Published Jun 25, 2020He comes from a long line of cattle wranglers, rodeo riders, outlaws and bootleggers. So what's a born and bred high plains drifter like Corb Lund to make of cowboy culture becoming en vogue?
Ahead of the release of his tenth album, Agricultural Tragic, Exclaim! asked the Albertan alt-country vet (who grew up on his family's sixth-generation-strong ranch near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains) to comment about rapper Lil Nas X riding horseback and jigging in his cowboy boots in the video for last year's smash hit "Old Town Road." Or what does Lund think of Orville Peck gracing the cover of British GQ's style issue (not to mention the cover of Exclaim!) in all his country chic glory? And how about artists as varied as Solange, Mitski and Mac DeMarco using cowboy imagery in very non-traditional ways as of late, to varying degrees of critical acclaim?
"My cousin's a Western Canada Wrangler rep, and he says Lil Nas X has exploded the Wrangler jeans market. So I guess it [country chic] is good for that," Lund says with a chuckle (in fact, seemingly unbeknownst to Lund, the apparel company now has a special collection dedicated to the "Old Town Road" rapper).
Kidding aside, Lund calls the ongoing rise in cowboy culture part of "a cycle that happens every fifteen years. I remember in the '80s, Urban Cowboy was huge," he says in reference to the John Travolta movie that practically spawned a lifestyle and a slew of radio-friendly hitmakers like Kenny Rogers and Johnny Lee, bolo ties et all.
"I have the luxury of having that background. So to me, it seems ridiculous. It doesn't bother me. It just doesn't seem that genuine," Lund adds about the current faux-country fad. However, he points to Orville Peck as a possible exception. Lund has yet to hear Peck's music, but intends to soon at the behest of enthused friends. He goes on to concede: "If you don't have that background, maybe it [country chic] is an interesting thing to explore."
If Lil Nas X and Orville Peck are indeed gateway artists, then the newly country-curious will find plenty of authentic details and gleefully irreverent asides to delve into on Agricultural Tragic. Take "90 Seconds of Your Time," on which Lund bellows, "Horse thieving ain't quite gone outta style" over one of the hardest rocking rhythms of his career. The cheekily rollicking "Ranchin', Ridin', Romance (Two Outta Three Ain't Bad)," meanwhile, is (no, not a Meat Loaf tribute, but instead) a true-to-its-title account of the current dearth of well-rounded cowboys. "Grizzly Bear Blues" is another highlight, thanks to abrupt drum breakdowns that'll even tempt those diametrically opposed to country to toe-tap. Halfway through, you'll also hear "Dance With Your Spurs On," which requires no further explanation.
Best of all, however, is the heartfelt and downcast "Raining Horses," which Lund says he co-wrote with friend and "very successful horsewoman" Jaida Dreyer. It features lines like, "'Round here it ain't cats and dogs but colts that hit the ground." While the song's title is a play on the term "reining" (i.e. a western riding competition), Lund says the lyrics explore what "we in the West call 'horse poor.' Like, not enough money and too many horses."
Yes, Lund pens a rare track with pals like Dreyer or fellow alt-country songsmiths such as Evan Felker of the Turnpike Troubadours (their team-up, "Washed-Up Rock Star Factory Blues," can be heard on Lund's last album Things That Can't Be Undone) or Hayes Carl (a collaboration that has yet to be released; Lund fondly calls their Ego Brother duo "ridiculous"). But usually his writing process is a solitary one, featuring plenty of burrowing into the goldmine vein that is his rural linage.
As he puts it: "My family's place is in southwestern Alberta. Both sides of the family were raising cattle in Utah, and came to Canada around the turn of the century. It's a long line of cattle people, and rodeo people, and outlaws, and bootleggers. All kinds of things."
Lund says those familial details have been a wellspring for his lyrics over the years.
He adds that some of his lyrics are all but "verbatim, and some are just inspired by" his family history. There are no official archives for him to thumb through. Instead, he says: "You know how every family has a couple of people who are keepers of the lore? I've got a couple of aunts like that who I always turn to for stories."
"I think I'm probably that guy now, too," Lund adds, in a major understatement as his tenure as Keeper of the Alt-Country Lore carries on during Agricultural Tragic's rollout.