The trouble with interviewing Gordon Lightfoot is not that the 74-year-old folk music legend is evasive or difficult or whatever other thing legends have earned the right to be in interviews; in fact, he’s quite forthcoming and sincere, polite even.
The trouble with interviewing Gordon Lightfoot is there’s no way to avoid having his songs stuck in your head for weeks. I’ve been singing bits and pieces of “If You Could Read My Mind” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” to myself constantly since I found out I’d have a chance to talk with him. (To the consternation of my friends and those co-workers who have the misfortune of sitting near me, I lack Lightfoot’s dulcet baritone.)
This, of course, is testament to the compelling quality of the songs. The Canadian-born Lightfoot, who plays the Capitol Theatre on Wednesday as part of a tour celebrating his 50th year in the recording industry, is the Hemingway of songwriters, a man whose straightforward language belies the depth of his work. He is among the favorite writers of classic artists such as Bob Dylan and contemporary ones such as Ron Sexsmith. Johnny Cash recorded a Lightfoot song. So did Elvis. Still, his mainstream heyday of the ’70s notwithstanding, Lightfoot has remained something of a niche taste, a songwriter’s songwriter.
He’s still writing, too, though he hasn’t released a studio album since 2004. It would take him four or five years to put one together, he says, and at his age he’s taking things a year at a time. He could always release songs one at a time online, like so many 21st century artists do these days, but that’s not his style. He has always written songs as part of albums.
“I got the old values,” Lightfoot says.
Indeed, his best songs are both timeless and old-seeming — not “old” as in of the ’60s and ’70s when they were recorded, but old like those of a classic traveling troubadour, old like the narrative tradition of the classic 19th and early 20th century folk balladeers. Perhaps his best-known song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” is essentially an Irish dirge with lyrics based on the 1975 sinking of a Great Lakes freighter. It reached No. 1 in Canada and peaked at No. 2 on the U.S. pop charts and remains a staple of Lightfoot’s live show today.
“It’s a good one to play on stage,” he says. “It shakes the rafters. And it does for me, too; I love playing it.”
That song, which commemorates the lives of the 29 crew members killed in the wreck, came about because Lightfoot was tinkering with the melody when news reports about the sinking first appeared. Inspiration came a couple of weeks later, and he collected back issues of newspapers so he could put together the story.
“I said, ‘I think there’s something here, and I’m going to go for it, and I hope people like it when they hear it,’” he says. “No one had any idea it would become popular.”
“Edmund Fitzgerald” is among the dozen or so Lightfoot classics he plays at every concert. He has to play that one, plus “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway,” “Rainy Day People,” and a few others, or else people would probably revolt. But, he says, he likes playing those songs anyway, even after all these years and hundreds of concerts. And he keeps things dynamic by filling out the rest of his two-hour shows with songs you may not know but that are nonetheless among his favorites.
“The rest of the show is songs that I rotate in that’s the cream of the crop, the best stuff I’ve done, that’s gone unnoticed,” he says.
Considering he’s picking from a half-century career that has included 20 studio albums, there’s no lack of variety. And the show, which includes four other musicians in a standard setup (keyboards, drums, bass and lead guitar; Lightfoot plays rhythm) is a tightly organized affair, Lightfoot says. The days of a loose, fly-by-night tour are well behind him.
“It has to be that way,” he says. “It’s a lot better organized than it was (in the ’60s and ’70s). We’re much more prepared, since I’m not getting any younger.”
That’s not to say it’s mechanical or that he plays by rote. The whole reason he’s still touring at age 74 is “the passion,” he says. “It’s a passion.” And, checking out videos from his recent tours on YouTube, it’s clear that his voice hasn’t lost much.
“That’s one of the reasons, I guess, we don’t stop,” he says with a laugh. “If we can keep the ball rolling, we don’t see any reason to not keep doing it.”
With a couple of health scares at the turn of the century and a widely circulated rumor of his death in 2010 behind him, Lightfoot could play for years to come. And even after he stops, via retirement or death, his songs will remain. They’ve been sung by dozens of other artists and will continue to be.
“I never heard a cover recording that I don’t like,” he says. “That’s the only answer I could give you. I am so grateful; it boggles my mind.”
Dylan famously said that when he hears Lightfoot songs he wishes they would go on forever. In that way, they will.
• Pat Muir can be reached at 509-577-7693 or firstname.lastname@example.org.