Canadian singer/songwriter Corb Lund has accomplished a lot over his multiple decades in music, from his stint in punk rockers The Smalls, to his wry and heartfelt catalogue of country music - with a solid swag of awards along the way. But despite years of urging, he still hasn’t got me to sample the podcast ‘Hardcore History’.
“You ever listen to it?” he asks, as we chat over the phone from our respective corners of the globe.
When I admit I haven’t yet gotten around to it, he reels off tantalizing details from his favourite episodes. “The one about guns and horses is really good. It’s called ‘Guns and Horses’. There’s one called “History Under the Influence”, which is about how booze and drugs have influenced historical figures and events. In World War II, Stalin was a notorious vodka drunk, Churchill was a raging drunk half the time too and Hitler was getting amphetamine injections. It must have had some effect on things, right?”
It’s this ear for the underexploited, odd and characteristic details from history and his own experiences that make Corb such a unique and impressive songwriter. A knack for story songs and a budding interest in military history resulted in his remarkable 2007 concept album ‘Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier!’, and ‘Sadr City’ from his new LP ‘Things That Can’t Be Undone’.
“I ended up getting a lot of military guys coming to the shows after ‘Horse Soldier’ came out. I just keep talking to them and one guy was really interesting. He was a really well-read guy and we got along really well. He’d been in that battle in Iraq just after they declared Mission Accomplished and he told me the story about it. And then I met another guy who’d been in the same battle. It was a pretty big one.
I didn’t really make anything up. I just put their stories into meter and put a melody to it.”
Corb is in no way a typical country singer. He’s one of the few contemporary artists in the genre who could accurately be called country-and-western. He draws on the tradition of artists like Marty Robbins as much as 70s Waylon-and-Willie Outlaw country. His audience is just as unusual, and contains a diverse spread of opinions and views.
“We have a really wide and interesting mix of people coming to the show. Seems like our music is a mirror to them. They pick out the songs that they identify with and that’s who they think we are.
It’s funny, it’s actually really acute with the Horse Soldier record. A lot of military guys love that record and come to the shows now and there’s a couple of tank units using the Cavalry song as a regimental theme song. Then I’ve had the more artistic lefty types tell me they thought it was a great anti-war record. It’s weird, I’m not sure if it was a good or a bad thing. Seems like the points of view I take up in the songs is quite different sometimes.”
While Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno – to watch him die or for any other reason – these days country songs tend to shy away from portraying the point of view of a character, other than the one the singer plays all the time. Brad Paisley is the warm-hearted wise-ass, Eric Church is the iconoclastic renegade, Dierks Bentleyis the frisky road warrior. But Corb often inhabits many distinct perspectives in his songs, some seemingly contradictory.
“People don’t always understand that I’m singing in character, like a book. When Charles Dickens writes something in quotes, it means the character in his novel said that. It doesn’t mean Charles Dickens believes that. People forget that with music sometimes.
I’ve got a song that kind of glorifies oil riggers and a song about people fighting against oil and gas on their land. People think it’s a dichotomy, but it’s just different points of view.”
Another quality that marks Corb out is his deft mix of tone. While he can pen pitch black stories of corrupt military scandals (‘Student Visas’) and heartfelt songs of love lost, many of his better known songs are from the lighter side of his catalogue – like talking blues hit ‘Truck Got Stuck’. His latest album leans toward the former.
“There’s not a lot of fun stuff on this record. The songs I’m most known for with a lot of people are the more fun ones. There’s not much of that, aside from ‘Washed-Up Rock Star Factory Blues’. But beyond that the rest of it’s pretty dark. I like dark.”
I wondered if including the tale of a musician forced to get a real job was a conscious effort to balance the lyrical content of songs like musically dynamic but morally dark opener ‘Weight of the Gun’.
“In fact, I debated whether I should put it on at all. I thought it might be out of place. I don’t really go in with a checklist. I just write a bunch of songs that accurately reflect where my head’s at over that year and a half between albums. The factory song is a good one. I knew it was a good one, but I debated in my head whether it fit on that record. But I think now it does fit. It gives it a balance, because the rest of it’s kind of heavy.”
As comfortable as he is with controversial subject matter, Corb is wary of crossing the line into preachiness or political posturing.
“I try not to be too politically heavy handed in my stuff. Some people do, and I think there’s a place for that, but I think there’s a place for music that transcends politics. My stuff is sort of political sometimes, but it’s subtle. Sometimes we forget and let day to day financial things and political things be everything we talk about, but I think music can transcend that. I try not to tell people how to think, I just present them with a story and they get what they want from it.”