Del Barber made a country album inspired by Ian Tyson that didn’t fit the pop-country format of most commercial radio stations.
“It definitely wasn’t what country radio wanted to hear,” admitted the Manitoba-based musician.
Regardless of a lack of airplay, his imagery-laiden Prairieography went on to earn Barber a second Juno Award nomination for his well-crafted story-songs. It also helped solidify the loyal fan base that greets him at live shows — and that’s validation enough for Barber to keep writing songs in the traditional country vein.
The 31-year-old, who performs with his band The Profiteers on Friday, April 10, at Fratters Speakeasy in Red Deer, said he aims to keep raising musical questions about what it means to live in this world.
“One of my instructors used to say, ‘don’t go looking for answers, look for better questions,’ ” recalled the former philosophy student. “I’ve come to believe if you’re satisfied with easy answers, you’re not looking for the right questions.”
His 2014 album includes story songs about people who Barber has met in his travels — often in passing.
Peter and Jenny Lee is about a couple who get involved while working at the same hotel. Barber said he got real-life inspiration for this tune when he barged in on the hotel’s owner with one of his cleaning staff while staying in the Crowsnest Pass.
“They were, um, having a real good time … I don’t know what else to say about that,” said the singer, who was apparently booked into the wrong hotel room. Suffice to say, he’s never had to pay to stay at the establishment since.
“I thought I at least owed them a love song. It’s the least I could do,” he said, with a chuckle.
The tune Arianna was inspired by a story told by Barber’s father about working in Hoyt Lakes, a Minnesota mining town. A woman who worked in a local bar was remembered as someone who yearned to be somewhere else. “The girl didn’t belong there and was trying to figure out her place in the world. … You see that same character in a lot of different places,” said Barber.
Living With a Long Way to Go was inspired by a man he knows who used money from his job in Fort McMurray’s oilsands to save his family farm from foreclosure.
The tune highlights the complexity of a situation that’s often painted as black or white.
“I can’t help but feel a twinge when I think of the environmental impact of the oilsands,” said Barber, “but at the same time, most of my high school class works in the oilfield. In some cases, it’s the only way these families are able to have houses and decent lives.
“It’s really easy, sometimes, to see things in terms of the tension between urban versus rural life,” he continued. “When you live in Toronto and you drive an hour-and-a-half back and forth to work each day, you can complain about people working in Fort McMurray, and if you live in Fort McMurray, you can complain about (environmentalists) living in Toronto.”
But simple answers can’t be found to consumption problems when everyone is a consumer, added Barber.
The singer admitted he’s always looked up to Tyson for writing songs about life’s grey areas. “I even named my album Prairieography after his album Cowboyography.”
The singer lives with his partner, a local school teacher, in the small community of Inglis, about four hours drive northwest of Winnipeg. He’s already contemplating a new album that will likely be no more mainstream than his last one.
Barber admitted he can’t do pop-country. “I’m not willing to go there, because what happens to the people who love my music? I already have a pretty good core audience and I make enough money that I can have a small ranch in Manitoba.
“I have a pretty great life,” he said. “Maybe I’ve found a way to make a good living on a small scale.”
Tickets for the 9 p.m. show are $20 from the venue.