Country musician Corb Lund unites rig workers, treehuggers, geeks and rockers

Michael Barclay catches up with the lead singer of the Hurtin' Albertans

There’s a famous story about Willie Nelson being invited to the White House by Jimmy Carter, and sneaking off to smoke a joint on the roof while Secret Service members looked on. Sadly, the part about Carter joining Nelson for what the songwriter calls an “Austin torpedo” is only a rumour (denied by both parties), though one beloved by heavy-lidded High Times subscribers ever since.

Willie Nelson is a hero to Alberta country singer Corb Lund, though not for his marijuana advocacy nor even necessarily for his music. Lund, who has spent several stints living in Nelson’s adopted hometown of Austin, Texas—a singer/songwriter mecca and countercultural hotbed—most respects Nelson’s ability to unite “hippies, cowboys and bikers” at his shows.

Likewise, in a North American zeitgeist where politicians delight in exploiting a rural-urban culture war, Lund is the rare country musician who unites Fort McMurray oil rig workers, Toronto tree-huggers and everyone in between: classic rockers, hardcore country fans, campus radio geeks, and anyone who loves a good yarn, regardless of musical genre.

Such is his appeal that this summer, Lund pulled off the unthinkable: his seventh album, Cabin Fever, debuted at No. 1 on Canada’s Billboard charts, beating out Justin Bieber (whose new album was only a few weeks old), making him not only the first country musician to do so in ages, but the first Edmontonian ever to have a No. 1 album (Lund was raised on a ranch in Taber, Alta., but has called Edmonton home for most of his adult life, since moving there to study jazz guitar at school). And deservedly so—in a long, consistently strong discography, it’s a filler-free romp through everything that has made Lund one of the country’s most respected songwriters of the last decade—of any genre.

Who would he have liked to see from Edmonton reach No. 1 before him? “SNFU,” says Lund without hesitation, referring to the venerable punk band; Lund’s own punk band, the Smalls, were contemporaries in the ’90s. “Those guys are my favourite. They’re my touchstone for Edmonton music. And Ian Tyson,” he quickly adds, referring to the folk legend who’s become a personal friend and mentor, “although he may have had a No.1 record, I don’t know; he’s certainly had platinum records.”

Lund’s wide cross-country appeal is yet another example of Canada’s power shift moving westward—something not lost on Canada’s first family, which Lund discovered when Laureen Harper invited him over for lunch.

“She’s from Turner Creek Valley, Alta., and has known our band for a long time,” says Lund, referring to his bandmates, the Hurtin’ Albertans. On a recent tour, Ms. Harper invited Lund and his bandmates—as well his opening act, Texas songwriter Hayes Carll (who duets with Lund on Cabin Fever)—to hang out at 24 Sussex Drive. “She was very gracious and invited us all over for lunch: four of our guys, five guys in Hayes’s band, and four or five crew guys, all scruffy guys having waiters bring them Coors Light on a platter.” There were no spliffs on the roof, however. And Mr. Harper wasn’t around—“I think he was in Uganda”—and Lund says the conversation never got political. “Nah,” he shrugs. “I don’t know her super-well. I’ve never talked politics with her; I don’t even know if she’s into politics that much.”

Lund is, however. A voracious reader of history and contemporary politics, he has a few opinions. One of the strengths of his songwriting is his ability to inhabit characters, to write fully formed short stories, and to set his songs in specific times and places in history. On Cabin Fever, he taps into peak oil anxiety on the opening line of the opening track, Gettin’ Down on the Mountain, which is also the first single: “When the oil stops / everything stops.” The rest of the song is about “a rip in the social fabric” and survivalist culture preparing for some kind of pending apocalypse. Lund wasn’t trying to be sensationalist or even to make any particular point; to him, it’s just an obvious truth.

“I didn’t really read into it politically,” he says, somewhat surprised that the song has inspired a strong reaction from fans and new listeners. “To me, it’s a reality. I live in Alberta and I’m very close both sides of the oil industry: I have family members who work for it, and I have tons of friends and family who are land conservationists, so I think about this and talk about it constantly at home. Even the most jaded oil executive would agree that eventually we have to get off oil, whether it’s a year from now or 15 years from now. Half the time I think we’ll sort something out and use the same human ingenuity that put us on the moon. The other half, I don’t know—I’m pretty pessimistic. But right now there are eight or 10 looming crises, really.”

Lund flips easily between the weight of the world and casual conversation—a dichotomy that runs through everything he does. For every song like Gettin’ Down on the Mountain, he has another celebrating his German motorcycle, goth girls, or how “everything is better when there’s cows around.”

And then there’s a song like September, which—much like a 2009 song, Alberta Says Hello—is about and urban-rural long-distance relationship that falls to pieces when the couple can’t reconcile their geography. “I can picture how you’re living,” Lund pleads in the song, “in a tiny fourth-floor flat / well there’s times that a thousand acres in the Rocky Mountains can’t compete with that.”

“Those [lyrics] are pretty real,” admits the songwriter, who splits his time between rural Albertan isolation and life in Edmonton. “I don’t write many love songs that aren’t.” That said, he adds the rural-urban divide “hasn’t been a big factor in my romantic relationships, but it’s a big factor in my life generally.

“It’s very strange, because I have a lot of friends from back home, country guys, and I have a lot of friends in the city. There’s a real chasm of values. A lot of urban people don’t and will never understand rural headspace, and vice versa. In an urban setting you have so much more diversity and open-mindedness and stuff to try, which is lost on rural people. Likewise, there are a lot of practical, common-sense roll-up-your-sleeves things going on in the country that are lost on urban people. And often my friends just cannot see eye to eye on stuff.

So when Corb Lund throws a big birthday party with all of his friends together, what happens? “Well, the other side of that is that it’s reflected in my audiences, so I’m the guy who forces them to hang out together for an hour and a half. Even our Toronto shows, there will be guys who drive in from a couple of hours out of town. I’m proud of that part of it, the way the music bridges those gaps. Music has a real way of opening unlikely doors sometimes.”

Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans have 19 dates left on their Canadian tour, starting at Petit Campus in Montreal, hitting Toronto on Friday, November 23, playing a variety of major markets and small towns, including Dec. 7 at the Expo Centre in Edmonton and Dec. 8-9 at Flames Central in Calgary.