Hillbilly Highway – Fred rides 6 Volts hard

I’ve been listening to Fred Eaglesmith’s latest, 6 Volts, since it dropped into my mailbox a couple weeks back. The songs on 6 Volts are classic Fred, tunes of murder, love lost, guns and the Road. Recorded with one mic straight to tape, the disc has the mono immediacy of old Sun records, a sound even John Mellencamp has toying with of late.

Fred’s a road dog, traveling thousands of klicks a year, playing hundreds of shows in an endless cycle that takes him into every backwater, big town and metropolis in North America, and beyond. Three tunes in particular, maybe four, off 6 Volts really hone in on the reality of an aging troubadour who can’t quit grinding it out.

“Betty Oshawa” tells the tale of a musical partnership that fell apart, eponymous Betty making it big while the narrator bags groceries in his hometown. “Johnny Cash” takes issue with Johnny-come-lately-Johnny-fans, taking the fickle listener to task for not supporting an artist while they’re alive. “Trucker Speed” ain’t necessarily about a traveling singer, but it very well could be.

“Stars” hits home hardest. Fred talks straight up about gigging non-stop, playing small towns like you’re the biggest star. Long after the lights have gone down, the protagonist sings “My hands hurt from playing my guitar / All those nights in all those bars / We played like we were stars.” Fred mentions long time bandmate Willie P. Bennett, and laments how easy it is to think the good times will never end. Playing in a band, it’s easy to feel this way.

I’ve seen Fred play a couple times now, and I’ve missed him even more by bad timing and my own traveling. I met him once, out behind the Park Theatre a couple years back. Me and my buddy Woodtick were slamming the last of our beers before heading in to catch the opening act, the Ginn Sisters. As we were rounding the corner, there’s a van with Ontario plates sitting there with the door wide open on the side. Out rolls Fred, putting his socks on.

We stopped, and I made straight for Fred, extending my hand. We chatted him up, gave him one of our CDs to “listen to if you get sick of the radio.”

“You in a band?” he asked us. We nodded. Yessir. We put out our CD ourselves, we humble bragged. “That’s the only way to do it, boys,” he said. He looked at the CD briefly, set it aside, and finished pulling his socks on. Then he looked up at us.

“Never quit, boys,” he told us, looking us both in the eye. “Never quit.”

In the songs on 6 Volts, you know Fred really means it. He ain’t quitting anytime soon. Thank something for that.

– Sheldon Birnie

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