Some artists, to paraphrase Fleetwood Mac, go their own way — and some, like Canadian iconoclast Fred Eaglesmith, bull rush a path to unconventional success with the reckless energy of a runaway locomotive. Decked out in a steampunk top hat — his current backing band, The Traveling Steam Show, is influenced by 1960s variety shows — Eaglesmith travels the continent in a veggie-oil-fueled 1990 Bluebird bus, playing upward of 270 shows a year that pull from 20-plus albums of outsider folk, rock, country and bluegrass.
How does a Canadian master such decidedly American art forms? Easy: Grow up as one of nine children on a farm in rural Ontario. “I was raised on the backroads, and we lived a hard, hand-to-mouth existence,” Eaglesmith says. “Religion, agriculture and poverty — there’s the formula. We listened to country music while we were milking cows.”
After leaving home and roaming Canada on freight trains, Eaglesmith decided to try his own hand at playing music. He quickly discovered it wasn’t hard for him to stand out. “Living so close to the American border, I got music up from Tennessee and Virginia, whereas my counterparts in Canada were listening to Celtic music from Scotland, so they didn’t know where I was coming from,” he says. “And my take on American music was different because I wasn’t American, so those people were, like, ‘We understand it, and we like it, but it’s odd.’ I was lucky in that sense.”
“Luck” isn’t really the right word for it. Though Eaglesmith recorded only three full-length albums in the 1980s, he earned a reputation as a hell-raising raconteur who toured harder, sang rawer and wrote sharper than anyone. Combining a working-class Springsteen sensibility with an outlaw country mentality, Eaglesmith has all but given the finger to anything resembling the “proper” music industry for the last 35 years. And when a man is that honest — moving his own merchandise, working on his own tour bus, naming his self-owned label “A Major Label” — a diehard fanbase, in this case calling themselves “Fredheads,” is bound to arise.
“The thing about being an independent artist is that it’s cost me millions of dollars throughout the years,” Eaglesmith says. “But it’s just money. I knew I was never going to be wealthy going this way. I’m happier. I meet friends who are stars and live in mansions, but they never seem to be as happy as I am.”
Eaglesmith’s career hasn’t been entirely untouched by mainstream attention. Country superstars like Toby Keith, Miranda Lambert and Alan Jackson have covered his songs, and several original compositions have appeared in TV shows like “True Blood” and “Grimm.” In 2010, Eaglesmith even performed on the “Late Show with David Letterman.”
“We’ve made a little money on all of that, but we also had to pay back a lot of people who took some big risks on me in the ’90s,” Eaglesmith says. “My download check every month is adequate, though, and a lot of people are interested in the artwork that I make. So I have a pretty well-rounded existence. I’m never going to be wealthy, but I live like an artist — a fantastic life.”
Lest you think Eaglesmith is easing off the musical gas, the 56-year-old has January, February and March booked solid with tour dates. And the three-month-long haul will run on the fresh gasoline of Eaglesmith’s new album “Tambourine,” a live-recorded ode to jangly rock ‘n’ roll circa 1966.
“I’ve written so many deep, heavy songs,” he says, “and as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started thinking about what guys were doing writing jingles in the ’60s — and guys I didn’t even like in the ’60s. Now I get what they were doing. I don’t know if I was successful with ‘Tambourine,’ but I’ve gotten somewhere. Now we’ll see if anybody likes it.”