In The Solace of Open Spaces, a meditation on ranch life in the intermountain West, Gretel Ehrlich writes, “The solitude in which westerners live makes them quiet… people hold back their thoughts in what seems to be dumbfounded silence, then erupt with an excoriatingly perceptive remark.”
Corb Lund, the son of a ranching family that goes back six generations in Southern Alberta, embodies this archetype. If he can tell you something in three words, he won’t use 20. “Pretty country,” was all he needed to say in an interview with BandWagon to evoke the rolling sage brush and winding drainages on his family’s ancestral homestead just north of Glacier National Park.
While Lund may be conversationally economical, he is lyrically verbose. Over the course of twelve full length LPs, he has become one of Canada – and Amercana’s – most beloved songwriters. His music is full of stories and rich with metaphor. Both lyrically and sonically, it’s a modern embodiment of life on the range.
In “90 Seconds of Your Time,” the lead track from 2020’s Agricultural Tragic, Lund attempts to quell the rage of a hotheaded companion. The conversation which he irreverently outlines is taken directly from a recent elk hunting trip with a friend. On their ninth morning in the Idaho backcountry, Lund woke up to find that three pack mules and his horse had fled camp during the night.
“It was strange because we all tie up our own animals, and we know how to do it,” Lund tells BandWagon. “They didn’t break their leads, they got untied. We were thinking maybe a jealous hunter untied them in the night.”
Lund’s friend, an ex-army ranger and “someone you want on your side,” saw red. He envisioned summary executions of the pranksters — their bodies left to the wolves and vultures. Lund nervously chuckled along to his friend’s bellicose fantasies. At some point, he felt the need to interject.
“With a big .44 and killing on your mind, all I’m gonna ask from you brother is 90 seconds of your time,” he sings. “Maybe try to change your mind, buddy. Don’t want to see you get your hands dirty here at home in peacetime.”
While some country singers have to rely on fictional characters to conjure up images of the west, Lund doesn’t have to. His music radiates authenticity because he grew up around, drinks with and hunts with the characters in his songs. When he jokes about the trials and tribulations of running a cattle ranch in the gypsy jazz hit “Cows Around,” the jocular tone betrays a heartbreaking reality. Pressed on both sides by meatpackers and predatory lenders, ranchers have to reconcile their way of life with a system that is designed to fail them.
Family ranching may be on its way out, but the archetypal Western cowboy is still alive. Lund is living proof that he is still out there, mincing his words, riding horses and singing songs around the campfire. And, like the stoic archetype that he embodies, Lund isn’t afraid to protect the things that he holds dear.
Last May, there came a moment when Lund felt the need to make his voice heard beyond his capacity as a songwriter. Quietly and without public input, the Alberta provincial government rescinded a 1976 ban on open-pit coal mining on the slopes of the Canadian Rockies. The ensuing mining permits that coal companies scrambled to obtain threatened to scar the landscape and taint the water of nearby communities.
“It pissed off everybody up here, not just the lefties — ranchers, hunters and the first nations people,” Lund said. “It affects the water I drink. This was too egregious to let go.”
Lund collaborated with other Canadian musicians to re-record his 2009 song “This Is My Prairie,” in protest. A few months later, the government backed down and even introduced new protections.
Though Lund doesn’t think of himself as an activist, the episode is emblematic of his character. He won’t berate and belittle someone he disagrees with, but he might sing a song to make them change their mind. All he needs is “90 Seconds of Your Time” to make you see things in a new light. Like many great artists, Lund is observant, impassioned and peaceful. Though he sometimes sings about scraps and bar fights, he admits that he has never caused one.
“I’m pretty mellow,” he said. “I’ve seen a few. I have a few friends that are fans of the activity, but you have to watch that they don’t drag you into it.”
While the boys are throwing punches, Lund is back at the bar nursing a whisky with an eye on the door. As the fighting settles down, a melody and lyrics come into focus. Soon, Lund is recounting the night to a roomful of hungry faces, guitar in hand.