The genre name Country & Western music was retired, at least by the Billboard magazine charts, in 1962. The term became an anachronism, so over the years since it’s become too easy lose sight of the majesty and specificity of Western country music, a realm with its own lore, subject matter and swing. When we do hear Western music today, it’s most often a nostalgia show, but there are important contemporary artists renewing the tradition. One who may well be on his way to legendary status is the long-haul, square jawed Rocky Mountain songwriter Corb Lund.
“I always have thought it’s really important to include regionalism in your writing. Whether you’re from New Jersey or from the Rockies like me or Florida or wherever you’re from, I think it’s important to embrace your own past and put it into the art,” Lund says in the new episode of The String. He’s a sixth generation Albertan from the farming and ranching country in the Canadian Rockies. And over ten albums, the latest being Agricultural Tragic, he’s told stories of characters from his family lore (“cowboys and card cheats and oil riggers and lumberjacks”) with detail, admiration and humor.
“My grandfathers used to sing these old cowboy songs to me, like ‘Little Joe The Wrangler’ and ‘When The Work’s All Done This Fall,’” Lund says. “These songs are a common thread all the way up the Rockies in the cowboy subculture, and it’s pretty cool. I grew up riding steers and trying to rope and doing all those cowboy things that some people find exotic, but it just seemed normal to me. But when I got to be about 15 or 16, I discovered Black Sabbath and rock and roll and I found that really exotic, so I took off on my own journey for about ten years.”
Lund’s first band was The Smalls, an indie metal band beloved through the 1990s for their forceful and speedy virtuosity. This did lead to some distance between Corb and his parents. “But to their credit they handled it about as well as they could have” he says. “And my Dad is an interesting character. I call him a renaissance cowboy. Because he’s a cattleman, but he’s also a veterinarian and a pro rodeo cowboy. He’s also a Western artist. He was a watercolorist. He didn’t get rock and roll music, but he could get that I was on my own path.”
When Lund found himself leaning back into country music (a common journey when one looks the prototypical alt-country artists of the 90s and 2000s), the decade of rocking and touring hard served him well. “In that underground rock scene, it was interesting, because you were encouraged to be as unique and dynamic and unusual as you could, and come up with your own sound and angle,” he says. “I think I carried that over.”
It’s not in the volume or energy level, but in Lund’s idiosyncratic take on the world and a wit that burbles subsurface and sometimes bursts like a western geyser. My introduction to his music, and this seems to be the case for many, was the 2005 track “The Truck Got Stuck,” a talking blues in the manner of Woody Guthrie about a comedy of errors involving pickups, cowboys and a very muddy field. On the new Agricultural Tragic (a cheeky sub-sub-genre that Lund purports to write), the artist leaps off with “90 Seconds of Your Time,” a song story about trying to talk a hunting partner out of murdering some folks who apparently stole their mules. “Grizzly Bear Blues” is a romping rockabilly number about the various schools of thought about what to do in the face of the West’s most fearsome predator. And he makes this lighthearted too. Yet on songs like “Louis L’Amour,” Lund finds a more contemplative and nuanced voice, contrasting the mythic West of pulp fiction with its contemporary problems, in this case meth addiction. It’s a fast-paced, musically diverse collection of country music and a geography lesson you can dance to.