Here comes the cavalry

As a kid, I spent several summers on a big grain farm in eastern Alberta. Sometimes I would see older kids riding their horses by the side of the road with a blaring portable radio strapped to a saddle pommel.

Maybe they still do that in Alberta, or maybe the country kids all have iPods now. Either way, they’re not hearing a lot of songs about rural life when they listen to country radio. Cowboy songs have pretty much disappeared from mainstream country music, and the horses are gone too. It’s a long way, culturally speaking, from Wilf Carter’s The Fate of the Old Strawberry Roan to Carrie Underwood’s Jesus, Take the Wheel.

It took someone with real cowboy blood in his veins to round up the ponies and get them running again, through some brand new western songs. Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier!, the latest album by Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans on Stony Plain Records, takes a sophisticated look at our ancient relationship with horses, in fields of peace and of war.

Lund has a couple of generations of ranchers and cowboys in his family. His face is lightly scarred from his own adventures as a ranch kid and junior rodeo rider in southern Alberta.

He has lived in Edmonton for most of his adult life, and his first band was a punkish rock group called the Smalls. But he still has a strong attachment to rural life, and is one of the few important country musicians ready and able to sing about it.

“People who live rurally and listen to country music are pretty close to my background,” he said, his large frame pressed into a cramped café booth in Toronto. “And unlike a lot of country radio artists, I’m actually writing about rural and western experience. It’s neat for me to have been able to introduce that stuff to underground hipster-type people who have artistic sensibilities close to my own, and have it ring true with people who actually live a rural lifestyle. That’s one of my proudest accomplishments so far.”

His songs are often very specific to his home province. The lyrics of Truck Got Stuck, a witty down-home single from 2005, refer to Hutterites and Agriculture Canada, and the video for Roughest Neck Around (based on his brother’s experience as an oil-patch worker) was shot on an oil rig south of Edmonton.

Lund reveres the traditions of western music as much as he does the land it refers to. Much of the music on Horse Soldier! Horse Soldier! has the structure and sound of the narrative country songs of people like Johnny Horton, whose “saga songs” from the late fifties fascinated Lund when he was a kid.

But Lund also has the kind of irreverent, off-centre sensibility you might expect from someone who played punk for 11 years. He’s a unique figure in country music, whose MySpace page offers several playful characterizations of what he’s up to: “ulterior country, free-range country, country music with some hair on it.”

The war-related songs on the new disc offer several views of the subject as seen from a saddle. The title song is written in the voice of the archetypal cavalry rider surveying a history of service that stretches from medieval Europe to 19th-century America to present-day Afghanistan, where horses are again being used by indigenous fighters.

“The mounted soldier as a kind of mythical character has always intrigued me,” he said, and in his songs he tried to get at the nobility and also the horror of cavalry experience. The album begins with a jaunty march called I Wanna Be in the Cavalry, and ends with a sombre, altered version of the same song as it might be revised by someone scarred inside and out by actual combat.

“There’s some gung-ho songs and some dark ones. I think that probably reflects my own confusion about all that stuff. I read a lot about politics, and I’m kind of a history buff, and I like to think I’m fairly well-informed. And I’m not afraid to say that the more I read, the more confused I get about a lot of issues.” He knew the Iraq invasion was a mistake while he was touring the United States during the run-up to war, he said, but finds the Afghan situation much harder to judge.

A Leader on Losing Control, which Lund wrote two albums ago but held till now, adopts the imagery and diction of an 18th-century cavalry commander after his troops have bolted. Student Visas deals with mercenaries in Nicaragua, in a style reminiscent of the war poems of Robert W. Service.

Other songs portray horses in peaceful settings, in ways that are invariably sad. My Saddle Horse Has Died is a lament based on the intimate bond between rider and animal, and Especially a Paint sounds like a reflection on Lund’s own nostalgia for ranch life and all that the sight, sound and company of horses has meant to him.

“It’s funny, whenever I start out writing a love song, it always turns into a song about horses,” he said, with a hint of a grin. “Which is kind of creepy.”

Hard on Equipment takes Lund back to the earthy, comic style familiar from his 2005 single, Truck Got Stuck. Another tune about the early Mormon church’s doctrine of blood atonement (under which serious sins like marrying a black person could be punished with death) seems sure to get a rise out of Lund’s many Mormon relatives.

He’s a road warrior who tours eight or nine months a year. His last record, Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer, boosted his profile considerably, and he’s going to ride this one hard to the same end, in Canada, the U.S., Europe and Australia.

“I can really read audiences now,” he said. “I can tell if they like us and why, if it’s because they know us already, or because they’re country fans, or if they liked the beat of the last two tunes but not the one before it.”

It’s sort of like a rancher assessing the sky for tomorrow’s weather, or a rodeo rider hanging on the corral rails, trying to figure what kind of bucking that next bronco might do. You never know for sure till you drop into the saddle.

One Response to “Here comes the cavalry”

  1. […] playing in a punk band for eleven years Alberta native Corb Lund has a strong attachment to western music and rural life. The nostalgia of that rural life and the disappearance of horses and western motifs […]

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