Tender Is the Night is the relatively glossy, varnished sound of a man unafraid of playing music that hasn’t been largely heard in 60 or 70 years in its original incarnation, and being relatively faithful and authentic to it despite that sheen in the recording quality.
Let’s get one thing straight if you’re new to Nova Scotia bluegrass-country musician and banjo picker Old Man Luedecke: he’s not an old man. Not really, though he’s a man wise beyond his years. And, of course, "Old Man" -- that’s not his real name. It’s Chris. And, in many respects, Old Man Luedecke is sort of to Canada as to what Kristian Matsson (aka the Tallest Man on Earth) is to Sweden. Both have, or, in Matsson's case, prior to getting some level of mainstream success, had, cult-like followings. Both get lumped into the folk scenes. Both know their way around a lyrical bon mot. I’m not sure if Luedecke is going to follow in Matsson’s footsteps in terms of success and popularity outside one’s homeland -- Luedecke is resoundingly Canadian in his lyrics, which can be the kiss of death in America and elsewhere -- but he deserves every bit of respect he can command. His most recent and fifth album, Tender Is the Night, is one that should break him to a larger audience in Canada at the very least for a couple of reasons. For one, it is not being released by a tiny record label as his previous four were, but it is the first being handled by the major folk-world music indie label True North, which has been the long-time home to folk rocker Bruce Cockburn. Two, for such a resoundingly Canadiana record, it was actually recorded in Nashville with a group of session musicians and Grammy Award-winning producer Tim O’Brien (Luedecke is an award-winner in his own right: 2008’s Proof of Love won the Canadian Juno Award for Traditional Folk Album of the Year). So the bar for obtaining a bigger audience has been noticeably raised.
Tender Is the Night is the relatively glossy, varnished sound of a man unafraid of playing music that hasn’t been largely heard in 60 or 70 years in its original incarnation, and being relatively faithful and authentic to it despite that sheen in the recording quality. In a words, Tender Is the Night is the kind of country album not heard in popular culture until the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack got really popular about a decade ago. It is an album that sees our hero turn in his lonely banjo at times for the glorious sound of mandolins, and also straddles serious literary influences -- the album title gives nod to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel, which was in turn lifted from John Keats's poem, "Ode to a Nightingale". Wuthering Heights also gets a name-check in the song "Kingdom Come".
Additionally, Tender Is the Night is more than a literary-baiting record; it is an album of faith. Luedecke studied religion in university, and his infatuation with the Biblical manifests itself here in song titles such as "Kingdom Come", "Jonah and the Whale" and "Long Suffering Jesus". When Luedecke sings, as he does on "Kingdom Come" that "I know the baby born in Bethlehem / I saw the star that brought the Wise Men unto him," you’re almost keen to believe him, given the sincerity of the lyrical delivery, until he starts in about the sunflower growing 12 feet (or "maybe more") on his cottage door. At least, Luedecke has a sense of humour.
On top of that, as alluded to above, Tender Is the Night is a resolutely Canadian album. Not only is there a song here titled "Ode to Ian Tyson" -- which not only namechecks the noted Canadian folk musician of that name, but seemingly references Tyson’s singing problems in recent years with lyrics such as "whiskey makes the guitar rusty, but soothes the voice like honey for awhile" -- but there’s also "A&W Song", which would be about the Canadian fast-food chain as well as naming Scotiabank (one of, well, Canada’s major banks), and "Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms", which gives nod to Guess Who/Bachman-Turner Overdrive guitarist Randy Bachman as well as Grey Owl. For a record so seeped in Americana traditions, it is remarkably Canadian.
Where this "Old Man"'s strengths lie is in his deadpan wordplay. The album is full of keen observations and stories that are designed to get a crowd on their feet clapping and smiling big smiles on their faces. The humourous "A&W Song", for instance, is about being hungry after a night of drunken debauchery (and what blue-blooded Canadian can’t relate to that) and taking a cab into a drive-through to grab a bite to quell the munchies (well, maybe not), but has a wonderful line that sticks out: "I was in a bar downtown trying to get my head right, trying to get my head right / I am going home wishing you a good night, wishing you a good night." "Tortoise and the Hare" takes that old fable and turns it into something modern: "I didn’t like the rat race / I ran away from there / I thought I was a tortoise / Turns out I’m the hare." And then there’s the turn to the maudlin: "I followed a little stream of whiskey to your door / And I stand here and wonder if there’s more" followed by some vocal wrangling that sounds like Luedecke is trying to strangle himself with his words.
Speaking of which, Luedecke himself has an appealing voice that somewhat resembles Paul Simon’s just a little bit. There’s even a reference to a "one-trick pony" in the lyrics to "Kingdom Come", so, you know, draw your own conclusions. If you ever wished that a certain folk troubadour had made a bluegrass album instead of a world beat record about the place where Elvis died, Tender Is the Night is your chance to get some kind of idea as to what that might have sounded like. And the bulk of the 13 songs here are engaging and well constructed ditties, some of which appear to plunge into some real depth of emotion, while some come across as silly novelty songs that are mostly engaging in their own knee-slappin’ way. If Tender Is the Night does have a failing, it is that some of these songs, particularly the more straight-ahead, full-band, country songs sound a tad too old-timey. They practically creak under their own weight. It might have been a bit better if Luedecke had kept to the bluegrass shtick instead of trying to come across as an update of Hank Williams Sr. Still, Tender Is the Night is a mostly great album that succeeds in being a crowd pleaser as opposed to a serious work of art. With the increased marketing muscle of being on True North, and the respectability that recording with a Grammy Award winning producer brings, here’s hoping that Old Man Luedecke is finally able to reach beyond the cult following he has, and inch that much closer to the mainstream success that has thus far been so elusive. At the very least, in the true north, strong and free. But it would be nice if this caught on elsewhere, too. For bluegrass lovers, Old Man Luedecke simply deserves to be heard.