By Dane Neufeld
As it is Stampede season in my neck of the woods, it seemed like a good occasion to reflect on a little country music. American readers will most likely not be familiar with the music of Corb Lund, a folk country singer-songwriter who has become a Canadian national treasure. More specifically, he has become an icon in southern Alberta, a land and people he has devoted his career to understanding and rendering within his wide-ranging musical gifts. It is difficult to imagine a musician whose songs can be sung by children, or families around a campfire, while also receiving critical acclaim for the resonance and richness of his lyrics and melodies.
At times his music borders on honkytonk satire. Songs like “The Truck Got Stuck” and “Cows Around” play on traditional country themes, but they manage to weave in the deeper and sympathetic realities of rural people and society. He poetically represents the landscape of the southern Alberta foothills in resonant yet colloquial language that makes no effort to attain high art, and yet at times, moves effortlessly in those realms. In an era when literary culture has largely abandoned any effort to communicate with the broader population, Corb Lund has become a poet for everyone from cattle ranchers to urban professionals and CBC radio personalities. At least in Canada, there are very few figures who have been able to do this well in any artistic medium.
Lund recognizes in his music the very practical but existential dilemmas of modern rural life. On the financially ill-advised but, alas, irresistible urge to own cattle, Lund sings:
What else can make the bishop swear like a sailor might?
What else can cause such tension between a man and his wife?
What else could ever bring all these enhancements to your life?
May you always have cows around. (“Cows Around”)
The tension between the preservation of iconic landscapes and the need of landowners to subsist on resource revenue is another continual theme. A song like “Horse Soldier, Horse Soldier” meditates on the place of horses in the historical conflicts of human societies. Nowhere (in my opinion) have the southern Alberta foothills been more poignantly rendered than in “My Little Foothills Heaven,” a song that stirs a common and deeply held desire, to return to the land of our origins in some spiritual or permanent sense. Lund has a fascination with local characters and eccentrics, and he has a serious appreciation for the generations that have come before him (listen to “old men”). His language is rich and varied, the allusions are a welter of tangible and familiar places, objects and people. He loves to explore the deeper parameters of seemingly ordinary realities, such as cows, whiskey, trucks, gravediggers, farm equipment, family reunions and so on.
There is something for clergy like myself to learn in listening to Lund’s music. He is a student of the land and people among whom he dwells. His own upbringing among the Mormons, oilmen, ranchers, and Blackfoot people creates unexpected opportunities and insights. Lund can be critical: “Brother Brigham, Brother Young” is a rather dark meditation on certain aspects of LDS spirituality. Some of his music is mournful and melancholy. In “This Is My Prairie” he inhabits the painful defiance of generational landowners in the face of modern changes. He is a student of the past and he has brought forward the memories of this region with poignant and haunting recollections. In “Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier!” he employs the horse as the witness and bearer of generational pain and disaster:
Well, I’s with Custer and the 7th in ’76 or ’77
Scalped at Little Big Horn by the Sioux
And the tears and devastation of a once proud warrior nation
This I know ’cause I was riding with them too.
Though I recognize the nature of this stretch, his meditative rendering of southern Alberta has connections to the spiritual tradition of the some of the great poets and priests of the Anglican tradition. I think in particular of R.S. Thomas who reflected deeply on the difficult and aesthetic realities of coastal Wales, and the people in his parish who he loved but struggled to understand. Reflecting on some of the mysterious souls he encountered, Thomas wrote: “Small-minded I will not say, there were depths in some of them I shrank back from, wells that the word ‘God’ fell into and died away, and for all I know is still falling” (“Vicar of Large Things”). The perception of the narrow- or small-mindedness of rural people that is so easily employed among urban dwellers is confronted in Thomas’s writing by the almost frightening depths that must exist in every human soul. Lund, too, discovers profundity in aspects of human life that are easily overlooked, misunderstood or disregarded by contemporary artists.
Though I cannot comment on the nature of Lund’s faith (I’m told he is of Anglican descent), at the heart of his music is a playful but serious desire to understand the particular character of the place where God has placed him. In his songs there are few traces of scorn or political contempt for ordinary rural people or their way of life. He renders the past with sympathy and wonder without the cliché verdicts that come so easily to cultural commentators these days. Most of all, his love and searching fascination of southern Alberta is infectious, even for those from elsewhere. True artists can light the imagination with the texture and colors of reality, without funneling it all into narrow judgments or visions. Lund’s music can be hard on the ears and is not for everyone, but in an increasingly detached and globalized world, his music is deeply rooted within and attached to the limitations of human life, in a way that somehow expands and enriches our sense of reality, in all its vast variation.