November 21, 2012 § 4 Comments
On Saturday, we slammed out afternoon chores early, loaded the famdamnily into our sad sack of a Subaru and motored three hours south to Northampton, MA for a Fred Eaglesmith concert. It was an expensive outing; $120 just for the tickets, never mind the dozen or so gallons of petrol we vaporized along I91.By Hewitt standards, this was a major outlay, an exorbitance of epic proportions. But we all have a serious weakness for live music, and no more so than for Fred, who is perhaps the best least-known songwriter in North America. (The second best, if you’re wondering, is Vermont’s own Waylon Speed. Anyone who’s half as into hopped up, dirt bag rock n’ roll as we are should check ’em out)
Fred is the real damn deal. He grew up on a farm in Ontario with eight siblings, before hopping a freight train at the tender age of 15 to see what the world (or Canada, at least) had to offer. He’s 55 now, and drives from gig-to-gig — he plays something like 250 shows annually across the US and Canada — in a old bus converted to run on veggie oil. His bus was parked outside the venue in Northampton, and the sorry ass thing looked as if it were waiting for a tow truck to come along and haul it to a junkyard for a quick and painless mercy killing. The beast was covered by a film of road grime and, if I’m not mistaken, a healthy bloom of mold. The passenger side rearview mirror was smashed into a dozen barely-held-together shards, like one of those fun house mirrors, and there was a significant quantity of fresh oil underneath the engine bay.
It’s not that Fred’s a particularly talented musician. What his is, I think, is a particularly talented story teller. Each of his songs is like a three-minute novel, more often than not featuring trains, farmin’, quiet desperation, guns, and hard people doing some seriously hard livin’. Sometimes, all five. But the real beauty of Fred’s stories is that despite their unapologetic grit and not-infrequent tragedy, they are strangely uplifting.
For a few days after the show (which was worth every damn penny, even though the couple next to us proceeded to get stumble-drunk and sang along at top volume for the second half of the set), I struggled to figure out precisely how this can be so. How can a song about a farm auction be uplifting? Why does the song York Road, a tale of drought, departed loved ones, and a desperate, lonely man hunting not for sport but for survival so satisfying?
The context for all this can be found in perhaps the most-frequent topic of discussion between Penny and myself which, to oversimplify a great bit, is that our entire family has become rather spoiled. We work hard, yes, but our true hardships are few, if any. When we need or want something, we generally get it. No doubt it is helpful that we have set fairly low expectations regarding what we need or want; there’s no desire to drive a new car, or take the family to Disney, or whatever. But if the boys want, say, a used deer rifle, they get one. If we want to drop 120 clams on a Fred concert, we drop ’em. Yes, there are times when things are truly tight, and over the past few years, our income has hovered in the $30,000 range; hardly extravagant for a family of four. But I honestly can’t remember a single instance when we’ve gone without something we really wanted.
It seems absurd to complain that we have it too easy, that we have too much, particularly in a world where so many people have it too hard and have too little. But I wonder if one of the reasons we love Fred’s stories is found in our recognition of the uncomfortable truth that living without some degree of hardship does not equate to a life well lived. Hardship, I believe, is a precursor to character, to gratitude, and ultimately, perhaps, to happiness. Without hardship, our appreciation for plenty – or even just enough – wanes. I think what I’m hearing in Fred’s songs that I find so poignant and uplifting is an unspoken acknowledgement of this truth, that the beauty in life is most fully realized when it is juxtaposed by events and conditions that must, to some degree and for some period of time, be not just tolerated, but endured.
And with that, Happy Thanksgiving.