It’s hard to pin down which part of banjo player Chris “Old Man” Luedecke’s journey added the most texture to his career. Was it completing an English degree in Montreal while pondering diverse worlds, thoughts and times, or living in a tent in Dawson City while washing dishes and playing banjo in a gambling hall for the cancan girls? Perhaps it was falling in love with his banjo and his future wife Teresa in the same month. She inspired him to jump-start his career as a world-class banjo songwriter.
Forget the easy skepticism when it comes to the banjo — since the release of his 2003 debut, Mole in the Ground, and its followup, Hinterland, Luedecke has been building a loyal following and a lot of buzz. Turn on this year’s Steve Dawson-produced Proof of Love and by the second listen you’ll be humming along without even knowing it. Proof of Love continues Luedecke’s tradition of tuneful banjo melodies that tackle both the sublime and mundane, often in the same verse.
“I don’t like to put too rosy a slant on things,” Luedecke says from his hotel room the morning after playing the Winnipeg Folk Festival. “I mean, even when you fall in love and it’s so amazing, there is also a lot of terror there because it can be so fragile. There is something to lose. Most people don’t write songs about that part of it.
“I think the mix of joy and terror that fills these songs pretty much captures my outlook on life. I mean, the fact that, in this decade, I’m a claw-hammer-style banjo player hoping to get gigs and have people turn up and see me, well, if I am going to expect that, I have to be both very joyous about what I do but also quite fatalistic. I mean, it is a bit outrageous to even dream of doing this.”
Luedecke’s choice of banjo to express this fatalistic joy was not accidental. “Banjo has this kind of buoyancy to it, so that even when you are singing about the darker side of life, it keeps bringing you back to the light,” he says. “You can listen to it even buried way down deep in the mix on some country songs, and it has the same effect.”
After living in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver and Dawson City, the Luedeckes have settled near Chester, Nova Scotia, where they are happy in their small piece of paradise. Showing an alluring mixture of optimism in the face of uncertainty, the banjo songwriter and his potter wife even hope to purchase the place later this year, although Luedecke admits that their unlikely combination of commerce has made for more lean times than fat, but the two are unlikely to change course.
In his song “Thrown by the Bull Again,” essentially a modern Aesop’s fable, Luedecke sings “Do you want to know what crazy is?/ Do you want to know what stupid is?/ You repeat the same behaviour and hope for different ends.” With more high-profile gigs on the horizon and musicians like Steve Dawson and John Reischman on his album and in his corner, Luedecke may just have disproved his own lyrics.