I almost reviewed this album before seeing Canadian singer-songwriter Del Barber play live in Sydney recently. Now I’m glad I didn’t, because his live performance just confirmed what I thought I was hearing on the album: an artist who is able to marry tradition and modern interpretations of country in a way that honours his musical lineage, lacks cliche, and entertains, amuses and moves the listener. Live, Barber gives full expression to the stories behind the songs – and, in some of them, weaves that story into the song itself – but these songs stand up on their own on the album.
On stage, Barber said that most of his songs are not about him – he is telling stories and taking on characters. Barber is from the prairies and the album’s title, Prairieography, suggests that it’s a chronicle of prairie life. And there is quite an assortment of tales in that chronicle, from stolen, ahem, romantic moments in a motel room (‘Peter and Jenny Lee’) to a hard life on the prairies (‘Big Smoke’) to trying to get out of marrying a ‘country girl’, with a range of experiences in between. Barber’s voice adapts to its message – he can carry heavy emotion and in another song sound like he’s singing everything with a wink and a smile. In some ways he’s reminiscent of one of Shakespeare’s fools: travelling around to entertain people, seeing everything, understanding all, judging not a once. And all of his within the context of true respect and understanding of country music traditions, both Canadian and American.
Prairieography is an album that may sound like a good ol’ boy’s effort on first listening but it has lyrical and musical complexity that really deserves repeated, long-term listening. Barber wasn’t in Australia for many shows – may he come back soon.
Prairieography (True North Records) is out now.