W hether Fred Eaglesmith is singing about a farmer confounded by a changing world in "Time to Get a Gun" or an old horseman winding out in the retirement home in the song "Rocky" on last year's Milly's Café , his songs ring true. But they don't ring the same tone. Like Faulkner, who populated his fictional Yoknapatawpha County with a recognizable cast of characters, Eaglesmith has a "little musical universe" of people who could easily be, like he is, from a small town in Ontario, their lives buffeted by heartbreak, hard times and inexplicable changes. He appears locally Feb. 6 and 10.
"They're definitely there," he says of his characters, speaking by phone while on tour. "Sometimes they move out. Sometimes I move out. That's what happened in [1997's] Lipstick, Lies and Gasoline . The whole album, I took it closer to town. Before that I'd been really, really rural."
The fans don't always like it, he says. It usually takes them four or five years to come around. One radio station wouldn't play 50 Odd Dollars , his rock-influenced 1999 release, when it first came out; a couple of years ago he learned it's a mainstay. "I just smirked," he says.
Eaglesmith's next CD, Tinderbox , due out in March, could be one of those albums. Most surprisingly, Eaglesmith says the new album is about spirituality.
"Now I went somewhere else again," he says. "This one's about gospel—gospel without Jesus. I think, especially in North America, a lot of us are thinking about spirituality and we'd love to have that, but we can't believe in religion, you know? We can't believe in fundamentalism and not even in the mythology, but at the same time we have this faith, right? So everybody prays, but nobody admits it.
"It's affecting the whole world and nobody's dealing with it," he adds.
It's clearly rich territory for Eaglesmith, who escaped a stifling fundamentalist Protestant household on the day he turned 15 and spent the next five years hitchhiking and train-hopping throughout western Canada. He went "criminally wild," he says. But running away so young gave him authentic confidence, something he sees as being in short supply.
"Most people, their issue is confidence," he says. "I always say there's too much self-esteem in this world but no confidence. Self-esteem says, 'I can't wait for that person in front of me at the gas station' and honks the horn. It says, 'I'm worth it.' But confidence says, 'I'm a little late and the people who are waiting for me will deal with it.'"
Fred Eaglesmith makes two North Bay appearances. On Wednesday, Feb. 6, he's at Last Day Saloon, 120 Fifth St., Santa Rosa. 8:30pm. $7&–$10. 707.545.2343. On Sunday, Feb. 10, look for him at the Rancho Nicasio, Town Square, Nicasio. 8pm. $18&–$20. 415.662.2219.