A Losin’ Lately Gambler Isn’t All Corb Lund’s Ever Been
Despite having released five albums and winning six straight Roots Artists of the Year awards from the Canadian Country Music Association, Corb Lund’s sixth, Losin’ Lately Gambler, and first release for New West Records, marks his American debut.
I sat down with Lund on release day and we delved into the clash of progress and Western culture (a theme he’s familiar with), his influences, the differences between the American and Canadian country music scenes, and where he fits in to it all.
And if that doesn’t whet your appetite, then calf balls surely will.
How many people do you get at a typical show in Canada?
In Western Canada, it’s between–the bigger shows–1,500 and our biggest one was like 6,000. That was in our hometown, Edmonton. But usually, the bigger shows in Western Canada are a couple thousand.
It’s cool cause we do pretty good at home and Australia’s really good, too, and England, but the States are still building for us, but the last couple of years have been really good for us–especially Texas.
What do you get down here in the States?
Well, we just had our best show ever down here in terms of people actually paying to come see us. It was in the 400 something range at Love & War in Plano. It was really good. I think it might have been our biggest show we’ve ever had in the States, period. It was really good. You know The Range? It was some kind of Shiner Sunday or something. It was great, it was really encouraging.
For years, we came down here and it was just nothing, like dead. About three years ago it started picking up and lately it’s been really great, it’s really encouraging.
So Texas is really the biggest state for you down here?
Yeah, Colorado is really good and Montana’s good. The West tends to get us more. Just cause of the content, I guess, maybe. But it feels kinda like, it feels like home felt maybe like five years ago when it was starting to pick up.
Whenever there’s a new area that you’re trying to create an audience in, this is the most exciting point where it’s like “OK, they’re finally getting it,” and there’s a few hundred people. It’s cool in Canada, it’s all fun playing big shows like that. And it’s great for the career and making some money so we can try to do some other things like this. In terms of sheer fun, the most fun shows are like 300 people because every body’s right there and you can see the smile on their faces.
Texas has a big regional scene that isn’t really prevalent in the rest of the U.S. and Canada kinda has their own scene. Do you see any differences between the two?
It’s kinda similar in that there’s tons of bands in Canada that just play Canada. Similarly, it seems like there’s a certain circuit where bands in Texas don’t really have to leave Texas, but the difference is for whatever reason, more than anywhere else I’ve ever played, Texas seems to have–you know the audiences are really good. I dunno, it seems like most places, there’s only a small percentage of the general population that’s willing to give independent music a chance. They have this thing in their head where unless it comes down the pipeline it doesn’t seem real to them. But in Texas, the average person seems like, “Oh yeah, I saw this band and they’re great” and they go buy their record. They’re not hung up on having to hear it on the radio first or having a video telling them this is what to listen to. They seem to have enough confidence in their own judgment as music fans to say “Yep, that was good, I like it.”
With this move to New West, do you think they’ll be able to get you any radio play down here?
Yeah, I would think so. I’m really excited.
What else do you think they’ll be able to do for you that you haven’t been able to do in Canada?
Well, this is our sixth record and it’s the first one that will be really available down here. We’ve built up a pretty good thing just from touring, so being on a really great label like this can only help. It’ll be the first record you can get in an American store. The label doesn’t have a big roster and everybody on the label is really great, so it’s really good associative value.
They have Kristofferson, Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam…
Yeah, like three or four of my fuckin’ heroes are on there. Plus often, no guarantees you know, but often you get to meet the other artists and maybe do an opening slot on their tour. And if you’re on a reputable label, you start getting the reviews in the right magazines and all the doors start to open.
You did a couple of duets back on Hair In My Eyes Like a Highland Steer, is there anyone else you want to work with?
Oh yeah, sure. Well, it’s coincidence with this label thing because Kristofferson is one of my heroes. He’s one of my biggest influences, especially early on when I was starting to write. That’d be cool to meet him and play with him.
Jerry Reed, but he’s dead. But lots of those old–and Marty–a lot of my heroes are dead, unfortunately.
A lot of your influences seems to come out on this album. Is that something you worked to do, or was it kind of an unconscious thing?
There’s a couple that once we could see what kind of song they were, it was kind of fun to try and cop a style–like the Marty Robbins one.
And “Chinook Wind” sounds like Waylon.
Yeah, for sure. It’s fun. I’m not trying to pretend that I’m somebody else, but it’s cool because the way you record it, you can kinda give it that style. So yeah, it’s kind of a nod. Especially the Marty Robbins thing, I really love that guy.
I do too, the Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs…
The pink album. It’s the best record ever.
You know, an interesting thing, too, we were doing, you know the “oooo” stuff, the band harmonies? You know, like Marty Robbins always has that crazy–his backup singers were the Glaser Brothers, that was his band. And there’s a guy named Tompall Glaser, who had a career after that, but he’s still alive and we tried to get him to sing on it just for style points, but he was ill, so we couldn’t get him. We gave it a shot, though. And we recorded, coincidentally, in Marty’s old studio, too.
Tompall was on that record that helped kick off the Outlaw Movement.
Yeah. He sang “Put Another Log On the Fire,” or something, didn’t he?
Yep, that was him. Did you eat any calf fries this past Saturday at Doug Moreland’s festival.
I did. I was the judge. I was one of the four judges, I was asked to be a judge.
Is that the first time you ate them?
Shit no. I’m very experienced. My dad’s a vet, eh. So I was pressed into service at a pretty young age, being a vet’s assistant. All the gory stuff: de-horning, vaccinating, preg testing, castrating, and all that shit.
They’re actually good. People get freaked out if they’re not used to the idea. They taste a little strongish, kinda like sweet breads or liver, a little bit organy–it freaks people out, but they’re good. I don’t care.
Do they call them calf fries up in Canada?
Yeah, calf fries or prairie oysters.
Why did you decide to name the album “Losin’ Lately Gambler”?
It’s just one of those songs, it’s one of my favorite songs on the record. Part of it’s I got a lot of card playing songs on my other records, and, so this is sorta like–I went through a bunch of personal relationship stuff in my life, so it’s like an answer–because I’ve got a couple of card playing songs that are kinda like bravado, so this is the other side of it. The losing side of gambling.
Other than that song, are there any others that you’re partial to?
Yeah, I like the first one, the one about scoring drugs off the vet, “Horse Doctor, Come Quick.” And I like “Long Gone Saskatchewan,” it’s pretty fun.
Saskatchewan is the province right to the east of Alberta. It’s kinda like we have this little brother, we always make fun of him and stuff, but we love him. I think it might be a little bit like Kansas or something. Well, in the sense that it’s the state that you drive through and don’t really–it’s just one of those provinces that for some reason gets all the jokes made about them. I’ve actually got a couple tunes that are Saskatchewan jokes, so this was like a peace offering.
It’s good cow country, though.
You’ve won six straight Roots Artist of the Year awards from the CCMA and an Album of the Year award, do you think there’s a similar position for you down here?
Not exactly, because Canada is small enough that it’s possible–surprisingly, I’m happy about it, but I’m continually surprised because we actually get played on mainstream country stations and CMT in Canada, which is kind of an anomaly even in Canada, but I don’t really expect to be played on mainstream country stations in America. I mean, that would be quite surprising to me. So no, I think down here I fit in with the Americana guys or the underground country guys or the Outlaw country guys, whatever you want to call them. I call ‘em country that doesn’t suck, or whatever. Subversive country.
We get a little more room to wiggle up there because our government, one of the things they do is–it’s kinda hard to explain–but the fact of the matter, the reality is that America is a cultural power, most popular culture comes from America. So, if you’re a small country, population wise, living next to it, it’s kind of overwhelming sometimes. So they have these laws if you’re broadcasting over the radio that you have to play a certain amount of Canadian stuff. Which is good for Canadian artists to make sure we’re not completely swamped by Tim McGraw or whatever. Sometimes, depending on the genre or the time of the year, you can get played a little more because they may not have that many Canadian artists with a record coming out in the fall. They have a little more leeway in what they can play.
Speaking of country sucking, you started off in a punk rock band. Has anybody ever given you any grief for singing country?
No, not really. Even when I was in that band, people knew because I kinda used to do these songs with a country blend. It was less a punk band and more like a modern Black Sabbathy type thing, it was a heavy, chunky kinda thing, but I used to blend country stuff in with it and a lot of the lyrical stuff was rural stuff, so it was cool. I just figure it’s like playing football and hockey, just two different things. Most people are surprisingly flexible in their tastes. I don’t know anybody–well, I guess I do know a few people, but I don’t know that many people that only listen to this or this or this. Even my cowboy buddies like AC/DC. It’s all just music, right?
Back to Doug Moreland, how did you fall in with those guys?
I think I first met them a couple of years ago at the Steamboat Springs music festival. I think that’s where I met them all. And Hayes, I’m pretty good buddies with him. We met a few years ago, too, up in Canada, I think, at a festival, but we’ve done a lot of work together. It’s helped us both. We came down here and he let us open for him on tours in Texas and we took him to Canada and put him in front of our audience and it’s helped us both because he has a really good following in Canada now. And it’s helped us down here.
He’s on a major label now and seemed to get a lot more publicity for his last album.
Seems like it did. I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t help. Especially for me because I’m not from here. That’s the eternal problem with a Canadian release because it’s virtually–I mean you can technically get it as an import, but it’s virtually impossible to see it on a shelf down here.
I’ve had the same problem with Canadian releases on iTunes.
I know it. It’s the same for me.
Now that you’re on a U.S. label, are you looking to have a little more success sales wise?
Is that the ultimate goal?
Well, it’s all part of the plan. I mean, I’d like to build a bigger audience down here and selling records to people is part of it. I’ve always kind of been the other way around. My focus has always been the live show, so to me making records is a way to keep on the road and do more live shows. I know some people tour to support the record, I put out the record so I can tour more. So for me, selling records is important to pay the bills and all that. The biggest deal about selling records is it means your songs are in some body’s house so they can hear you and become fans. It’s all part of spreading the word.
The touring keeps you from ranching, doesn’t it?
Yeah, the more success I have singing the less time I get being around it. My dad still has a few cows, so I go down there and pretend sometimes. And I think the thing is, if you’re into that kind of thing, you get big enough, you get enough money making music that you can start an outfit and hire somebody to run it and just go back when you’re off the road.
We’ve got a family place in Canada that I’ll probably end up on some day. The reality is that my grandpa’s were the last generation in our family that could make a living just off cows. It’s the same story for most people, unless you’ve got a huge place. It’s pretty tough to make a go of it with just cattle. But for sure, I’d love to have some cows around. It doesn’t feel quite right unless you have some cows around.
What drives you as a songwriter? It seems like every body does co-writing now and this album is almost all you.
Yeah, I’m not a very good co-writer.
I’m a control freak.
I dunno, I like the idea of just–I mostly write about my family background and the area I’m from. I just like the idea of trying to have fun telling family stories and documenting the Western culture and stuff like that. It’s fun, but it’s also important, guys that have done that are important. Ian Tyson, he’s a Canadian singer, has a lot of writing that has to do with traditions of the West and that kind of stuff. And I got some of that in my songs. Some of it’s how Western traditions look in 2009 and what happens when you take modern life and crunch it up with Western background.
You kinda did that with “Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier.”
Yeah, that’s one of my favorite tunes, I like that one a lot. There’s some guys over in the war that are using it for a regimental theme song.
Which one, Afghanistan or…?
I think both. I know I got a letter from some American guys in Iraq. I figure that no matter your feelings on the war or your politics, the 20 year old guys that are signing up to get shot at are pretty heroic no matter what their mission is. So regardless of any of the political part of it, if having a theme song helps them stay motivated and gets them home safe or whatever, it’s all cool with me.
Have you ever thought about going over there and performing?
Yeah, I’ve been trying for two years and it’s such a pile of red tape. I don’t know what it’s like for–I’m sure it’s similar in America, I don’t know, I imagine it’s the same in the states, but in Canada, it’s just a pile of red tape to get over there. And I’d do it for nothing and my manager’s been trying to do it and it’s a very complicated process I guess. All they need to do is put me on a plane and I’d do it for nothing. I’m trying. And in Canada, in Afghanistan, there’s a big base in Alberta and there’s a big base in eastern Quebec and some other ones and they sort of cycle one in and out, so I wanna go over there with all the Alberta guys because they’ll probably all know us. I want to shoot their guns.
You’ve said “Strawberry Roan” was the first song you ever knew. What’s your favorite version?
My grandpa’s version is the first one I knew and they kinda get blended together in my head now. I have to go back and check, but the first two versions I heard were my grandpa’s version and Marty’s version and as a kid I was fascinated by the slight differences. Because there’s little differences like place names and stuff like that. Marty’s was the second version, my grandpa’s was the first, which had some slight Canadianisms to it.
I think that’s what’s really interesting. Those songs are so old, they’re from before people had music business careers. It was like cowboys were just singing for fun, right? Like my grandpa didn’t sing, but when it was riding, just for the hell of it or whatever. Back then, those kind of folks songs, it was kind of like they were a means of transmitting oral history. If you can hear it on a record–once the Marty record came out, it was pretty much standardized, but before that it was like every region would have a different twist on it, which I still find fascinating.
They changed the songs so much back then, but some of the songwriters nowadays get upset when someone wants to do their song and change it up slightly to fit their personal situation. If somebody wanted to take one of your songs and change it, how would you feel about that?
Ah, whatever. I mean, there’s no law against it.
Yeah. I don’t care.
Maybe it would depend on how well it was written. If it was shitty, maybe not. If it was well done, sure, whatever.
Kyle Bennett recorded one of our tunes, “Time To Switch to Whiskey,” which is pretty cool. I heard their version, it was really good. It was very Texas. Not the words, but just the sound of it. It’s interesting how it’s different.
A little more rockin’ than what you do?
A little bit.
I remember in “Little Joe the Wrangler” there’s a line about how they were camped out on the Pecos and in Canada, my grandpa’s version was about being camped out on the Peigan. The Peigan is an Indian reserve in southern Alberta, so that’s one of those different tweaks. It’s cool, I’m a history maniac, so I like all that stuff.
Why do you think people should listen to your music over all the other alternatives out there?
This is our sixth record, so I think by now we’ve developed, both my writing and the band, we’ve been around long enough that we’ve developed a sound that’s pretty unique. I mean, it’s not way outside what everyone else is doing, but I think we have our own sound. The longer you have the same group of guys together, the more developed your sound gets and I think we’ve got a pretty unique thing.
I think anybody that likes old school country would probably like it. And also, probably, there’s a little more Western content in our lyrics than a lot of the Americana stuff, in terms of ranches and stuff, so there’s a certain element for people who would dig that kind of stuff.
There are those Cowboy Poetry festivals around the country, have you been to any of those?
Yeah, we played Elko last year. We have done some of those, they like it there. Not all my songs are about Western stuff, but about half of them are. We’re going again this year, I think. It’s cool because they’ve got all that music, but they’ve got the saddle makers and horse hair braiders and all that. Santa Clarita’s a big one and Monterey, I think?
That’s one of the things that’s been most interesting for me about our career, we have a really wide variety of gigs that we play. We play some straight ahead country festivals, with all the hat guys or whatever, and then we’ll play folk fests, and roots fests, and we can play at a rock festival, and cowboy music things. For some reason we seem able to fit into a lot of different things, which is good. I like it.
I like to look out in the audience and see some hats and then some aging punk rockers and–it’s good. I like people mixing together. It’s healthy.
Watch “A Game In Town Like This” from Corb Lund’s latest, Losin’ Lately Gambler:
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