Fly Like an Eagle

B-Sides finds its religion with Fred Eaglesmith and traces Charles Walker's circuitous path from R&B obscurity to funk-soul innovator.

Fred J. Eaglesmith

Fred J. Eaglesmith — farmer, gearhead, painter, songwriter, outlaw icon and businessman — has more hats than all the souvenir shops in Nashville. With his gruff Ontario twang and unvarnished songs of engines, homes and hearts about to explode, he's probably the most successful independent Americana artist in the world. This past year, he received his first gold record when Toby Keith cut his tune "White Rose." Eaglesmith checked in from his home in Vittoria, Canada, and brought B-Sides up to date on his career and a recent gospel turn.

B-Sides: Did you think your first gold record would come courtesy of Toby Keith?

Fred Eaglesmith: No, I never did. I thought one of those country guys would record one of my songs. I thought maybe Alan Jackson. But this was all Toby's doing. I had an agent in Nashville who gave Toby a song many, many years ago. We got a call out of the blue one day from his office saying, "We're gonna put your song on the album. And we're gonna do a video, and it's going to be in his movie."

Over the years you've developed — and forgive me for saying this — a pretty successful business model.

Sure I have. I don't think that's a bad thing to say at all. It was that way from the beginning. I was being denied, people hated my music in Canada, and I had to find an alternative. I had my own record company in 1981. That was not done in those days. I'm still figuring out how to do it. I have older Canadian artists who had been big stars, and they'll say to me, "It's over. I have no money. What do I really do?"

What do you tell them?

For those guys, it's hard. They have to accept hard work. Unless you're in the lottery bracket, that top 3 percent, you can't do it from inside the industry. There was this thing in the early '60s, there was a shortage of rock & roll. Probably the only time it happened. It went from "My Boyfriend's Back" to a revolution. Everyone was getting signed. They would sign anybody; they were looking for anything. But that void was filled quickly. Now people are sure there's a demand, but the truth is there's a glut of us. So what do I do? I stay out of the room, because everyone else is lost in that room. I stay independent.

What inspired the recent gospel turn?

I found this place I'm excited about, so I'm probably going to get killed. There's been this right turn in politics, and it's all based in Christianity. I'm not anti-Christian, but I am anti-this. And there's a vibe in the air about spirituality, and it coincides with this right-wing thing. So I'm asking, "What really is going on here? What metaphysical stuff is there?" I started writing all these songs about being a believer, about being a failure in that spiritual world, but still being in it. I don't know if it's any good, but it's interesting.— Roy Kasten

8 p.m. Saturday, January 12. Off Broadway, 3509 Lemp Avenue. $20. 314-773-3363.

Soul Explosion

In the unfolding story of soul singer comebacks, Charles Walker's tale deserves its own chapter. Unlike Bettye LaVette, Candi Staton, Irma Thomas or Mavis Staples, Walker — whose career began in Nashville when he was a teen — never really had a substantial hit and has never tasted more than the most fleeting moments of fame. But as deep R&B shouters go, he's as vital as any of the AARP soul set. Last year, with arranger and songwriter Bill Elder (a.k.a. Leo Black) and a monster band called the Dynamites, he released Kaboom!, a heavy set of deep funk workouts that recalls James Brown and the JBs circa 1970. On the road back to his Nashville home, Walker spoke to B-Sides about his peripatetic past and his very funky present.

B-Sides: What was it like being a black R&B artist in Nashville in the '50s and '60s?

Charles Walker: My first 45 was in 1959 on Excello, "A Slave to Love." I was about 16 then. As a black singer, it was pretty rough. There were only a few places you could perform. That's just how it was. Everything was pretty segregated. There was a big blues and R&B scene, but I just didn't feel I had a shot of doing anything in Nashville. That's why I moved to New York.

I would think Memphis, Detroit or Chicago would be a more natural fit.

I don't know. I had relatives in New York. I spent time in Chicago with Chess Records for two or three years. That was my first experience with a large label. But that didn't really pan out. I never had any major hits, just mediocre songs. But I had a good thing in New York.

And then you tried Europe.

I was thinking about giving it up. I had this thing, Little Charles and the Sidewinders. We were together for ten, eleven years. We were a main attraction in New York. But that broke up, so I went to Europe. I lived in England and then Spain. You've heard of that Northern Soul scene? Underground record collectors? I found out that my older records were selling more than I could believe! My name was very big over in Europe.

How did you meet Bill Elder?

I didn't know anything about Bill. But I did a few things for the Country Music Hall of Fame, and they told Bill about me. We were just going to do a small project. We recorded a 45, and things just mushroomed.

The new album, Kaboom!, has a very different sound for you.

It's not as easy as you'd think. I'm bringing my soul thing to the funk grooves. I'm still into my own bag, the same bag I've always been in. But the rhythms are very different from R&B. Different phrasing, you gotta get your mind into that. It took a minute or two for me to fall into it. Sometimes it's so funky, so strong, you think, shit, here I am in my sixties and I'm jumping around. But I still got a lot of youth in me.

— Roy Kasten

8 p.m. Thursday, January 10. Voodoo Lounge at Harrah's Casino, 777 Casino Center Drive, Maryland Heights. $5 to $7. 314-770-8100. Also playing at 5 p.m. that day at Vintage Vinyl, 6610 Delmar Boulevard, University City. Free. 314-721-4096.

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