Alberta-raised singer-songwriter Corb Lund's music has always been rooted in the West, from the cowboy poetry of Cabin Fever to exploring the realities of rural living on Agricultural Tragic.
Lund, who'll digitally release his latest album Songs My Friends Wrote on April 29, says cowboy standards are an integral part of his family history and were passed on to him from his grandfather from an early age.
Below, Lund shares how the classic cowboy song "Little Joe the Wrangler," recorded by Marty Robbins, shaped his songwriting and continues to connect him to his family's past.
"I can't remember if I first heard 'Little Joe the Wrangler' from my grandfather or from one of the Marty Robbins Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs records. It's from such an early stage of my life that the memories have all run together. But it was one of the first songs that I can remember being aware of, along with other cowboy standards such as 'Strawberry Roan' and 'When the Work's All Done This Fall.' (Both of which were also favourites of my grandfather and also appear on the Robbins records.) My grandpa wasn't a singer; he was a rancher, a bronc rider, and a hardscrabble Alberta cowboy, from a long line of them, stretching back to Utah. But my impression is that he came from the last part of an age where music was less a career and more of a personal entertainment and a means of transmitting oral history. He didn't give a damn about carrying a melody, he cared about the story.
As for the Marty Robbins classic cowboy albums mentioned above, they were among the first records I can remember loving, and they're still my favourites to this day. I guess I'm lucky that my parents happened to have that stuff in the house, because it still stands up as quality music. The compelling western stories, Marty's syrupy/Arizonan vocal delivery, Grady Martin's jazzy acoustic playing and the fantastic old school production are all still as fresh as the day I first heard them. I was obsessed with these records as a kid and they have had a major impact on my songwriting and approach to storytelling.
I remember being especially intrigued by some of the lyrical differences between my grandfather's version of 'Little Joe' and Marty's. My assumption is that these changes came about because this was before the era of major centralized radio play, and there was no standardized version. The song was written well over a hundred years ago by Jack Thorp, and my guess is that it was passed around bonfires and cow camps and as the song migrated from person to person, small lyrical changes would occur to reflect local geography, regional lingo, customs, tack, cowboying technique, etc.
The example that stands out is that in the 1960 Robbins version, he sings '...we had hardly reached the Pecos...' The Pecos is a river that runs through New Mexico and Texas, which makes perfect sense, since most Anglo cowboy culture started in the Lone Star state. My grandfather's version, however, reflects our Albertan locale with '...we had hardly reached the Peigan...' The Peigan is an old name for the Piikani First Nation reserve in southern Alberta (where, incidentally, my other grandfather worked overseeing the cattle herd in the 1960s). This type of lyrical drift was fascinating to me as a kid, and still is.
'Little Joe the Wrangler' is still one of my favourite songs, and it's in my DNA. Every time I hear it or sing it, it viscerally reminds me of my connection to my family's cowboy past, stretching back through our migration up to southern Alberta at the turn of the century all the way back to the family's mid 1800 roots in the American West."
Lund's new album Songs My Friends Wrote, featuring songs penned by Hayes Carll, Todd Snider and Ian Tyson, is available for pre-order. The album will be released on vinyl and CD on June 17.
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