We live in a perpetual state of war. It’s an obvious subject, yet a dangerous one. Every songwriter owes it to themselves to confront it, either allegorically or directly.
On his fifth album, Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier!, Corb Lund writes about warfare via something he knows about first hand: horses. It’s been almost a century since most of us pondered the cavalry’s integral role in military history. But as Lund points out on the globetrotting title track, you can still find traces of the cavalry in more contemporary conflicts, like the one going on today in Afghanistan.
Armed with plenty of books on military history throughout the ages—as well as some Gabriel Garcia Marquez and tales of the French foreign legion—Lund says he wanted to write about “timeless themes” rather than today’s headlines. “I tend to dig around for exotic detail,” he says. “Plus, I've never been much of an overtly political writer. I respect that form of art, and I do have very strong beliefs about those kinds of issues. But I also think that there's a place for music that makes people feel deeper things than current events.”
Though many of the songs on Horse Soldier! tell tales of foreign lands, Lund has built his career by spinning distinctly Albertan anecdotes for the past decade, on gold-selling albums like 2002’s Five Dollar Bill and 2005’s Hair In My Eyes Like A Highland Steer. There are more than a few horse stories on those records as well.
Growing up in Taber, Alberta, Lund’s lineage boasts over a century of cowboys. And thanks to his keen lyrical pen, Lund’s Alberta is ready to take its place in a long line of immortal locales lucky enough to have their own poet laureates who paint vivid pictures, spin mythologies and create memorable characters. Think of any of the following: Bruce Springsteen’s New Jersey; Stan Rogers’ Maritime provinces; John K. Samson’s Winnipeg; Lou Reed’s New York City; Stompin’ Tom Connors’ small town Canada; Lucinda Williams’ Louisiana.
And yet voices like those are increasingly rare. Mainstream pop music of all stripes—rock, country, R&B, even hip-hop now—ignores regional specifics, to the point where even as gifted a storyteller as Corb Lund once questioned his lyrical outlook.
“Everybody's going for generalities, when sometimes the interest is found in the quirky details,” says the proud Albertan. “I had insecurities about whether people outside of my culture and geographical area—which is the prairies and foothills of Western Canada—would be interested. But so far they have been: as far away as Europe, the UK, Australia. Hell, even Toronto.
“But I believe that if you write honestly and authentically about your own culture, no matter what it is, people will pick up on the universality of it. My family has been in Alberta chasing cows for a hundred years, and in the American west long before that, so that's where I feel at home.”
Not only does he write the kind of timeless melodies that sound like they’ve been handed down by oral tradition, he boasts a kick-ass, bare-bones backing band he calls The Hurtin’ Albertans.
Ultimately, Lund’s lyrics are what set him apart from every singer/songwriter trying to reinvent the wagon wheel. With a firm grasp of history, a colourful vocabulary and an aversion to typical love songs, Lund is a storyteller, first and foremost. That makes him part of a dying breed.
“Story songs are largely missing not only from the mainstream, but even a lot of alt/roots/underground country,” muses Lund, who is a huge fan of songwriters such as Johnny Horton and Marty Robbins.
“I've never had much luck with the pure free-form/word painting/poetry kind of lyric writing. The first songs I ever sung I learned from my grandfathers, who were ranchers. They would sing these ancient and tragic cowboy story ballads that had been passed down since before the time of recorded music: 'Strawberry Roan,' 'When the Work's All Done This Fall,' 'Little Joe the Wrangler.' Those are my bedrock, touchstone songs.”
Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier! is teeming with tales of conflict and cavalry, but Lund hasn’t left his home province behind. “Family Reunion” and “Hard on Equipment (Tool For The Job)” speak to the same down-home audience that gave him a video hit with “The Truck Got Stuck.” And on “Especially A Paint,” Lund laments the life he left behind to pursue his rock’n’roll dreams: “Whenever I see horses/ it reminds me of what I ain’t … I see a path I didn’t take.”
When Lund delves into the war stories, however, there is little levity to be found. The gung-ho lead-off track (and first single), “I Wanna Be In The Cavalry,” re-appears to bookend the album in a more morose form. In the reprise, the cavalry is decimated, its soldiers are all either dead, disease-stricken, or forced to eat their beloved horse.
The song “Student Visas” is the most contemporary tale on Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier!, based on a real-life character. While touring in the U.S., Lund met a crippled veteran who, after a few beers, started to spill his harrowing story about being a soldier in the covert anti-Contra operation in Nicaragua in the 80s. “Every couple of minutes he'd stop and say, 'I'm not supposed to be talking about this,' but then he'd continue,” Lund recalls. “He would vacillate between being a tough guy with bad-ass soldier talk and super heavy crippling remorse.” In the song, Lund asks, “Did Reagan give the order? Did cocaine pay the bills? They said we were fighting Communists, but it was kinda hard to tell.”
Only a singer as charismatic as Corb Lund could guide the listener through the stories that populate Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier!. And you don’t have to be a hardcore country fan to follow his musical path, either. Lund brings in Latin and Celtic influences into his driving two-step rhythms, delivered with an aw-shucks sincerity and refusing to talk either up or down to his audience.
Says Lund, “My heroes are the guys who transcend style, whether it’s Neil Young or Bob Dylan or Steve Earle or Lyle Lovett. They start out in whatever scene suits them best, and then they grow. Willie Nelson is a country singer, but he’s just Willie, you know? Most people who go see him aren’t country fans, they’re Willie Nelson fans. Hopefully, well-written honest music can transcend those boundaries.”
So far, that hasn’t been a problem. Last year, Lund found himself on the main stage at the influential Glastonbury Festival in the UK, playing before his biggest audience to date, in a slot right before the Waterboys and The Who. He’s long been a favourite on the rodeo and folk festival circuits. He and his band were featured in the horror movie Slither. He’s still remembered in Canada’s indie rock community for his decade in the punk band The Smalls. He has video hits in Canada and Australia. And in 2006, fellow Albertan Kurt Browning performed a figure skating routine to a Corb Lund song for an NBC special.
He explains, “Because of some of the mainstream country play we’ve been getting, our audience is a mixture of hipsters and regular country listeners. Especially out west, we’re really resonating with the cowboys because of the lyrical content. It crosses a lot of societal boundaries, and I’m proud of that.”
“Fifteen years from now,” he says, “when I have six or eight more records out, I want to leave a canon of work that is unique, where I’ve been able to follow my own vibe throughout. I feel like I’m a country artist, but I don’t feel constrained by that.”