground speed-metal punk” infused with jazz and country. The group split up in 2001.
Lund had released two solo albums by then, but didn’t start making real noise until his third album, Five Dollar Bill, in 2002 on Canada’s Stony Plain label. That album and its followup, 2005’s Hair In My Eyes Like a Highland Steer, both sold more than 50,000 copies, good enough for a Canadian gold record. Lund continues to take the DIY approach he adopted in those days. “I make my own T-shirts and record my own records and put them out,” he says. “I set up my career to make sure it still happens independent of the music business. It’s been really helpful.”
Lund has made inroads in Texas in part because he’s lived in Austin in for months here and there since the Smalls broke up. “It’s just kind of ground zero for underground country, right?” he reflects. “It’s kind of like the Nashville or L.A. of indie country. A lot of my favorite writers are from there.”
That includes Carll, who says he lost “quite a bit of money” to Lund’s ex in the poker game where the two kindred spirits first met seven years ago. “There’s real depth and substance in a lot of his music,” Carll says. “He can still write the rowdy sing-alongs with the best of them, but some of the topics he tackles and the details and phrasing he uses puts him on a different level in my book.”
Russell, who’s nearly 20 years Lund’s senior, praises his “freshness, sincerity and authenticity” and describes his sound as “post-Western punk with goth spurs.” “I think his soul is entrenched in the cowboy West and he’s become respected for his outlook and writing,” Russell says. “At the same time, he carries a younger, almost rock-punk-goth outlook with him and that makes the music have a special, new feel.”
Besides, Russell adds: “He comes from a ranch background. You can’t bullshit real cowboys. They’ll shoot you, or spit tobacco on you.”
Having hit a new stride with Cabin Fever, Lund plans to tour the album for a while before moving on to his next project. That just might be something with Carll and their friend and Cabin Fever coproducer John Evans, a side project called the Ego Brothers that Carll says they’ve been working on for a while. “And when I say working, I mostly mean thinking of great song titles and discussing what we’re gonna wear on tour,” he explains. “Lots of suede and headbands.”
Hopefully, it won’t come to that. Regardless, Lund is both philosophic and open-minded about what the future may hold. “There’s a luck factor involved,” he says, addressing the big picture of making it as an artist. “You just stick around long enough until you get a shot, I guess. … Now it’s coming.”