Fred Eaglesmith grew up on a farm in Ontario. His family’s life was hard, but when they finally got a TV and he watched an Elvis Presley special from Hawaii, he saw a way out. “I said, ‘There’s an escape. That’s what I’m going to do.’ But I’ve still never been to Hawaii.” Eaglesmith has, however, performed just about everywhere else, and he’ll come to Hill Country on Jan. 7 with his wife and musical partner, Tif Ginn.
Eaglesmith started writing songs when he was in sixth grade, and hopped a freight train out West as a teenager. He made up stories about drifters, drunks, truckers and other folks who struggle, usually finding humor in their rough lives.
He released his first album in 1980 and has made 21 more since then. Along the way, Eaglesmith’s songs have earned him a modest but devoted following. “Wherever I go there’s probably 100 people. They’re true fans. This isn’t a good time for artists, but I have managed to squeak through. I feel real fortunate that I can play stuff that in the modern world isn’t relevant.”
In fact, a song like “Kansas” always seems relevant:
It’s always Kansas, that’s where I always break down
That’s where my world tumbles to the ground.
It’s always Kansas, it’s where I fall apart
It’s where my broken heart catches up with you.
Eaglesmith is a stage name (he was born Frederick John Elgersma), and intentionally or not, it provides an insight into his approach: studious craft in the service of lofty ambition. It took him a while to accept his gift for humor in storytelling, as in lines like “Me and the missus were fresh out of kisses.”
“When I was 23, maybe I wasn’t brave enough to show it,” he said. “But when I understood what my quirk was, and that people actually liked it, I got to be the biggest class clown.
In performance, Eaglesmith’s humor bubbles up in his songs and also in his stage patter, which can range from riffs on comb-overs to accordions. He’s not above repeating a good story, because “it’s easier to find a new audience than a new joke.”
At a recent show he went on a tirade against tribute bands. Informed that there is such a group in Baltimore that performs his songs, he said, “I’m not even dead yet! But I guess I don’t mind a tribute band that pays homage … covering somebody’s songs because you like the songs.”
Donna the Buffalo, Greensky Bluegrass
Bill Monroe would probably call it bluegrass blasphemy (he did that a lot), but some old-time musicians like to play rock music.
Donna the Buffalo, which started almost 30 years ago as a fiddle-based group, has become a reliably groovy mainstay at music festivals. The band recently released a catchy video for its song “Across the Way,” and will perform at The Hamilton on Jan. 19.
The members of Greensky Bluegrass apply their serious chops in a jam-band way. They’ll be at The Anthem on Feb. 3 along with Billy Strings, who plays acoustic guitar like a cross between Doc Watson and a heavy metal shredder.
Charles Walston writes songs and sings in The Truck Farmers, which will perform at Mr. Henry’s on Feb. 8.