by carl wilson

Geoff Berner's Phony Gall

berner.jpgFredEaglesmith.jpg
Berner (left) v. Eaglesmith: Now, who here is supposed to be the pretentious one?

I've seen British Columbia's Geoff Berner perform once, opening for Billy Bragg, and was distinctly unimpressed by his cliched tunes, forced humour, desperate stage manner and occasional moralistic stridency (unlike Bragg's usually quickwitted, wordplay-rich style of communicating a political message, though he certainly has his clunky moments too). But since Berner isn't particularly successful, I saw no point in bitching about him. Until now.

Manitoba campus-community DJ Jeff Robson has just posted a song of Berner's called Phony Drawl which is apparently an attack on Fred Eaglesmith, focusing on the fact that Eaglesmith speaks with a southern-style drawl when in fact the south he's from is southern Ontario. This, to Berner, is justification for a long, droning (in a terrible Fred imitation), unfunny and contemptuous screed. Now, before I go on, I realize that Berner is bound to accuse me of lacking a sense of humour, the usual refuge of talent-short comedians who abuse their artistic license to conduct glib drivebys under cover of "satire." Berner's smart-assed cocktail of envy and class condescension is a toxic drip in the cultural well. As insignificant as it is, though, I won't stand by and hear one of the country's hardest-working and most underappreciated artists smeared.

Besides being essentially unlistenable, the song is peppered with lines such as "So I sing about guns and horses/ Not my university courses," a barb that might stick to a lot of would-be Johnny Cash Juniors in the alt-country scene but reveals total ignorance of Eaglesmith's actual background, which involves (among other things) a fundamentalist Christian rural upbringing with eight siblings, a foreclosed family farm, a farm of his own, and no college-town airs. Berner is probably one of those westerners who doesn't realize that there's anything more to Ontario than the greater Toronto area, but making Eaglesmith out as some sort of fraud is idiocy. Sure, he's got a crafted stage persona, but his motivations and targets with that persona are always complex and surprising and absolutely with a political consciousness (and not a very subtle one, though apparently too subtle for Berner), somewhat in the manner of the great sly-hick comedians of country tradition. The drawl, meanwhile, is a distinct blend of an actual southern Ontario country accent and the unavoidable effects of singing country music for 30 years (listen to a veteran American power-pop singer and tell me you can't hear the British traces in their voices, intentional or not), along with the fact that Eaglesmith spends a couple of hundred days in a typical year south of the border. I could go on.

But, more to the point, Eaglesmith has written a hundred songs easily greater than anything Berner will ever conceive in his life, and his pathetically pennyante concern with Fred's "authenticity" betrays the worst kind of second-rater's envy. (And typically Canadian envy, too, I'm afraid.) Sing a song about Dylan's phony drawl, why don'tcha, Geoff? It would be much more accurate - and even more irrelevant.

Berner performs with the much better Barmitzvah Brothers on Friday night at the Rivoli. By coincidence, the Barmitzvahs (led by the sparkling Jenny Mitchell) are quite skilled at writing teasing songs with pointed subtexts, directed at real people, without making jerks of themselves. I hope Berner's listening. I believe the Barmitzvahs are on first, so if you go, show up early. And then leave early too.

My Globe profile of Eaglesmith, which addresses some of the misperceptions of Ontario reflected in Berner's song, is on the jump, along with a more recent short piece. [...]

Sworn enemy of the Volvo set
Fred Eaglesmith pens gritty, hardscrabble music that doesn't kowtow to the artistic bureaucracy

Carl Wilson
17 August 2002
The Globe and Mail
Toronto

Fred Eaglesmith isn't the kind of guy you'd peg as a collector. It's hard to picture the gruff musician, with his hedge-clipper haircut and muscles swelling out from the sawed-off sleeves of his checkered shirt, fussing in a kitchen hutch over commemorative plates and spoons. But in fact he is stowing away a little memorabilia.

"One of the things I've started doing lately," the 45-year-old tells me over coffee one muggy August afternoon, on a blink-long break from the perpetual tour that has brought him to more than 170 gigs this year alone, "is I steal signs from the music festivals. Especially the ones that are misspelled. But the thing is they're all rules: 'No this,' 'No this,' 'Can't do that.' When I get older I'm going to display them. I'm going to put it all in a gallery somewhere and call it 'Folk Festival.' "

Then, like one of the truckers or trainmen in his songs, Eaglesmith opens up the throttle. "Woody Guthrie - who to me is the father of folk music really - he would have had no rules. But this is what happens to culture in Canada. Culture in Canada is now run by the Volvo set. And they want it nice and they want red wine or white wine with it. They don't want it gritty."

In fact, Eaglesmith has been tearing down the taboos of Canadian music since the start, nearly 40 years ago, when he first saw Elvis Presley on TV and knew he'd found his calling - much to the chagrin of his hardscrabble-farming father and evangelical Christian family on the outskirts of Brantford, Ont. No wonder he called his first album, in 1983, The Boy That Just Went Wrong.

It wouldn't be until the 1990s that Eaglesmith would take up that rock 'n' roll pulpit in earnest; first, he hopped trains across the country and made his own disastrous detours into agribusiness. Yet when he finally turned to music full-time, he quickly become a cult idol for his four-minute novellas of wild women, desperate men and punishing landscapes - with "Fredheads" signed-up on several continents and meeting daily on the Internet, 11 albums selling at a steadily increasing pace and a concert schedule more brutal than Bob Dylan's infamous "endless tour," criss-crossing the continent almost weekly in a cantankerous bus.

Most recently Eaglesmith played for thousands outdoors at New York's Lincoln Center and at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. "Yep," he says, laughing, "we got out from behind the chicken wire for a little bit." Not to mention several decidedly unruly festivals fully devoted to his music, including his annual charity picnic near Port Dover, Ont., which takes place this weekend.

Yet even before all this began, in his early 30s, he already had recorded a dozen classics, mostly about the destruction of Canadian agricultural life.

A cover of one of them by singer James King is a hit right now on U.S. bluegrass radio stations: "Thirty years of farming/ Thirty years of heartache/ Thirty years of day-to-day/ My daddy stopped talkin'/ The day the farm was auctioned/ There was nothing left to say." Not bad for a kid who, he says now, "hadn't found [his] voice" when that song was written.

But something did shift. One day the awkward folksinger, whose rural elegies recalled the dust bowl photographs of Dorothea Lange, suddenly started cranking out amped-up rockers about drinking, drugs, the highway patrol, arson-fuelled love affairs and rooftop snipers. What happened was the United States. He had driven down to Nashville to try to sell some songs, and a wire had gone live.

"America's so exciting, you know. There's so much edge, every time you cross the border. I was so poor and I was driving down to Nashville in my old Lincoln Continental all the time, never knowing if I'd make it. I bought it for a thousand dollars, and it was the longest car allowed in those days. . . . I'd just stop at all these gas stations, and it was so edgy. I don't feel it anymore because I go there so often. But I really felt those people."

And they felt him. Eaglesmith didn't sell any songs to the Garth Brooks crowd, but, with his band the Flying Squirrels (including Canadian folk legend Willie P. Bennett on mandolin a la Hendrix), he started selling in droves to audiences in hardtack American nightclubs. A series of new albums were given a junkyard-chromium sheen by producer Scott Merritt, another Brantford-area cult songwriter. And Eaglesmith had honed his forest-fire stage persona - part standup comedian, part country tear-jerker, part preacher, part punk.

"In America they started talking about the songs as literature," he says. "I'd never thought of it that way but it was what I had aspired to." Word soon spread that he was the northern heir to the Texas songwriting tradition of Willie Nelson, Townes van Zandt, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, etc. And it has continued to spread.

In a difficult economic climate, more album orders are arriving than ever, his European audience is exploding, and his band is playing ever-larger venues. The insults come only at home. While he venerates the Canadian song tradition represented by Gordon Lightfoot or Ian Tyson, Eaglesmith constantly vexes its bureaucratic gatekeepers. A couple of weeks ago in Canmore, Alta., a festival put up him and his five musicians in one small suite. When he asked apologetically for a little privacy, the promoters fumed at his "egomania."

"And then I go to Bellows Falls, Vermont, or wherever, and it's all, 'What can we do for you?' I get pissed off. There was a big Stan Rogers tribute at this festival - and thank God - but if Stan had been there you bet he'd have gotten his own room. You know why? Because he's dead. And that's how it works in Canada. If I was dead I would have gotten my own room."

He disparages the Canadian music industry and the CBC for ignoring young artists, and a granting system that favours polite, "conservative liberal" baby-boomers who are good at filling out forms: "It just keeps mediocrity in business." He fantasizes about holding a festival where no one over 30 could perform, himself included. "It'd be magic."

The irony of Eaglesmith's cross-border conflicts is that his characters actually are very Canadian. Not the Canada you usually find in our novels and movies, but the Canada on the edges of out-of-order towns in southwestern Ontario, people muttering darkly about the Indians or the income tax, with a six-pack for company.

"Exactly!" he says. "I'm a regionalist. I feel so lucky to have grown up in the south - southern Ontario. The cops are so crooked there . . . the prejudice is so honest . . . And you drive out on the roads and you see these little innocent brick houses with people on the porch, and then another one a mile later, and then another. It's like nowhere else. People think it's all Toronto and that's not true."

That localism is the real backbone of Eaglesmith's "honorary Texan" status. It underlies many songs on this year's Falling Stars and Broken Hearts, such as Cumberland County, an improbably moving monologue by a snowplow driver having a nervous breakdown. "I like that guy because he's just burned out. He doesn't even have a reason. He's not on drugs, he's not drinking." The habit he has to shake is his job, which makes sense to Eaglesmith, whose own career can seem an isolating addiction at times. He lives in Port Dover, on Lake Erie, and when he's home he drives out to do maintenance on the ingenious wind-and-solar-power system at the nearby farm that houses his ex-wife and children - one of the prices he's paid for his vocation.

Amazingly, he writes about a dozen songs a week, and some of his favourites arrive in the middle of the night, forgotten till he looks in his notebook in the morning. He has been striving to shuck off cleverness in favour of plainspoken lyrics that might take many listens to yield up their subtext, even to him. "When you start out as an artist, you write a part because it sounds right, and later on you find out that thing is called a 'bridge.' It's a bit of a loss of innocence. It was better when you didn't know the trick."

It is a risky road. After 1997's critical breakthrough, Lipstick, Lies and Gasoline, for instance, he needed relief. "The songs were so intense for so long. I read that Dorothea Lange, after she was done with a project, just shot picture postcards. And I thought, I'm just gonna do that." He wrote novelty songs such as Big Hair and White Trash, which delighted and offended people, mostly for the wrong reasons. "I was trying to do something else there, something more poignant. ... Sometimes my ideas are better than they are," he says with a laugh. "Sometimes they're great ideas, but they just aren't any good."

He admits the same might apply to his last two studio albums. Fifty-Odd Dollars in 2000 was an odd attempt to fuse bluegrass and surf-guitar that "nobody got";the new album was intended as a "last-gasp" tribute to country music, except he found he couldn't stand the cliches he meant to eulogize. "Things is Changin' . . . again," he says, paraphrasing the 1993 album title that marked his first transformation from folky to force of nature.

Most visibly, Eaglesmith and Bennett's long-time fellow Flying Squirrels have been replaced by players in their 20s. Together, he says, they are "brailleing" their way toward new styles. He's also become suspicious of his own overdeliberate approach to recording - "What is production and when is it relevant? - so he may begin to make quick, dirty recordings of his hundreds of unused songs. "We'll just see in 10 years if I'm right."

Meanwhile, he'll be on the road, uprooting expectations and building up his collection. "My mother used to say, 'Idle hands are the devil's playthings,' " he says. "I'm not good with idle hands."


* * *



Four Nights with Fred Eaglesmith

Carl Wilson
The Globe and Mail
Friday, November 19, 2004

Sometimes singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith gets tired of singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith. Not that he swears off being the black-sheep son of a rural Ontario preacher man, the rebel laureate of foreclosed farms, pill-dazed truckers and other busted ways of life. But he's logged hundreds of shows a year over the past few decades, recruiting his international brigade of "Fredheads," and he's not a man who likes to get bored. So he's invented Freds for every occasion.

You can witness several in a four-night stand at Hugh's Room (Nov. 24 to 27, $20, 2261 Dundas St. W., 416-531-6604): first, intense and solo; then turbo-charging bluegrass with the Flathead Noodlers; then easing in to the Flying Squirrels' slap-and-tickle country-folk; and finally rocking out on Saturday with the Smokin' Losers' diesel-powered twang. (All these bands are made up of the same guys.)

Another Fred altogether is audible on his newest self-released album, Dusty, matching a cheap Wurlitzer "Funmaker" organ to a pricey string quartet for a cockeyed carnival-tent remake of the sixties' Nashville Sound -- but with songs as sharp and bleak as Springsteen's Nebraska. That's the trick: No matter what style Eaglesmith chooses, he makes the truest sounds you ever heard.

Read More | | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 18 at 02:01 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (30)

 

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Hey Carl,
Kudos for giving credit to the chronically underappreciated Fred Eaglesmith and taking a polite (and as I read it, somewhat playful and not mean-spirited) jab at the somewhat tiring Geoff Berner. I would like to assume that Berner meant no harm by making a crack about the apparent novelty/put-on elements of Fred's music but sheesh, talk about the pot calling the kettle black! Fred is the real deal and he writes and sings from the heart. Berner, with all due respect, will probably not be written about in forums like this in the years ahead.

Posted by matt on January 24, 2006 01:10 PM

 

 

I know this post was a little over-the-top, but that's the fun of blogging, at least every now and then. I wouldn't have put this in print in the same way.

Michael and Stuart, I haven't liked Berner's other stuff either, I'm afraid. I'm not calling for him to be hunted down and imprisoned or anything, just reacting with distaste. You can claim I misunderstand his humour, but I think I just find his humour clumsy and his music schticky and unappealing. These are just matters of taste.

As for Fred's - I'm not saying every song is great - I do think he spins his wheels and repeats himself. But his best are on the Neil Young level, in my opinion (speaking of inconsistent songwriters...)

But I reserve the right to defend a person I admire from an unwarranted attack. My impression that the song is directed at Eaglesmith seemed to come from people who'd been told so by Berner:

http://members.shaw.ca/jeffrobson/FredGrandForks.htm

"My friend Geoff Berner wrote a song about Fred, which he calls Phony Drawl."

http://www.tellthebandtogohome.com/downloads.htm

Originally, this page said:

Download Geoff's "tribute" to Fred J Eaglesmith, Phoney Drawl. It's sure to be a smash hit some day. Just don't tell Fred. Thanks to Geoff for sharing this!

Interestingly, it's been edited to remove the reference.

Posted by zoilus on January 23, 2006 07:07 PM

 

 

I have to agree with Barclay, I think you are overacting to the song and your critique of Mr. Berner is abit misplaced.

I am almost positive that the song is not a direct critque of Eaglesmith, it is a critique of musicians of that type in general, and it is satire, it is sad that you lack the sense of humour to enjoy it.

I have seen Billy Bragg perform, and while it wasn't completely unenjoyable, I was pretty unmoved - and that crowd was generally not that interested. (It was the lowest of the low show at the ampitheatre, years ago).

I consider Berner to be one of this country's best and most underated and misunderstood song writers, much the same way Carolyn Mark and the Barmitzvah Brothers (as you mentioned) are panned by critics because of humour or an approach that is unconventional.

I have seen the song performed several times (I actually recorded, the MP3 that spurred your rage), and the reaction has always been positive and the crowd has loved it.

I have tended to enjoy your writings, because they have seemed to have avoided the normal trappings of most music journalism. But this reminds of the personalized, mean spirited, vain music journalism that I read in papers like Now.

Posted by stuart on January 23, 2006 06:24 PM

 

 

Having known DERFY,(as he used to be known back in Knight II coffehouse days)for what,some 25 years,I can tell you that his farm-boy drawl delivery hasn't changed all that much.

You hear the same accent when you talk to any surviving members of The Band (w/the exception of Garth Hudson)..

Posted by Bruce Mowat on January 22, 2006 11:11 AM

 

 

wow, congrats, carl. for a song that is "APPARENTLY" about fred eaglesmith, you sure spilled a lot of ink on an accusation that not only have i never heard before (one that is nowhere in the actual lyrics), but one that i don't think matters in the least.

i first heard the song a year and a half ago at guelph's hillside festival--a festival which, like many, has featured more than its share of singers trying in vain to put the "southern" into "southern ontario." it came in the middle of a flawless set that had hundreds of people hanging on berner's every word.

i don't doubt eaglesmith's "authenticity" in the least, but i find any given album to be half full of dead-end cliches and other half full of dead-on portraiture. simply put, i don't think he's a candidate for songwriting sainthood, as you obviously do by your overly defensive reaction.

and yes, i'm a berner fan. i'll admit that at his worst, he can certainly be juvenile, and he worships the bottle far too much for my comfort (particularly on stage, where it can derail his performance completely).

but the man has also written some of the most politically insightful, heartbreaking, and yes, hilarious songs that i've ever heard, by anyone, anywhere. i would hate for his entire career to be judged on one obviously throwaway joke song that he hasn't even put on one of his real albums. furthermore, i'd hate for his career to be judged on the fact that you heard a rumour that said song was based on one of your heroes--when really, the target of the song could be really anyone who affects an accent, American, British or otherwise.

and yes, that list could include not only dylan but another sacred cow, mr. bejar.

affectionately yrs
mb

Posted by barclay on January 21, 2006 04:43 PM

 

 

I own every record Fred Eaglesmith has ever released. I've seen him live a dozen or two times, on occasion driving as much as 5 hours to do so. I even hung out with him in a junk store once. I thought the song was funny as shit.

Posted by Stu Reid on January 19, 2006 11:38 PM

 

 

oh yeah, fer sher. 'lighten up.' next thing they'll be saying it was Swiftian.

Posted by Dixon on January 19, 2006 04:19 PM

 

 

Zoilus,

Have you joined the Taliban of music pundits?

Lighten up... It's just a song. Really.

Even Bob Dylan had his sardonic bitchy moments...

Posted by Periquito on January 19, 2006 04:02 PM

 

 

Terrible. It sounds like a rejected audition tape for Madly Off In All Directions.

http://www.cbc.ca/madlyoff/

Posted by Ben Harris on January 19, 2006 02:37 PM

 

 

Good for you to stand up for Fred Eaglesmith. While I haven't the faintest familiarity with Berner, I agree that it is a woeful shame that more music fans aren't familiar with Eaglesmith's immense talent. The irony, of course, is that Berner's fans looking for solid, moving, exciting music will have no trouble finding it when they seek out the object of his sophomoric attack.

Posted by montreal bob on January 19, 2006 12:48 PM

 

 

Sheeee-it! Somebody's gotta do a song now about how Berner's actually ripping off Bobby Bare Jr's vocal style and phrasing, not Fred's...And he (Berner) better watch his step next time he's playing the same festival with Mr. Eaglesmith, huh. That man (Fred) is one tough sumbitch!

Posted by colonel tom on January 19, 2006 09:11 AM

 

 

Fred Eaglesmith is a Dover-lover, like me. ;)

Posted by darby on January 18, 2006 10:26 PM

 

 

I agree wholeheartedly. While I enjoy some of his songs (the one about the Magineau line and that's what keeps the rent down), Berner doesn't understand Fred Eaglesmith at all. And his phony drawl is terrible.

Posted by james on January 18, 2006 09:39 PM

 

 

remind me not to make you mad. yikes-a-roni!

that i should have fans like berner has enemies!

Posted by Sean on January 18, 2006 06:51 PM

 

 

My wife and I booed Berner at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival last July. He was making sardonic "jokes" about mass murderers. It was gross, offensive, deeply stupid and self-satisfied crap. The boo-ing didn't catch on. We were way in the back, and I'm sure he didn't hear us. Too bad.

Posted by john on January 18, 2006 04:04 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson