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Press Articles


January 2000

Highway Songs

Gordon Lightfoot's amazing four-decade career 
is spotlighted in a new box set.

By Ben Elder

Gordon Lightfoot has weathered the gales of popular music tends since the 1960s. At 61, he's lived through nearly four decades of writing, recording, and performing; 19 albums; hundreds of songs; and myriad awards. His career has spanned the Beatles juggernaut and the British Invasion, the comfortable compatibility of '70s country rock, and the rise and fall of disco, punk, and new wave. Some of his greatest work was recently compiled in Songbook, a four-CD box set from Rhino Records that includes 70 greatest hits as well as 18 rarities.

Lightfoot describes the making of Songbook as "a tiptoe through the past that was quite interesting." His collaborator and coproducer was Thane Tierney, a longtime fan and Rhino sales executive who declared his intention to participate in this dream project. Tierney was not only allowed to participate but also given the job of coproducing the project with Lightfoot. Drawing on various archival sources, Tierney drew up an outline for the set. Lightfoot was faced with the task of reviewing his entire career for the project. "It was like looking at the good, the bad, and the ugly," he quips. "For five days, I was making notes and listening to everything that I had ever done from album1 to album 19l I tried to bring my thinking in line with the proposed layout presented by Mr. Tierney. He gave me a rough outline and a time frame of 75 minutes for each disc.

"The rarities or unpublished works were another part of the package hat we wanted to include after we had a chance to digest everything. Mr. Tierney and his people had assembled some material from the Warner Brothers archive. They sent that up to me and I went trough all the material available to me in the Toronto area - which was considerable - and when we were done we had 18 rarities. We were both surprised that we came up with that many. It was fun. The music business is supposed to be fun."

Songbook is more than just a superb collection of Lightfoot's music, however. It also offers autobiographical insight into an artist whose career has seen the music business change so many times. The accompanying booklet includes a treasure trove of old photos (even the CD labels are decorated with pictures of vintage labels from Lightfoot's various 45s) as well as a Lightfoot musical chronology by Canadian journalist Nicholas Jennings and song-by-song commentary by the artist himself.

The first disc kicks off with two rarities, "Remember Me (I'm the One Who Loves You)" and "It's Too Late, He Wins," both recorded in 1962 with some of Nashville`s A-list studio musicians. Lightfoot (and his fans) can be thankful that he would later choose a folkier career path. In other rarities, he offers tribute to two folk legends. "Station Master," the final cut on disc one, "has a very strong Bob Dylan undercurrent," according to Lightfoot. "He's been a big influence on me, and this is as close as I get to showing it," he explains. "Bordersone,2the third disc`s nonautobiographical freight-hopping song, "is the kind of thing Woody's all over everybody's stuff. He makes an appearance in "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" when the cook says, "It's been good to know ya," That's from the Woody Guthrie lyric "So long, it's been good o know you."

Although Terry Clements' electric lead guitar (sometimes complete with fuzz tone) is delicately woven into Lightfoot's folky sound(witness "The Wreck," as Clements affectionately refers to it, and Endless Wire"), disc three's closer, "Canary Yellow Canoe," rocks furiously with a kind of Creedenxe Clearwater/Travelin' Band groove, while celebrating Lightfoot's favourite mode of travel on his extended trips into the Canadian wilderness. (Lightfoot, with his outdoor songs and pursuits, seems like an obvious candidate for a travel guitar, but, he says, "When I'm doing that, I leave the guitars at home. That's a lot of freight to take on a long canoe-ing or backpacking expedition.")

Lightfoot has been described as a songwriter who simply sings about what he knows, and a big part of that is the history and majestic expanse of Canada, as exemplified by songs like "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," the triumohant result of a commission for a CBC-TV documentary. He also has a matchless gift for flowing melodies and cord changes, which inspires fans and collaborators alike. "Gord's ballads are real sweet," Clements remarks, "especially his chord movements. Look at a picture of Banff National Park and tat sums up visually what I hear sonically." Songbook comes only a year after Lightfoot's most recent album of new material, A Painter Passing Trough, and he says he has at least another album's worth of material written and ready to record. While assembling and editing Songbook, Lightfoot and ecutives at Rhino also realized that there is a lot more worthy material still available for a possible follow-up release. There's also, according to Lightfoot, "the possibility of a live album we've had sitting in the can since 1974," and four Warner Brothers/Reprise albums (Old Dan's Records, Dream Street Rose, Salute, and Shadows) that have never been released on CD. And there's talk of a Lightfoot tour in 2000 with Bob Dylan.

Not only is Lightfoot pursuing music with youthful vigor and enthusiasm, he has also taken on he responsibilities of a family once again. His wife and young children have altered his routine for composing and songwriting, but they have in no way stifled it. "For many yeas I just wrote all the time," he recalls. "I really spent a lot of time concentrating on the music. I could work any time I wanted to. When I got into the married life again, I found that getting up a couple of times at 4 or 5 A.M. worked for me. It was a whole new slant: I was working into the sunrise instead of working after sunset. It got the job done for me - the Waiting for You album [1993]."

The Songwriter at work

Lightfoot's songs come about in several ways. "It can start with a line or a title or a melody or a chord progression," he says, "and then it clicks in. I'm working on something that really feels good." He adds that the real test of a new composition is, "Would you want to stand up and sing it in front of a crowd of people? I've got a lot of songs I pieces that I'll probably never bother with."

He writes his songs on guitar for the most part, using his piano and musical training for working out nuances of chord progressions, inversions, and arrangements. Stylistically, he says, "I use Travis-style fingerpicking for various time signatures. I've found that it's best without any picks at all. I've adapted to it and cultivated nails. You do get some flesh, but you try to land right in between the nail and where the flesh is. If you get them just the right length, you can get a real good purchase on the string. And if you're using pickups in the guitar, you can get a lot of accents that make the playing more interesting.

"I only use the bottom five strings when I'm playing fingersyle." Lightfoot adds. "I keep the high one in tune [but I] use it as a resting place for the fourth finger and use the first, second, and third finger for the actual picking process. Then, if I want to move up to the high sting, I have to lift the hand when I do that. It's a trick, but the whole process is to not miss anything and play a completely smooth run."
A favourite subtle technique of Lightfoot's is to fret the low string with his thumb. "I like to use that on a D chord to keep the lowest string on a third [an F# on the second fret], even though I'm not playing it. Sometimes I don't cover that low string at all. It depends on what I'm playing."

Lightfoot says that his flatpicking style is an adaptation of that of folk luminary Bob Gibson - somewhat like clawhammer banjo technique for guitar with the right-hand fingers brushing down on the stings in addition to the flatpick. "He was a very big influence on me," says Lightfoot. "There are so many great artists, but he's one of my all-time favourites."

Besides his roles as writer, singer and instrumentalist, Lightfoot's extensive musical training has also put him in the role of producer. Officially, his first production credit was for Endless Wire (1978), although he says, "I always had a lot of input on the productions. We Would do basic tracks and then the record company producers would come into the picture. And the people who were working with me were being promoted and being moved around in the company [Warner Brothers]. I was given a lot of free rein because of that."

Country Roads

Nothing's ever certain in the music, but looking back over Lightfoot's success, it's obvious in hindsight that he was born to this. Although his parents were not musicians, their influence instilled manners, discipline, and conscientiousness in their son. Growing up I scenic Orillia, Ontario, about 80 miles Northeast of Toronto, he showed all the signs of being a musician from an early age. He would sing himself to sleep, learned to carry a tune by the time he was five, and cut his first record (for school, not international release) at age nine. He took piano lessons, and his many school- and choir-related endeavours brought him numerous paid jobs, awards, and radio appearances. He took first prize in a vocal competition that was held in Toronto's venerable Massey Hall, which would later be the site of annual Lightfoot spring concerts and the setting for his 1969 Sunday Concert album.

But Lightfoot is a self-taught guitarist. "It came to me by way of a skit," he recalls. "I needed to have some kind of musical accompaniment, so I went and got a uke, and that immediately got me interested. Next, I got the guitar and got involved."

In high school he developed an interest in jazz and the possibility of a career in music. He learned about the Westlake School of Modern Music in Los Angeles via an advertisement in Down Beat magazine, and spent just over a year there learning the craft of orchestration and arranging. Over the next few years, he augmented his bank clerk's wages with a variety of gigs before joining the popular song-and-dance TV program Country Hoedown.

Meanwhile, the early wave of folk music was gathering momentum. Lightfoot was awakened by Ian and Sylvia's folky take on Merle Travis' "Dark as a Dungeon." The merging of folk and country was what he had been looking for, Lightfoot tells Nicholas Jennings in the liner notes to Songbook: "It was like seeing the light of day. He continued to appear on Country Hoedown and later hosted a BBC-TV country variety show, but he was soon back singing in Yorkville, the folk mecca of Toronto, where he would be discovered with a capital D.

By this time, Bob Dylan was the new force in the folk movement, and every-one was watching him for inspiration and direction. Dylan's manager, Albert Grossman, who also oversaw a galaxy of other talent, got one of Lightfoot's demo tapes by way of Ian and Sylvia. Grossman and his partner John Court, Lightfoot recalls, "had Peter, Paul, and Mary and Ian and Sylvia. After me came the Band, then Janis Joplin, Paul Butterfield, and a host of luminary artists. That was a great common ground to meet them on."

Having such an immediate link to Dylan brought Lightfoot to an inescapable conclusion about his junior contemporary. "He's about three years younger than I am. He was going strong when I came in the office. I just knew that I was never gonna catch him." Under Grossman's managerial wing, Lightfoot's performing career was moving slowly, partly because other artistes, such as Marty Robbins and Peter, Paul, and Mary, were getting first crack at recording some of Lightfoot's songs, which briefly stinted his own recording career. The single "I'm Not Sayin'" went nowhere during an ironically brief early stint with Warner Brothers. He signed with United Artists shortly thereafter and turned out five well-received albums before returning to Warner Brothers/reprise for his next 14 recordings.

With the change of label came the 1970 breakout single "If You Could Read My Mind," which quickly became the rivesed tile of an album originally calles Sit Down Young Stranger. Over the next six years, Lightfoot landed a series of singles on the charts - "Summer Side of Life," "Beautiful," "Sundown" (transcribed on page 70), "Carefree Highway" "Rainy Day People," "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," and "The Circle Is Small." (Lightfoot is pleased to say that he now owns the copyrights to all of his songs.)

Inside "The Wreck"

"The Wreck" was Lightfoot's last really big hit and perhaps the only six-minute-plus Great Lakes shipping-disaster song containing the name of an insurance company executive to make the Billboard Hot 100. Although he has scores of original compositions to choose from, Lightfoot says, "I've got to go with 'Edmund Fitzgerald' as being the most meaningful. I created a new life for myself when I wrote that song. I got involved with the people and the families." He finds deep satisfaction in attending anniversary ceremonies and reunion when he can. "I have been to some of the events that have happened over the last 24 years," he says. "We had an event at the end of last year [1998]up in Salute Saint Marie, Michigan, with over 800 people there with family connections to the men of the Fitzgerald. There were 29 men on the ship, and they've never found any of them. "Terry Clements recalls a time when Lightfoot was just starring to write "The Wreck." "When he was writing it he was into the first verse. He said, 'I don't know what I'm gonna do with it,' I told him, 'Spin a good yarn.'"

Lightfoot did exactly that, while sticking close to the historical facts. And the result was not only a huge char success, but also a cherished tribute for Fitzgerald survivors who received little closure after the disaster ("The lake it is said / ever gives up its dead"). "I got the newspaper articles," the relatives of these men were gonna hear the song and it really had to be right. And chronologically, it is right." In contrast to the fate of the Fitzgerald, Terry Clements recalls that recording "The Wreck" was a short pleasure cruise. "We ran down about half of it for the engineer to balance it and then did it in one take."

Hits and Rarities

Lightfoot's other favourites comprise a cross-sections of big hits and lesser-known album cuts. "I like 'Early Morning Rain,' and I have to say that 'Don Quixote' is a pretty good old-time favourite. I like doing off-the-wall ones like 'Ghosts of Cape Horn,' and I really like 'In My Fashion.'" "Beautiful" is almost a guarantee at his concerts, but Lightfoot rotates the songs no his sert lists. At his tour stop in Los Angeles last June "The Pony Man" had its first live performance in a quarter of a century. Some songs have regional apparel (for example, "Spanish Moss") while others ("Song for a Winter's Night") are just fun to play.

Lightfoot has also been honoured in tribute projects. "There was on done on the Internet by a whole bunch of people," he says. "One of the main guys was Don Batty, a singer and musician from St. Louis. I listened to it on a CD, and it's fun." Lightfoot diplomatically turned down the offer to actively participate in a second tribute project. "They wanted to do one up in Canada," he says, "but I shied away from it. I didn't want to decide who's gonna be singing what like a talent judge. I decided to just let it happen on its own. "One of Songbook's unreleased rarities in the tongue-in-check "Heaven Don't Deserve Me," in which Lightfoot said, "I don't know what it was I came for / But I've enjoyed it up till now." That pretty well describes his feelings about his career and his resistance to the idea of retirement. He's enjoying his work too much. He has retained a loyal core of fans who still turn out to see him play between 40 and 60 shows per year in medium-sized venues. "I feel optimistic," says Lightfoot, "like I'm on enthusiastic about what I'm doing. Everybody loves to play, and when you've got people like that around you, you want to get out of there and keep on doing it. There's presence of mind all around. The degree of concentration is unbelievable. We're like a team. We're out there to win, and winning means doing a great show."

(typed by Gerhard Menzel)

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