ELLSWORTH — The king of the trailer park has seen the future, and that future is gilded with the sounds of electric guitars.
Canadian troubadour Fred Eaglesmith, whose acoustic alt-country hits have celebrated big hair, bench seats and infamously asked, “When, exactly, did we become white trash?” can’t get enough of that good old rock ‘n’ roll. And his fans can as well when he appears on Oct. 6 at The Grand in Ellsworth.
On “Cha Cha Cha,” his 18th and latest album, Eaglesmith has hit another sweet spot, wielding a searing guitar and crooning gravelly tales of loneliness and love, while his big band churns out a reverberating brew of amped-up weirdness and earthy harmonies.
Being at the center of this crackling fire makes for an energizing, grand good time, Eaglesmith said. His traveling road show, which pairs him with the hard-stompin’ Fabulous Ginn Sisters and Texas outlaw folkie Bill Passalaqua, has been fuel for one high-octane gig after another in recent years.
“Most nights they back us into the corner in some bar and we just rock and roll our way out the door,” Eaglesmith said recently from his base in Ontario. “We’re just totally living rock and roll, and it’s the most fun I’ve had in years.”
Eaglesmith is jazzed about playing with the Fabulous Ginn Sisters.
“When I first saw them,” he said, “I couldn’t believe how bold and brassy they were.”
And their backup singing and smart instrumentation help spin Eaglesmith’s dusty meditations and macho mannerisms with shining strands of honey and gold.
They collectively tour around in an RV caravan (The Ginn Sisters’ runs on used vegetable oil), staying in campgrounds and Walmart parking lots, throwing together impromptu shows in RV parks when the feeling hits them right, Eaglesmith said. To him, it feels just marginal enough, a lifestyle eschewing equally common rock conventions such as tour buses and the sort of low-end motel rooms he stayed in for years before Hollywood and the mainstream came looking for his songs.
Eaglesmith’s output has undergone a steep evolution since he last hit eastern Maine five years ago. His witty take on the oddball denizens of “that edge right between the town and the country,” as he put it, was good for a time, but “then country music got a hold of it.”
“Next thing you know, every one of their songs was about that, and all the sudden it was all novelty,” he said. “Every new country song is witty now. But the trouble is, you know a lot of these guys aren’t quite sure what they’re talking about. So I just ran away from that.”
But the death of Eaglesmith’s mandolin player and bandmate of 25 years, Willie P. Bennett, in 2008, may have sparked his most ferocious change. After Bennett died from a heart attack, Eaglesmith said he found no choice but to retire his alt-bluegrass outfit “The Flying Squirrels” and go back to square one. And that meant putting down his acoustic guitar and picking up one with a little more kick.
“Part of it is, when Willie died, somebody had to fill that hole,” he said. “What a great thing to do, to learn to play the guitar when you’re 50. I got this whole new lease on life.”
And a whole new sound. Eaglesmith’s band of late is a big, full electric assembly, with a plucking banjo thrown in for good Americana measure and maybe to remind everyone of where they’re coming from. There’s not much that’s witty or funny over his past few albums, although what hasn’t changed is that most everyone who inhabits his songs still seems to be out on the margins somewhere.
Eaglesmith knows that some of the people who heard him here five years ago aren’t going to like the new stuff, and what’s true is that he doesn’t much seem to care. Because he believes that his music continues to kick some serious behind, and that it’s his job as an artist to push things a little every chance that he gets.
“I know that I lose friends and gain friends with every album,” he said. “Over 30 years, people think I should stay in one place, and I say to them, ‘You know, your not wearing the same coat you were six years ago.’”
Eaglesmith says he has not and will not compromise his art — not for money, fame or ease’s sake. And he knows that it’s for the best.
“I just haven’t caved in. I’ve come close sometimes, and it’s very tempting. You could have all that money if you caved. But I talk to my friends who are stars, and none of them are happy,” he said. “The thing I could do that would be so easy is write a Fred Eaglesmith song. But it ain’t gonna happen.”