GORDON LIGHTFOOT: THE CAREFREE HIGHWAY NEVER ENDS
by Paul Freeman [2006 Interview]
In 2002, Gordon Lightfoot hovered near death. Once he recovered, the superlative singer-songwriter eagerly hit the road again.
The Canadian troubadour, nearing 68, retains his passion for traveling, playing concerts to devoted fans. They revere his classic songs, such as “Early Mornin’ Rain,” “For Lovin’ Me,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Carefree Highway” and “Sundown.” His compositions have been covered by an amazing array of artists, including Elvis Presley, Peter Paul & Mary, Barbra Streisand, Olivia Newton-John and Sarah McLachlan. Bob Dylan has referred to Lightfoot as one of his favorite songwriters.
As for his current set, Lightfoot, reached at his home in Ontario, says, “We’ve got it narrowed down now to what we really enjoy playing and what we think the audience really want to hear. We always do the main stuff and try to bring in new songs, as well. I have a nicely structured show. That’s a hobby of mine -- structuring the songs, different keys and different tempos, that sort of thing, to get as much variety into the program as I possibly can. One song leads smoothly to the next.”
Lighfoot has always been a perfectionist, when it comes to his music. He has been concentrating on scientifically tuning the guitars and bass, locking them in with the keyboards. He calls the process a “fine art.”
“That was elusive to me for a long time. When that starts getting in focus, the quality of music increases and you notice that you’re getting a better response. People are getting more into it. Subconsciously, it would sound sharper and clearer to them than it has in the past. There were times when my tuning was not all that good. I’m not a great guitar player,” the modest musical master laughs.
Lightfoot emerged from the Toronto folk scene in 1964. He recorded five albums for United Artists, followed by 14 for Warner/Reprise, completing his contract there in ‘98. A couple of years later, he had enough material for an indie release. But at a charity concert, he was struck by a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm.
Multiple surgeries and hospital stays were needed to keep him alive. The illness, which required a tracheotomy, affected his voice and hearing, as legs and feet. It was a long road back.
A runner, his strong heart and lungs helped the determined Lightfoot push through. “As you know, I was an alcoholic. I quit drinking in 1982. That’s 24 years ago. I started exercising at the same time, as something to do, a way to pass the time while drying out. I really did get into it. I found that it was improving my breathing and my connection with my singing. It was improving my stamina.”
Ironically, Lightfoot’s near fatal illness allayed his fear of death. He says that’s because the six weeks following the hemorrhage are a complete blank. “It’s not bad once you get there. It’s like no worries, no cares. Just black. Total peace. I had no particular visions or religious experience of any kind. I was just gone.”
He doesn’t feel that experience necessarily contradicts his church upbringing. “The fact that I don’t remember anything does not mean to me that there is not an afterlife. I still feel I can look forward to that, if it truly is real. Until then, like most of us, I just try to be good to my neighbors, basically. That’s what I was taught. So if there is an afterlife, I will participate in some capacity, I hope. Maybe as a guitar player.”
No longer allowed to run, Lightfoot maintains a regimen of weights, stretches and treadmill. By 2004, he was miraculously performing again. The illness redoubled not only his commitment to family, but also his joy in connecting with audiences.
Lightfoot never pondered retirement. “There was no doubt, I wanted to come back, if I could. I’ve never been one to spin my wheels. But I wasn’t able to use my voice at all for six months. It frustrated me.”
During the periods between hospital stays, Lightfoot was constantly practicing the guitar, trying to get his hands back into shape. “They’re still actually not working as well as they could be. But good enough. I can get to about 99 percent, when I get on stage. Half the challenge is playing the stuff perfectly. Acoustic music is very sensitive.”
His most recent album, “Harmony,” shows that his voice is as beautifully expressive as ever. “I’m grateful that it’s held up over the years,” says Lightfoot, who had a bit of formal vocal training as a child.
“It just seems to be there for me, when I call upon it. I think more about my musicianship than sometimes about the vocal. I’m very lucky, the voice always seems to look after itself, somehow.”
Lightfoot has not been working on new songs lately. “It’s quite possible I may not make another album. I may just tour for the next few years. Willie Nelson is a good role model in that regard. He’s been around for a while,” Lightfoot laughs.
“My record sales don’t set the world on fire now. I’ve had some great windfalls, though, through the years. But we do have a wonderful show, I think. We’re always so warmly received.”
The songs Lightfoot has already written will live on for generations, providing him a measure of immortality. “If I have any small part of historical significance, I will appreciate it. There are so many wonderful writers whose stuff is going to last for a long time. To have some place, any place, in that pecking order would be more than enough for me.”
Lightfoot still simply feels fortunate to be making a living at something he loves. “I think I’ve had a wonderful life. There’s been a lot of emotional trauma along the way... but life’s been good to me.”
For the latest on Gordon Lightfoot, visit www.gordonlightfoot.com.