Corb Lund’s rise as one of Canada’s top country balladeers is a far cry from his first recording group, The Smalls. The indie punk rock band from Edmonton sold nearly 40,000 copies of four albums over ten years, while touring part time throughout North America, and even made a trip to Bosnia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.
Lund’s musical journey began young, growing up near Taber, Alberta on the century-old family cattle ranch while learning to play the guitar. “My Grandpa used to sing me these old cowboy ballads – songs that were 100 years old, like “Little Joe The Wrangler.” They were basically the oral history lessons of the West, about cattle, riding horses, trail blazing… There’s a million rock bands that have moved to LA and tried to pretend they’re from there, and write songs about LA. The same can be said about country artists moving to Nashville. I’ve never been into that. I feel pretty strongly about where I’m from. I figure there’s already enough songs about LA, Nashville, and Texas. I’d rather write about what I know,” Lund said.
He attended the University of Lethbridge for a year, studying History and Anthropology, before dropping out to work in the oilfields for a couple of years, where he also dabbled in rodeo riding. From there he moved to Edmonton in the early 1990s to study at the University of Alberta for another year and a half, before enrolling in the music program at Grant MacEwan College. It was there that he met and later joined The Smalls, which soon became one of the hottest acts in town.
His first solo album was actually while still with them. With producer Trevor Rockwell, MODERN PAIN was released on the newly formed independent Outside Music in ’95. Fusing a strong classic Western sound with a darkly witty rock & roll sensibility, “Untitled Waltz” and “Expectations and The Blues” were indicative of the raw approach to this other side of the artist, recorded off the floor with minimal studio tinkering, often lamenting in a style that hadn’t been heard from a Canadian artist in years.
His follow-up was UNFORGIVING MISTRESS, released in ’99 with new producer Steve Loree. The music was still a cross-over of country and roots, and his penchant for writing tight, light-hearted and upbeat tunes was developing, in “The Case of the Wine Soaked Preacher” and “Engine Revver,” and the flamenco flavoured lead-off “Mora” and “Spanish Armada.”
The Smalls played their last dates, appropriately enough in Edmonton and Calgary, to end 2001. With a solo country career ahead of him full-time, Lund signed with Stony Plain Records and formed The Hurtin’ Albertans, with bassist Kurt Ciesla, longtime Taber friend Brady Valgardson on drums, and Grant Siemens on guitar, banjo, and mandolin, who’s actually a native of Winnipeg.
Released in 2002 and marking his first time working with producer Harry Stinson in Nashville and Edmonton, FIVE DOLLAR BILL was an instant smash and his breakthrough album. By the time it was certified gold for 50,000 units sold in Canada, three singles were released – “No Roads Here,” the title track, and “Roughest Neck Around” (argued by critics as the finest oil worker song ever written). It won the Outstanding Independent Album of the Year at the 2003 WCMA (Western Canadian Music Awards), the CCMA (Canadian Country Music Awards) for both Indepedent Recording of the Year and the Roots Artist Or Group of The Year in ’03 and again a year later, and was also nominated for a Juno.
“Our audience until then had always been kind of a college market, and it still is to a degree. We’ve always kind of been a black sheep when it comes to country music. But FIVE DOLLAR BILL just seemed to catch on with the mainstream country audiences,” he said.
It also became one of the few Canadian albums in history to be nominated for a US Independent Music Award in ’03. The album’s success kept Lund and the band on the road through late 2003, and two more singles, “Time to Switch to Whiskey” and “(Gonna) Shine Up My Boots” climbed the charts, while videos for “Roughest Neck Around” and “(Gonna) Shine Up My Boots” became staples on CMT. Those two songs also made it to soundtrack for the sci-fi/comedy “Slither” movie in ’06.
After MODERN PAIN was re-released with three tracks that didn’t make the initial cut and three live covers (including “The Hockey Song” with an extra verse), HAIR IN MY EYES LIKE A HIGHLAND STEER was released in the summer of 2005. Life on the prairies was epitomized in the first two singles – “Truck Got Stuck” and the title track. In addition, “Counterfeiters’ Blues” and “Truth Comes Out” kept Lund on the airwaves and the video channels for the next couple of years. His love for his home province also made great subject matter in “The Hurtin’ Albertan” (featuring Tim Rus) and “Little Foothills Heaven,” and also called on legend Ian Tyson to help out on “The Rodeo’s Over.”
He embarked on another ambitious tour that took him from coast to coast, as well as into the US and trips to Great Britain to play the Glastonbury Festival and Australia, not his first time on stage on either continent. “The crowds are always great, but in England the whole Western vibe is kind of exotic, a novelty. The cowboy mystique is pretty different to them – not so much in Australia because they have their own cattle culture, so I guess they can relate to me a little more,” he laughed.
Upon returning he was rewarded with a second gold record. By the time the tour bus came to a stop in ’06, he’d won a the Juno for Roots & Traditional Album of the Year, as well as five more CCMAs, and four more WCMAs. That same year, they also provided the music for an NBC special on Olympic gold medalist skater Kurt Browning, when he performed a routine to “Expectation and the Blues.”
After winning another CCMA for Roots Artist or Group of the Year in ’07, Lund’s next project was HORSE SOLDIER! HORSE SOLDIER!, released that November and bordering on being an actual concept album. Released two months earlier, the video for the lead single, “I Want To Be In The Cavalry” was shot at a movie set outside Fort Calgary and in Alberta’s Foothills, and got heavy rotation, and the single made its way into the Canadian top 10. It also became the theme song of UNICEF Team Canada, the Canadian national equestrian team, to support UNICEF and help provide food and medical care to third world AIDS and HIV-infected orphans and children.
The light-hearted “Family Reunion,” the title track which referenced the history of horse warfare from General Custer to the war in Afghanistan, and “Hard on Equipment (Tool for the Job)” (co-written by Mike Plume) followed up the charts. Among other noteable tracks, Lund also dusted off one of The Smalls‘ biggest crowd pleasers and gave it new life, “My Saddle Horse Has Died.” A a somber reprise of “I Wanna Be in the Cavalry” told the tale of soldiers having to feed on their horses’ carcasses to survive preluded his rendition of “Taps” to end out the album. The album peaked at #25 in Canada in the middle of another gruelling tour that saw the band go overseas, as well as do dates throughout the US and Canada.
Lund found himself on another movie soundtrack, when he appeared on the 2008 documentary, “Holler Back: (Not) Voting in an American Town,” then again in Bill Heath’s independent ski film, “Nine Winters Old.”
After another Juno nomination for Roots & Traditional Album of the Year (and wins at the CCMAs and WCMAs), Lund was looking to make a bigger impact on the American, as well as the international markets. He signed with New West Records in ’09, home to Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, and Kris Kristofferson, among others. “There’s no fluff on that label, everyone’s established, and some of them I’d call my heroes,” he said, noting that there’s a different persona with our southern neighbours towards music that proudly waves the Canadian flag.
“I think they kind of find it a novelty. Through random chance, LOSING LATELY GAMBLER had two songs with provinces in the title, which probably isn’t the smartest move for your USA debut,” he laughed. “But really, there is very little music out there in Canada that actually has much specifically Canadian lyrical content, so I don’t think it makes much difference. A lot of times in many cases, they wouldn’t know you’re Canadian unless you told them. In my case, the Texans and southerners aren’t aware that we have a cowboy culture at all in Canada. I have to explain to them how the Teas herds in the 1800s made it all the way to Calgary, and brough ranch culture all the way up the Rockies.”
“Long Gone To Saskatchewan” made the top 20 at home prior to the album’s release, and he played it while in Ottawa for the 2011 Canada Day ceremonies, which the newlywed British Duke and Dutchess of Cambridge attended.
Three more singles ensued over the next year – “A Game In Town Like This,” “Devil’s Best Dress,” and “This Is My Prairie,” a lament about the fading of the farming way of life. The album became his third to peak at #1 on the Canadian charts, and earned another CCMA and another WCMA for Roots Recording of the Year.
Lund once again drew on his traditional roots for 2012’s CABIN FEVER. Recorded at Edmonton’s Riverdale Recorders, it marked the fist time in a decade he didn’t work with Nashville producer Harry Stinson. “We’d worked together for so long, after awhile you need to see new faces in order to hear new music,” Lund said.
The singles “September” and “Dig Gravedigger Dig” took him back to #1 on the Canadian albums chart, but still failed to crack the top 40 Stateside. Still, critics hailed the record for Lund’s leaning towards more serious subject matter than before, but not losing the lyrical dry wit that brought him to the dance. “Gettin’ Down On The Mountain” held mild apocalyptic undertones, while “Cows Around” held true to his cowboy attitude.
Other tracks that ran the gamut of straight forward country & western to rockabilly and blues included “You Aint’ A Cowboy If You Ain’t Been Bucked Off,” “One Left In The Chamber,” and “Bible On The Dash,” a song also featured co-writing and was a duet with Hayes Carll. He and John Evans, who also contributed to the writing, had been involved with Lund in a side project called The Ego Brothers for a couple of years.
“It’s always been pretty cool with our audiences, we seem to reach people of all different walks of life. We get people come with their parents, people come with their kids. I’ve always tried to walk both sides of the line,” he said. “We get punk rockers in Mohawks, cowboys in Wranglers. It’s a good mix and a mind-opening experience for everyone involved.”
Part of the touring schedule that year included a week-long engagement with Ian Tyson, who happened to be Parade Marshall at the Calgary Stampede in 2012. The two partnered up at the Martha Cohen Theatre all that week, singing songs together and solo, telling tales from the ranches along the way. “I was pretty intimidated the first couple of times I met Ian. But we’ve sang on each others’ albums, and now he’s just a good friend and I think I’ve learned a lot from him, ” Lund said
Throughout his career, Corb Lund’s philanthropic endeavors have also become legendary, starting while still with The Smalls, who played for the Canadian troops in war-torn Eastern Europe. He’s also appeared with the Young Artists for Haiti, recording the benefit version of K’nann’s song, “Wavin’ Flag” in 2010. Only a few months later, he also headlined the Medicine Hat Flood Relief Show, helping raise $68,000 for the Canadian Red Cross’s efforts to aid Southern Alberta flood victims. That same year, he even played in a charity poker tournament to support the Centre for Family Literacy in Edmonton.