It's tough, in 2015, for a singer-songwriter to be an all-around talent. Artists make their mark on distracted fans with a signature sound, a look, or maybe even a mood. But the journeyman's knowledge of how to move from a gut-wrenching story to a zinger of a joke, how to rock hard and hush the room with a poignant melody, seems harder to acquire. It takes years to become very good at more than one thing. It also requires bold modesty, the guts to not dwell on what comes first, and, instead, to try it all.
Corb Lund has proven his versatility. The Canadian rancher's son started out in the 1990s, as a cowpunk bassist for The Smalls, before growing into a top-notch touring musician. In the process he recorded eight studio albums, often leaning on a wacky sense of humor (his collaborations with Texas pal Hayes Carll became one of Americana's most beloved sources of comedy), while also learning to ground his more serious narratives in the speech and images of daily life. On the new full-length, Things That Can't Be Undone, Lund and his touring band, the Hurtin' Albertans, worked with Dave Cobb, the producer who's turning out to be Nashville's answer to Rick Rubin. The result expands Lund's sound, and creates ideal settings for his varied narratives. The album is a high mark of a long career.
One of its standouts is "Sadr City." Inspired by an actual encounter with a combat veteran of several Mideast conflicts, the song is a hot new take on the outlaw ballads of Marty Robbins and Willie Nelson; this time, however, it's a military lawman speaking, in language that's as clear as the story itself is unresolved. Not a conventional protest song, "Sadr City" surveys the costs of war that are devastating in the moment and cumulatively fatal. The band's circular riffing, shot through by explosive guitar from longtime Hurtin' Abertan Grant Siemens, perfectly supports Lund's blunt, evocative storytelling.
Lund recently answered some questions about "Sadr City" via email, telling true tales and discussing the value of being a little complicated.
You have a strong military following, and the basis of "Sadr City" is a conversation you had with one of your fans. Was it an unusual conversation, or is the story this soldier told typical of what you hear from your fans about their recent experiences?
After my Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier! record, more military people started coming to my shows, both active and retired guys. I often end up drinking beer with them and chatting after the shows, and "Sadr City" is pretty much a true story that a U.S. Army Captain told me. I also spoke to a couple of other guys who were involved in that same battle. Sadr City is a suburb of Baghdad that had a big flare up of sectarian violence right after Mission Accomplished. The song doesn't really have an overt political message or anything; it's just one guy's really harrowing story.
Like all of your work, this album beautifully balances humor and sincerity. Humor can be difficult for current singer-songwriters to integrate into their work, though people like John Prine and Loudon Wainwright have always done it. How do you make room for both the jokes and the seriousness in your music?
I'm not sure. I don't really do it on purpose, I just sit down and write stuff and see what comes out. Having said that, I've always believed that an album's worth of material should take you on a bit of a journey emotionally. I get bored with records that aren't dynamic mood-wise. I like to have variety on a record. And every time I start to feel like a cheeseball because of my fun songs, I remember how awesome I think Jerry Reed is and I feel better about things.
Your songwriting has a strong literary quality — one of your new songs talks about a character who reminds you of someone in a novel you're reading — yet it's plainspoken too. Is the idea of the voice of the "common man" (or woman) a myth? Is it something you try to capture?
I think it's kind of pompous for anyone to say they're speaking for the "common man," whatever or whoever that is. When people do that, I feel like they're basically revealing that in their head they've divided the world up into some kind of "us and them" scenario. I have a lot of friends that work for a living, and to lump them all into one category would be kind of ignorant. On the other hand, I use a lot of vernacular in my songs, mostly because I grew up around it. I'm comfortable with working people. But music has a way of really cutting through social strata. One minute I'm talking to a meth-y biker at a show, the next minute I'm talking to an elected official. I'm not sure any one walk of life makes for more or less compelling songs. Everybody has a story.
How do you determine the musical frames for your stories? You like to rock — I've seen you do it! — but what's the balance between rocking and making room for people to really listen?
I have enough material now that I can take the audience on a number of different journeys, if I'm on my game. I like the variety, honestly. My band is accomplished enough that they can follow me wherever I want to go. I don't use a set list at my shows anymore, I just call audibles all night, depending on where I want to take the show. Some nights people wanna rock out, some nights they want to listen to stories. Some nights I wanna rock out too. Sometimes not.
There's some stuff that relates to your own life on this album, like the story of the lost ranch in "S Lazy H." How does autobiography factor into what you do?
A lot of my stuff has family history in it. Sometimes it's very specific to my people. In the case of "S Lazy H," it's an amalgam of stories I've heard from various people that I know. I draw a lot on my past and my heritage. I think the listener can get to know certain parts of me quite well from digging into the music, but it's only part of me. Any performer has a public persona they create, and mine's not too far off from my real self. Sometimes people think they have a handle on me based on one or two songs, but they need to triangulate a little more.
Things To Be Undone is out on Oct. 9 on New West.
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