The clattering and clanking that accompany the banjo of "Time to Get a Gun" are ramshackle, lending the song a homespun quality, as if writer Fred Eaglesmith ran right out to the barn to record it. The percussion is a ratatat snare and a metal spoon against a snare drum, and peals of organ echo back to Cripple Creek. Eaglesmith's scratchy, weathered twang leans into the chorus, as a herd of voices cry, "Time to get a gun/ That's what I been thinking." The colloquialisms throughout contribute to the earthy air, as does the humorous lament: "I could afford one, if I did just a little less drinking."
But such a rustic veneer belies a fairly serious meditation on the power of fear. Trust holds communities together, and Eaglesmith subtly asks what happens when that trust begins to erode. Well, clearly it's time to get a gun.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: What was the inspiration for "Time to Get a Gun"?
FRED EAGLESMITH: It was sort of exactly true. My neighbor's car got stole, and my wife at the time said, "I'm going to start locking the doors, and I said, "Maybe it's time we should get a gun." [Chuckles.]
So it's true, her dad never had a gun?
No, none of us. We weren't raised in a gun culture, so that song is exactly true.
You come from a rural background, right?
Yeah, I lived on a farm all my life.
So you're a little more used to small-town values and unlocked doors?
Well, in Canada, nobody locks their doors. Especially on the farm, nobody locks their doors. And most people don't have a gun.
It reminded me of an old Twilight Zone, "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street," where lights go on and off at houses during a blackout, and everyone begins to suspect each other.
When something happens, you have a weird flash of mind, so it depends on what your values are and what you think. It's a quick flash of mind, and those are cool things to write about.
Is there a relation to the U.S.'s reaction to 9/11?
This song is a lot older than that, you know, but yeah I think the U.S.'s reaction to 9/11 was exactly that. First of all, the horse was already out of the barn. And then they've spent the last six, seven years making sure the horse doesn't get out of the barn. It's already out. [Laughs.] I think in 100 years, that's what the reaction you guys had in your country will be. It will be like, "I think our government bought millions of anthrax deterrent or something, and we didn't even have any anthrax here." [Laughs.] It's going to look very silly someday.
Well, people can make a career out of their ability to keep tigers out of New York City.
[Laughs.] I know. It goes on and on. And not to slam you Americans, but as an observer, it's amazing to me, conversely, how you guys all do lock your doors. And Americans are very afraid. They lock their cars. They lock their doors. At my house, where I lived the last 10 years before moving, I didn't take the keys out of the ignition. And it was in town.
I once read this thing about Bill Gates. He just throws his bag down in the airport because he knows the chances of it being stolen are zero. Where else but the land of the free, the brave and the patriotic? But you've got to trust each other enough to leave your car unlocked.
I looked up that Twilight Zone ending: "The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs, explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, ideas, prejudices—only to be found in the minds of people. For the record, prejudice can kill, suspicion can destroy. A thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own. For the children and the children yet unborn."
Wow. There you go. You should mail that to a couple people we know.
What's amazing is that, 50 years later, we're having the same discussion.
I think that's what's flooring us all, is that we never thought we'd be here. We thought we'd be so much more evolved.
One of the things I like about the song is that it feels multifaceted. It doesn't feel like it has a side.
I'm glad you say that, because it's really funny: The right takes their side on this song, and the left takes their side on the song, and I'm going, "You know what? I'm just a guy. I'm just a guy on the farm who had a thought." You should see how each side rallies behind the song. It's quite amazing. The guys on the left come up to me, "You're so cool. You wrote that song." And I wonder what they'd think if they knew I actually had that thought. [Laughs.]
Or the right: There were some guys in Texas that were so into it, they brought their guns to my show. There were 12 guns there the last time I was in a place in Texas. And I gave them shit after the show. "What are you doing bringing guns to my show? There's no need for guns here." One guy had two, in case the guy took one from him, so he could shoot him with the other one. And he was so disappointed in me.
Well, there's that comic moment that echoes the Texas honky-tonks: "If I could just drink less beer."
The other truth about that song is that I was drinking quite a bit those days, and I thought, "How'm I going to afford a gun? Well, I don't need to drink so much." That was exactly my thoughts.
They say if you tell something personal and honest enough, it will have great universality.
Well, it was voted like the 23rd best rock song in Canada one time by the big paper, and I was like, "Really? I was just writing down a little story."
Do you know people with experiences with eminent domain?
I had one neighbor, they were taking his farm. He was a really bad farmer. They should've taken his farm. He owed the bank more than it was ever worth. I think he had the cops up and down the gravel for a couple days trying to hang on to the sucker. But that's all. Canadians don't think much like that. Although I think about it, more than they do maybe, it's just another way we're a pretty passive people. They have a Canadian joke: "How do you get a Canadian farmer off his farm? Ask him." [Laughs.]
Is that a power drill at the end of the song?
No, it's a banjo played backwards. [He pays a toll and starts talking about how gas stations are limiting how much you can put on a credit card for each fill.]
Hard economic times—a lot of people gassing and going.
That's what they say, but I'd like to see the numbers. I just don't believe them.
Well, you have to respect Exxon's need to get a gun.
Fred Eaglesmith plays Berkeley Cafe Saturday, May 31, at 9 p.m. with Sally Spring. Tickets are $18-$20.