Hillbilly Highway – Fishing Headwaters with Del Barber

by Sheldon Birnie

photo: Mark Maryanovich

“If you want to chart a course, you’re not free to leave your history,” explains Winnipeg based singer-songwriter Del Barber over a beer at the King’s Head last week. “That’s kind of the rule,” he continues, “the overall assumption with all the characters and personal narratives” contained on his third studio album, titled Headwaters.

Recorded in Winnipeg and in a 19th century farmhouse in Maine, Headwaters is set for release on Toronto’s Six Shooter Records on May 1. Produced by Sam Kassirer, the new record is a step into somewhat uncharted waters for Del.

“I had produced the first two [records] with a friend from St. Norbert, and definitely kind of stayed within my comfort zone,” he says. “So I wanted to work with someone who would push me out of that comfort zone.”

“That was [also] the first time I’ve ever recorded live with people,” he says of the professional rhythm section Kassirer brought in to lay the bed tracks. “It was really a great experience, because I basically just got to show up to work and do my thing and everyone else was just ridiculously talented, so I didn’t have to hone in their parts.”

Themes of home, community, and rural and personal change abound on Headwaters; themes that Barber has explored in the past, but never dived into quite so deeply.

“I wanted there to be certain levels to the songs, so there’s a story level, that’s very easy to follow,” he explains. “This person dreams about leaving a small town, for whatever reason, leaves, but then can’t get back. Very simple story, told a million times, but having those bigger allegorical things in the background and trying to work with that. Hopefully those songs function on more than one level.”

Considering he travels for the bulk of the year — playing up to 200 shows annually — it is no wonder that themes of home, community, and escape appear throughout Del’s tunes.

“I think, I put on about 100,000kms in a year, coast to coast to coast and into the States,” Del figures. “I really love it. I love the road … There is something about it, something Biblical about it. A lot of the old prophets were travellers. They came in and had to say something that didn’t always fit in the context, and that’s something that musicians get to do now. Hopefully I do that once in a while.”

Another benefit to riding the Highway through the better part of a year are, of course, the people you meet along the way.

“There’s always shitty show, but there’s always charity too, in people and like, time spent with people. It never ceases to amaze me.”

“Travelling is great too because I get to fish everywhere,” Barber admits, busting into a grin at the thought of dropping a line in the water. “I’ve been touring and developing a network of people who like to fish, and developing a couple extra days here and there. Like, you know the steelhead are running in this river at this time of year, I’ll try to get back there. I’m going up to this festival in Atlin, BC this summer, the Atlin Arts Festival, and hopefully there’ll be a salmon run going on.”

Of course the road ain’t all roses and good times. Travelling thousands of klicks on your lonesome can wear even the hardest of hardcore troubadours down.

“The negatives are I don’t get to be a very good uncle,” Barber reflects. “Trying to have a relationship with my girlfriend can be trying, more on her. But she realizes that I really love being out there.”

In the end, if you’re playing for keeps you’ve got to make sacrifices now and again in the name of running down a dream. After chatting with Del for over an hour, I can tell he’s got his eyes on the prize. And based on the songs I’ve heard him sing over the years, the talent to see it through, too.

Check out Headwaters when it drops on Six Shooter Records May 1. Del’s next Winnipeg gig is opening for Old Man Luedecke at the Park Theatre May 28.

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