'Folk music ... should stand alone as something that is head and shoulders above most of the music that goes on around it.'
By Graham Rockingham | Hamilton Spectator | January 15, 2013
Hamilton, Ontario. —Neighbourhood is everything to Tom Wilson. It provides not only the foundation for his art, but also the inspiration. He believes that sense of neighbourhood or community is too often lacking in the folk music of today. As a matter of fact, he boldly states that the last good folksong he heard on the radio was Take A Walk On The Wild Side by Lou Reed.
“It’s a pretty weird and disturbing song,” says Wilson, leaning over an highly caffeinated concoction at the Starbucks on Locke Street, “but it was about his community.”
Wilson, you may have guessed, sees folk music differently than most people. Most people, for example, wouldn’t include Lou Reed as a folk musician.
But Wilson has been singing and writing folk music for more than 35 years — as a solo artist, or as a member of Blackie And The Rodeo Kings, Junkhouse, The Florida Razors and LeE HARVeY OsMOND — so maybe he deserves a listen.
“The problem with folk music — and you should probably write this down — is that for the last 20 years, folk musicians have been trying to get hits on the radio. The very last thing they should be doing is competing against pop radio.”
This is why, Wilson explains, he likes to separate himself from the mainstream world of folk music. This is why he describes the songs he writes for his LeE HARVeY OsMOND records as “acid folk.”
“Folk music is a revered and respected art form that should stand alone as something that is head and shoulders above most of the music that goes on around it. Sadly, the people who run folk music have forgotten how important what they are doing is.
“What acid folk is doing is bringing that respect back to singing about your community. You’ve got to sing about your neighbourhood.”
The boundaries of Wilson’s neighbourhood are a matter of debate.
Sometimes they are confined to Locke Street, a place where Wilson can’t walk by more than a couple of storefronts without shaking a hand, receiving a hug or poking his head in to say ‘hello.’ If the street had a mayor, he’d be it.
Usually, though, the neighbourhood embraces the entire city of Hamilton — warts, steel mills, Tiger-Cats and all.
Sometimes it even stretches south from Upper James, along Highway 6 to Lake Erie. That’s the neighbourhood where the protagonist of Wilson’s new LeE HARVeY OsMOND album, The Folk Sinner, seems to reside.
It’s a place that includes the Six Nations Reserve, where The Band’s Robbie Robertson spent his summers as a boy, the tobacco fields of Simcoe, where Ronnie Hawkins found a rich harvest in Rick Danko, and the rickety wooden-framed dancehalls of Port Dover, where Richard Manuel brought his rock ‘n’ roll.
“It’s where the migrant workers, the natives and the holiday seekers all migrated, down to Port Dover,” says Wilson. “They made this stew of music and culture and good times that was supreme as far as rock ‘n’ roll and soul is concerned. It’s completely different. There’s no posing down there. It’s all very real.”
That southern perspective, Wilson says, is what makes our own neighbourhood so distinct from all others.
“We don’t look at Toronto for inspiration,” says Wilson, who grew up on East 36th St. on the east Mountain. “We face the other direction culturally and creatively, south on Highway 6 … It’s the underlying theme of this album. Anytime I can put Port Dover on a record, I will.”
While The Folk Sinner’s lead single — a nasty up-to-no-good shuffle called The Devil’s Load — could have been born on the dusty back-roads of Haldimand/Norfolk, Wilson’s neighbourhood is most readily identifiable on Big Chief, a song he cowrote with his son Thompson and Harlan Pepper lead guitarist Jimmy Hayes.
“From Caledonia to Wounded Knee, I can’t believe what they’ve done to me, I can’t believe what they’ve done to my children and me,” the Big Chief says in the song.
The song’s lyrics take a political stand that is already being picked on up by some supporters of the Idle No More movement.
The Folk Sinner is the second instalment of the LeE HARVeY OsMOND series which Wilson and producer Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies kicked off in 2010 with the release of the CD, Quiet Evil. Again Wilson reaches out to a disparate assortment of collaborators, including Hawksley Workman, Josh Finlayson, Paul Reddick, Margo Timmins, Colin Linden, Oh Suzanna, Ray Farrugia and Colin Cripps.
Although not officially released until this week, The Folk Sinner has already received positive reviews and play on CBC radio. It has also gained mention in the 10 Albums You Can Hear Now listing of Spin, a popular U.S. music magazine.
The album also contains a couple of tracks that are probably familiar to longtime Wilson fans. Freedom, a song that was a hit for cowriter Colin James more than 15 years ago, has been a staple of Wilson live shows for several years. It’s inclusion on Folk Sinner, however, marks its debut on a Wilson album.
Another Wilson-penned track, Leave This House, was recorded several years ago by U.S. country star Billy Ray Cyrus, but makes its first appearance on a Wilson album.
Wilson is lining up a spring tour to showcase the Folk Sinner, but still hasn’t abandoned his other project, Blackie And The Rodeo Kings, which he shares with longtime collaborators Colin Linden and Stephen Fearing.
Blackie’s fall tour, promoting the Kings And Queens album, was the roots-rock band’s most successful outing in its 18-year history, selling out prestigious venues across the country including Toronto’s Massey Hall and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre.
Although Blackie is on a hiatus while each of its members promote new solo projects, Wilson says the trio has completed recording a new album, tentatively titled South, at Linden’s Nashville recording studio. Expect to see Blackie And The Rodeo Kings back on the road again this summer.