Corb Lund pays tribute to old friend on new album, El Viejo

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Back in 2019, Corb Lund made an unusual musical request of his friend Ian Tyson.

He wanted the Alberta-based country legend to sing on a cover version of AC/DC’s Ride On, a song that dates back to the Australian hard rockers’ 1970s days when Bon Scott was the lead singer. The song has a touch more lyrical depth than much of AC/DC’s material. Still, on the surface, it seemed an odd fit for Tyson’s voice, which by that point had settled into a lived-in rasp. Lund and Tyson had been friends for nearly 20 years but he wasn’t sure how he would react.

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“I thought he was going to tell me to go (expletive) myself,” says Lund, with a laugh, in a phone interview with Postmedia.  “But he said ‘Yeah, sounds good. Let’s do it.’”

The song appeared on 2019’s Cover Your Tracks, which also had Lund offering versions of Cover of the Rolling Stone, It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me and I Shall Be Released. It was followed by 2022’s Songs My Friends Wrote, which included covers of Tyson’s Montana Waltz and Road To Las Cruces. Released this week, El Viejo is Lund’s first collection of original songs since 2020’s Agriculture Tragic and is dedicated to Tyson, who died in December 2022 at the age of 89. The tender title track is Lund’s direct tribute to his friend and comes with a video that features footage of Tyson and Lund over the years. Along with covering his songs and having him provide guest vocals on tracks, Lund’s relationship with Tyson included stage performances and tours. Lund was introduced to Tyson by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott when both were part of a tribute concert to the songwriter in Calgary.

“I think it was inevitable that Ian and I would meet, we both play western music and we’re both from Alberta,” he says. “If you’re a cowboy kid in southern Alberta, Ian’s music looms pretty large. I had heard stories that he was kind of cantankerous, but he was a very good friend to me right from the first time I met him.”

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While El Viejo may be the only track that directly references Tyson, Lund’s back-to-basics approach to songwriting and recording on the album has a distinctive cowboy-folk flavour. Not that this is particularly new for Lund, but the songwriter wanted the 11 tracks to have a stripped-back feel to them. The album was recorded acoustically at Lund’s Lethbridge house with the help of the Hurtin’ Albertans, which includes guitarist Grant Siemens, bassist Sean Burns and drummer Lyle Molzan. None of the songs include electric instruments and many were captured in the first take sitting in Lund’s living room.

“I’ve been wanting to make records like this for a long time,” says Lund, who will play the Grey Eagle Resort and Casino on March 7. “I don’t like nice-sounding records anymore, I like gnarly-sounding records. I like organicness, human reality and the odd mistake and live vocals. We did the whole thing live. I don’t like modern records with all those layers and they are so shiny.”

When it came to subject matter, Lund continued his habit of mixing story songs with semi-autobiographical numbers. Rollicking opener The Cardplayer, for instance, is based on a true story when a less-than-sober Lund and his friends were kicked out of a riverboat casino after winning some money because officials thought they must have been colluding with each other. Lund calls the bluesy, harmonica-sweetened I Had It All a “fun romp about gambling and cowboy stuff.” Redneck Rehab was co-written with Jaida Dreyer and based on her harrowing experiences kicking speed (methamphetamine) cold turkey while “locked in a shack.” The album closer, an amiable singalong ballad called Old Familiar Drunken Feeling features a burst of gang vocals by an impromptu group of vocalists that Lund calls “The Southern Alberta Community Singers. It’s also based on a true story, a cautionary tale about the time Lund consumed newly legalized edibles in Colorado. He was so high he had to force himself to “drink his way out of it” before show time.

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But he also has some trademark story songs. Out on a Win is about a broken-down MMA fighter, while Insha’Allah is about a desert warrior who fights alongside Lawrence of Arabia in the First World War.

“There are a lot of songwriters that just write about feelings and love, which is fine,” Lund says. “I do that occasionally if I’m actually feeling something. But it’s a weird thing. It seems to me for a lot of songwriters that the love song is their default position. It’s like if you have nothing to say, you write a love song. I guess I shouldn’t judge. I guess everyone has their own take, but for my own taste, I get bored with those songs quickly. There are so many interesting things in the world to write about.”

Corb Lund
Singer Corb Lund, centre, sings on land proposed for coal mine development in the eastern slopes of the Livingstone range southwest of Longview, Alta., on June 16, 2021. Photo by Jeff McIntosh

That said, Lund tends to avoid overtly political songs even if he is becoming known these days as a prominent activist opposed to coal mining in the Rockies. In the spring 2020, the United Conservative Party government revoked the policy that protected the eastern slopes. Thousands of hectares were staked for coal exploration. The policy was reversed in February 2021 after a public outcry, but Lund says it’s important to stay vigilant.

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“I have spent my entire life out of any kind of political statement until this coal thing came along,” he says. “It was so egregious, and so stupid and so corrupt and it affected me personally, too, so I felt I had to say something about it. I’ve said a million times I don’t give a sh-t about political parties. I don’t like any of the parties. It has nothing to do with political parties or partisanship, it has everything to do with not ruining Old Man River. It’s brutal.

“The coal companies want you to think this whole thing is over but it’s really not, they are lobbying like maniacs in the background trying to get these mines through, especially that one in Crowsnest Pass – Grassy Mountain. Hardly anybody in Alberta wants it. It’s foreign companies, we’re going to see hardly any money except for a few jobs that have to be weighed against the (agriculture) jobs and tourism jobs we’re going to lose. And it’s definitely, almost 100 per cent, going to mess up the Old Man River.”

Lund says he is not anti-resource, adding that he has a brother who is an oil rigger. But he says each project has to be looked at on its merits. He would prefer to stick to music but couldn’t stay silent on the issue even if it has come at a cost.

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“As soon as this coal thing is resolved and they have strong legislation in place, I’m never speaking on any public issue ever again,” he says. “It’s been awful. I’ve had violent threats and people want to come to my house. It’s brutal.”

Still, he’s not backing down and bristles at the idea from the “shut-up-and-sing” crowd that he has no business taking on this issue. He said he is not a “Hollywood guy coming in from L.A. on a jet to scold people.” He lives here. He drinks the water.

“I’m a sixth-generation agriculture Albertan and there are many of us whose families have been here taking care of the land much longer than any of these politicians,” he says. “Not to mention the First Nations folks, who have been here longer than anyone and whose communities tell me they don’t want these mines either, despite what the politicians say.”

Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans play the Grey Eagle Resort and Casino on March 7.

With files from The Canadian Press

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