“We were out for 75 days straight and we played 64 shows in those days,” says Fred Eaglesmith from his home in Vittoria, Ontario. “I just got back on Monday, and I’ve been gone from the 10th of January. … Lots of us came home and said, ‘Geez, I could have stayed out.’ We’re so alive right now.”
“Is it true you perform 300 shows a year?” I ask.
“It’s about 250. I was up over 300 one year – in the early 2000s I was up to 310 or something. Two years ago I did 270; last year I was around 260, 250. I’m trying to slow down a little bit.”
“How do you keep it fresh?”
“Y’know, the longer I go, the fresher it is. There’s no ambition in our career. In other words, we don’t want to be anything other than what we are. When I was younger, I wanted to do ‘the thing,’ and as I get older …”
He voice drifts. “Y’know, we’re one of the very last full-time travelling rock and roll shows left in North America, or the world. There’s something really amazing about that, because I never thought it would be me.”
Fred Eaglesmith’s backstory makes him sound like the platonic ideal of a troubadour. Legend has it that young Frederick Elgersma, a teenager from Caistor Centre, hopped a train to Western Canada and began singing songs about hard times in rural Ontario. Across 18 studio albums and thousands of live concerts that have made him “mid-level famous,” he has become one of the busiest troubadours in Canadian music.
“The other word for ‘work ethic’ is ‘addict,’” he laughs. “I had a meeting with a friend of mine. I said, ‘When do we ever quit and sit on the beach?’ He said, ‘You and I may never be able to do that. It’s not in us.’”
He continues, “I really sort of resented my peers who just hung around Starbucks and waited for the government grant to come in. I really believe in the work ethic of rock and roll. It’s hard to do it, but I can do it, and I don’t take the government’s money, and I don’t use Kickstarter, and I make a living, and I proudly employ almost 10 families who make a living on rock and roll without the government.”
“Is it true you work on as many as 130 songs at any given time?” I ask.
“Yeah. At least. I counted ‘em last year. I work on about 150 songs all the time. Last fall, I painted about 75 paintings, and since last fall I’ve written 173 different poems and stories. My friends think I’m a freak.”
In April, The Fred Eaglesmith Show hits Kitchener and Elora, and after that he’s embarking on a string of ambitious concerts that will take him across Ontario.
“What happened is, the demand has gotten bigger. Usually we’ve tried to ignore it, but what’s happened is, we have a big western tour this summer, and the big theatres are calling saying, ‘Hey, you haven’t been here for years, can you come?’ That eliminates a lot of the little places we play.”
“Do you prefer the big halls?”
“Oh no, I prefer the little places. I like a small hall, in a little town. I like to be the Saturday night band, you know what I mean?”
For a time, he attracted a fanbase that some wags called “Fredheads,” but he says his audience has shifted with his style. No two Eaglesmith albums are exactly alike – last year’s Tambourine, a throwback to ‘60s rock and R&B, was far different than its 2012 predecessor, the minimalist 6 Volts.
I ask, “When people have performing artists they like, they tend to want them to do the same thing over and over. You don’t run into that?”
“Oh, I run into it all the time,” he says. “I would be a millionaire if I just stuck to one thing. I could have garnered fans and never lost them. But every five years is a complete turnover of fans.
“As I get older, I’m less inhibited about what people think of me. After 50, you just don’t care anymore. I’m a better artist now.”
Fred Eaglesmith will be performing in Kitchener on April 3 at the Royal Canadian Legion Polish Branch 412 on April 3, and in Elora on April 12 at Legion Branch 229. Tickets are $30 at the door or $25 advance at www.fredeaglesmith.com.