The first signs of spring find some people in their gardens, others on their roofs shovelling away the remnants of winter. For Fred Eaglesmith and his Travelling Steam Show, it is time to “pack up the wagons” and hit the road.
“We don’t get excited. We just get really busy!” Eaglesmith tells me over the phone.
“It’s a long tour, and there is a lot of preparations to do beforehand. I go one day at a time.”
The current journey began April 11 in Chicago. In almost gypsy fashion, it’s not just bandmates taking to the road with him.
“We’ve got a dog and a baby travelling with us too,” he shares. “The baby has been on the road with us its whole life.”
Eaglesmith is a man who can’t seem to sit still. The Travelling Steam Show will run into the fall, with his troupe kicking up the dust and “awakening quiet towns with rock and roll” throughout North America.
His convoy consists of a school bus and an RV converted to run on used cooking oil they collect from diners along the way.
“People look at you like you have three heads when you ask them for grease. You gotta line it all up, and then it’s gottabe the good stuff when you get there.”
They set up camp in RV parks, Walmart parking lots and truckstops. Eaglesmithis used to life on the road as an artist who has been releasing albums and touring consistently since 1980.
“After doing this for over 30 years, I thought I’d be home by now,” he laughs.
Eaglesmith comes from humble roots— one of nine children raised in rural southern Ontario. Looking to find himself, he began riding the rails at 15 and headed west.
He began writing songs and performing, honing his original tunes as he saw the landscapes unfold, and released his first self-titled album when he was 23.
Eaglesmith has since put out 19 albums, a mix of studio recordings and “official bootlegs” of live performances. They have spanned the genres, from folk to gospel, colourful bluegrass to reverberating rock-and-roll.
A frequent collaborator with the legendary Willie P. Bennett, he has been compared to the likes of Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen.
Still, Eaglesmith retains an almost underground status, even after “wowing” David Letterman with a 2010 performance on The Late Show.
His latest album, 6 Volts (2011), released by his own A Major label, is a stripped down, live-off-the-floor recording done in his home studio with long-time friend Scott Merritt in Vittoria, Ont.
“It’s a one-mic, analogue, reel to reel recording, that has an awesome, swamp rock, songwriter sound,” Eaglesmith describes.
“Once you hear yourself recorded on tape, you won’t ever go back, I promise you that,” he tells me.
Going the analogue route changes the recording dynamic drastically. Without relying on elaborate mixing or after-effects, the song has to be played just right, and it usually takes awhile to achieve that.
“We get in there and play the song 50 times,” Eaglesmith admits. “There’s a lot of crying in the studio, I won’t lie.”
But all of the trials and tribulations have paid off and reviews for 6 Volts have been nothing but stellar.
“The old school sonic approach perfectly matches the rugged authenticity of Eaglesmith’s voice and sparse, poetic narratives,” wrote Kerry Doole for Exclaim Magazine in January. “There’s nothing underpowered about these 6 Volts.”
I personally found it almost hard to imagine that the album was recorded in 2011. Eaglesmith has found a way to blend a retro feel with issues still relevant to contemporary audiences. Tales of hardship, out-of-luck truckers, lost love and travel are themes that will never grow old.
They are tales of the human condition, and with the days getting warmer and people coming out of hibernation, 6 Volts will become a standard soundtrack for porches and pick-up trucks.
Apart from his music, Eaglesmith is also an artist who paints in oils and is an avid philanthropist.
“We got 300 kids sponsored with World Vision in three years,” he reminisces.
He’s just started working with Operation Smile, an organization that provides free surgeries to repair facial deformities such as cleft lips and cleft palate in children.
“With Operation Smile, we can raise enough money in one night to change a life,” Eaglesmith exclaims. “We do things like pie auctions at our shows, and it’s a great way to get the audience involved in the cause.”
When the Travelling Steam Show is finished, he will begin a new adventure. In September the Tin Can Caravan will leave Chicago on an 18-day excursion, travelling the length of Route 66, and this time he’s bringing “Fredheads” along with him.
“There will be 80 to 100 fans with us. Some will stay in the motor coach, the rest will follow behind on bikes, or in cars and trucks towing trailers.”
His current tour will bring him to the Yukon Arts Centre on Saturday, April 28. Whitehorse singer-songwriter Gordie Tentrees will open the show with a set marking the release of his new CD, North Country Heart.
From there, Eaglesmith and Tentrees go on to play the Odd Fellows Hall in Dawson City on April 30, and the St. Elias Convention Centre in Haines Junction on May 1.
Connor Matak is a singer-songwriter, working on home recording and living in Dawson City.