Photo: Noah Fallis

Sprawlcast: Corb Lund on Alberta’s coal fight

There comes a time when you have to make some noise.’

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For well over a year, Alberta news outlets have been reporting about the threat of coal development in the Eastern Slopes. In the summer of 2019, Alberta Views magazine did a big story about the plans of multinational companies to strip-mine coal in the mountains. And in the summer of 2020, after the UCP rescinded Alberta’s 1976 coal policy, CBC Calgary did a lengthy investigation into the government’s embrace of coal.

But even though these and other news stories were out there in the ether, the issue didn’t really register in the public consciousness. It wasn’t an issue everyone was talking about—until this January, when a video from Alberta alt-country singer-songwriter Corb Lund went viral.

After Lund spoke out against the UCP government's coal plans, suddenly everyone was talking about coal. Not just on the right or the left but across the political spectrum. And from there, public pressure got so intense that Premier Jason Kenney and the UCP backed down in February—sort of. The government temporarily reinstated Peter Lougheed’s infamous 1976 policy restricting coal development. But a new policy is still to come.

Lund wasn’t the only one speaking out, of course. But the Corb factor definitely shaped how this played out.

Although Lund has been playing and singing for over 30 years, speaking out publicly on a contentious issue like this is new terrain for him. Miranda Martini, The Sprawl’s membership editor, interviewed Lund about why he spoke out and what’s next in this fight. A lightly-edited transcript of their conversation is below. —Jeremy Klaszus

A conversation with Corb Lund

MIRANDA MARTINI: What do you see your role as in this?

CORB LUND: Well, to be honest it's partly kind of selfish, because I'm very attached to that part of the world, as a lot of Albertans are. It's in our backyard. It was brought to my attention [in December] by some ranching families that raise cattle up near High River area, and I didn't even know about it because the government had changed the policy so quietly.

So my role really, to answer your question, has been just to be kind of a bullhorn, because there's been ranching people and conservationists and water specialists and toxicologists and policy experts trying to bring people's attention to this issue for a while now, and no one pays attention to scientists, you know? So my role in a way is just to be a conduit for them.

It's funny, because whenever you speak out about stuff you get a bunch of pushback on social media, of course. And one of the things I hear is, “If you're not an environmental science expert, shut up and play the guitar,” right? But the irony of it is I actually am working with a bunch of environmental scientists and policy experts that helped write the initial coal policy and water toxicologists and conservationists. I'm working with those very people who you're mentioning, and no one's been listening to them. So that's my job: to be a town crier, I guess.

MARTINI: You have said in the past that you would rather shut up and play the guitar. Like, you would rather express your politics and yourself through your music rather than through headlines, but this... this is different.

LUND: Part of it's because it hits me close to home, it's very local. Honestly, we all have different perspectives, but in my decades of life, this is the biggest threat to the most Albertans I've ever seen. Because it's the drinking water for millions of people, not only the aesthetic value of that country that we all love and that’s the heart and soul of the province. The drinking water thing is probably the biggest issue, because we're talking about the Red Deer River, and the North Saskatchewan and the Old Man River. The scope of it I guess is just so breathtaking—and it’s close to my heart. I happen to be someone who's from that area, and a lot of people I know are affected personally, so yeah, it was just close to my experience. And the scope of it was so big.

Yeah, the coal thing I think is gonna be a long fight. It would be nice if we could just publicly make a big noise and the government would say, “Oh, you're right, we'll fix it.” But I think it's going to be more like a long series of skirmishes. And there might not even be a big celebratory moment when we win; it might just be like an ongoing effort to hold them back from making a mess up there.

MIRANDA MARTINI: Yeah. I mean, that's the annoying thing about politics. You rarely get the satisfaction of a clean victory.

A lot of people have said, Oh, congratulations, glad you guys won that one,’ and we haven’t yet.

LUND: That's true, and it's funny, because the first time I spoke out about it in January, it was much easier, because it was like, “Hey, the house is on fire, everybody! Wake up, wake up!” That's easy, right?

But now, it's much more nuanced, because the government has come out and said, “Okay, we'll put the coal policy back in place like it was before, like you asked for, and we're gonna have a public consultation,” which sounds good. But when you dig into it, there's still a lot of suspicious stuff about it and a lot of reasons to think they're just trying to kind of simmer people down and still go ahead with their plans with the coal companies.

It's a much trickier thing to stand up and say, “Hey!” Because a lot of people have said, “Oh, congratulations, glad you guys won that one,” and we haven't yet. My feeling is that the government has said things to quiet people down but still plans to go ahead and mine up there.

MARTINI: You talk a lot about how it gets in your craw when big Hollywood types swoop in and have opinions about Alberta and then parachute out.

LUND: Yeah, it depends. It's funny, because when I'm in town, when I'm home, I argue with people all the time about stupid decisions that Alberta makes, right? But you have that little bit of tribalism where, when someone from the outside comes in and criticizes, you're like, “Well, okay.” The biggest thing for me is, do they fully understand the issue? That's another reason that I don't get involved in a lot of stuff, because [of] two things. One, I think that art has a role to play that is above the fray of current events. I have complete respect for artists who are all political all the time, but I also think that art has a role to play in people's soul, and stuff that, like I said, transcends the day-to-day sturm and drang of current events, right? So that's one thing, and I generally prefer to keep my messaging in my songs, like you said.

The other thing is, I'm only comfortable speaking about stuff if I'm super, super educated on it. Because I've seen so many public figures yap in public about stuff they clearly don't really understand—and I mean, that's their choice, it’s all good, whatever, but I just won't do that. And it becomes a bandwidth issue. Because with this coal thing, I spent the last few months educating myself about coal, which is a huge drag, right? Like, it’s not what I want to do.

But it depends on the situation. And it comes back to big celebrities doing it: Number one, do they understand the issue fully? Number two, is it about them? Because sometimes I get that feeling too, which is kind of gross. The biggest one is, are they educated on the issue? And if they are, great; I mean, I'll listen to whoever has a viewpoint. But in this particular case, with the coal mines... there's nothing wrong with Leonardo DiCaprio or Neil Young or Jane Fonda commenting on issues in the world, but I live here and my family's been here for a long time, and I drink the water and I pay taxes. So it's so local that I feel it's more appropriate for me to talk about it than if it wasn't, I guess. Does that make sense?

MARTINI: Sure, yeah. You have the standing to talk about it, not just as a rock star, but as a citizen.

My feeling is that the government has said things to quiet people down but still plans to go ahead and mine up there.

LUND: Yeah, that, and also I’ve spent a lot of time on the issue educating myself. I mean I'm not an expert, but I've done my best. And yeah, I'm kind of torn on the “celebrity using the platform” thing; there's things I like about it and there's things I don't like about it, and it depends on the situation, so it's nuanced for me.

There's certainly celebrities out there—I don't even really consider myself that anyway, but that's what we're talking about—but there's certainly celebrities out there who have themselves in mind when these things come up. Not all of them, but some of them. Whatever issue it is that’s the issue of the day, and they can make hay from jumping on the bandwagon—so I'm always on the alert for that. But again, even more so is, how close are you to the issue, and how much do you really know about it, and how much time have you really spent educating yourself from different perspectives and really be able to speak on it in an educated way?

MARTINI: To your point about the kind of bandwidth required for you to feel like you can responsibly use your platform on this issue, is that something you would do again? I'm curious whether, since the whole coal thing blew up, you've had tons of media requests to speak to different issues or different interest groups, asking you to speak to stuff.

LUND: A little bit, not a ton, a little bit. But I don't know if I would or not; it's a huge pain in the ass. Everyone who does this kind of thing I'm sure is familiar [with this]. There’s been a lot of pushback. Less pushback that I expected, but it's no fun getting dragged through the mud over something. And it takes a lot of energy, and it's really stressful, frankly. It's hard on the head a little bit. So it might be a while before I do something like this again. Plus, this one's far from over.

Another issue that I've been pretty involved with over the years—since we're talking about it—is adult literacy. I've done a lot of fundraising in Edmonton mostly, but some here but mostly in Edmonton, because I believe in that one too. I think that's a universal issue that cuts across a lot of different demographics. Educating people and making them literate is one of the most powerful things you can do for people. And both my grandmas were school teachers too, so I'm kind of inclined that way, I guess.

MARTINI: It's a good mile less incendiary than coal. I don't know that anyone’s going to come at you on Twitter about being pro-adult literacy.

LUND: That’s very true, yeah.

MARTINI: Have you heard from fans specifically on this?

LUND: Yeah. Most positively. I mean, since we're not on tour, all I can use to gauge it is social media, right? But the ratio is pretty good. I expected it to be more like 65:35, but it's been more like 97:3, which is nice. I mean, granted, it's a biased group of people because it's my audience, but there's certainly been a few that have told me I’ve lost my marbles and I'm out of touch and I should shut the hell up. But whatever, you can't please everybody.

MARTINI: There’s probably that 3% who will say that no matter what you do.

LUND: Well that's right, and especially with resource stuff, there's a certain group of people who just hear anything at all about the environment or anything at all about curtailing any kind of industry and they're automatically like... right? So if you're going to be that irrational I can't do much with you. In terms of the coal thing, compared to a lot of issues, even issues in Alberta around resources, it's a pretty safe one. That's one of the things that makes it so egregious on the part of the government is that you'd have a hard time finding very many people on the street randomly who think it's a great idea to do what they're doing. So the potential pushback is much smaller than lots of other issues I can think of. So it's a little uncomfortable, but it's not as bad as it could be.

I spent the last few months educating myself about coal, which is a huge drag.

And at some point—honestly, I've had a fortunate career, and I haven't had a lot of criticism for much of anything, and so it's kind of good for me to get a thicker skin I probably, because you can't just be a golden boy all your life or whatever. There comes a time when you have to make some noise. And it's kind of good for me, because it's making me be much more thick-skinned, so it's healthy, I think.

MARTINI: Do you think this will impact your music in any way?

LUND: Eh, not really. I mean, I wrote a song about this exact thing 12 years ago. It's funny, it's almost prophetic. It's called “This Is My Prairie.” It's about this exact issue, and it's funny, I feel like people say, “Are you gonna write a coal mining song?” I kind of already did. But you never know. I have a difficult time with songs that are commissioned, by someone else or even by myself. Like, I have a difficult time artistically sitting down and saying, “I'm gonna write a coal mining song,” or “I'm gonna write a whatever song.” Usually, I have to have a spontaneous inspiration for the thing first. It's entirely possible that spending this much time on coal mining issues, that stuff might start to percolate and pop up in my brain, but I kind of—nine times out of ten, I kind of need a flash of inspiration as a starting point, if you know what I mean.

MARTINI: Yeah, it's an interesting chicken/egg, isn't it, because the stuff that's top of mind, that's percolating in your brain, is going to emerge artistically at some point eventually. But yeah, I also get what you mean about it being hard to sit down to write something to a specific purpose and have it come out sounding genuine.

LUND: Yeah. Some people are good at it, I’m just—that’s not something that I've ever been very good at. But as you say, in terms of what we're saying about the ideas percolating, it's funny because that almost always happens. Like, I noticed that when I was doing a bunch of house renos a few years ago, I ended up writing a song about carpenter stuff, and if I'm hanging out with cowboys I write cowboy songs. That happens. So it's entirely possible that we might find another coal song in the making, you never know.

MARTINI: So many of your songs that feel like they are specific and that draw on political themes are about moments in your life or people you know—they're often drawing on your community and your friends and your history. Is that, does that ever feel uncomfortable? Does it feel like it cuts too close to home?

LUND: No, not really. There's one in particular I can think of called “Brother Brigham, Brother Young.” Do you know that one?

MARTINI: Yeah.

LUND: It's about the history of the Mormons, Mormon history. Some of the more unexplored dark corners of Mormon history.

MARTINI: Unsavoury.

LUND: Yeah. And that one got me in a little trouble at Thanksgiving because half of my family—like, both sides of my family came up from Utah 120 years ago or whatever it was. A lot of the family is no longer involved in that, but they were part of a large Mormon migration that came up. One of the main reasons they came up was because they were really good at irrigating, and so they were responsible for a lot of the irrigation systems that were set up in southern Alberta.

I don’t know what it’s like to be a mainstream artist.

But anyway, some parts of my extended family are still LDS. The funny thing about that song is it's completely taken out of their own documents; it's taken out of Doctrine and Covenants, that's one of the main ones, and some of it from the Book of Mormon. But yeah. It's all church history, but it's a little cheeky, so. There's not a whole lot I've written that I'm uncomfortable with. I don't know. Not so far.

MARTINI: What is it like writing music about the place that you're from? Do you ever feel like you’re—do you feel supported by your family and your community?

LUND: I do, yeah. I mean, it's funny, because there's a few tunes I've written, like the one we just talked about, that I expected a little bit more pushback on, but I feel like people take you as a whole, right? And if they appreciate what you're doing in general, and feel that you have good intentions for the most part, they seem to give you a pass for the stuff that pokes them a little bit.

MARTINI: Yeah? They feel like it's in good faith?

LUND: I guess, I mean I've never asked them, but I think so. I mean, people can take a joke, right? Hopefully, sometimes. My personal journey has been kind of interesting, because my family are all cowboys and ranchers and that's how I grew up for my youth, and then when I was 15 or something I got into Black Sabbath and Slayer and all that, as you do. And then I was in a rock band for 10 years called the smalls, and that was really alienating to my family. To their credit, they were about as supportive as they could have been, but it was completely alien to them. Long hair and loud music and all that stuff.

When I started playing music that was more along the lines of what my family was used to and started touching more on themes of my own history, it made it a lot easier for them to understand it. But I feel like I'm pretty well supported, both by the family and and by the region. I'm not sure if the Crowsnest Pass is gonna like me anymore, because of the coal thing, but then in general, I feel like... It makes me happy to write songs about my own area of the world, my own region, my own culture, my own family history. It makes me happy.

It's also gratifying that other people seem to think that I'm representing them in some way. And I don't really set out to do that, it just kind of... I'm not sure when Bruce Springsteen wrote his first few albums—not that I'm comparing myself to him, but he's also a very regional-focused artist, he writes a lot about growing up in New Jersey and what that's like. And I don't know if he set out with a mandate, “I'm gonna represent New Jersey people.” I don't think that's what happens. I think you just write what you know and then it ends up that way. There's a distinction between the intent. I'm happy that it's worked out that way, but my intent has never been to be any kind of a crusader for our region or anything; I just write what I know and that's how it works out.

MARTINI: So I'm thinking about coal again: to what extent was that a concerted decision? The music stuff tends to come out organically and spontaneously; how much thought did you put into releasing the video talking about coal and starting down this path since January? Was that something you talked to your management about, was it something that was brewing beneath the surface before you went public with it?

I’ve never been able to find the political party that comes close to agreeing with all my positions.

LUND: I spent some time thinking about it for sure, because it's a little bit scary. This is a situation where you're specifically putting yourself in opposition to some people with some pretty deep pockets and a lot of power, right? Like, it's not a vague issue, it's a very specific issue, like, “Hey, fuck off, you guys.” And it's a bit unnerving because if you did this in some countries, you might disappear and never be heard from again. Thankfully, we live in a democracy so we can speak out about these things and hopefully be not in any kind of danger, so that didn't worry me. It's just scary confronting the government so directly, or confronting billion-dollar coal companies or whatever they are. So there was some thought, for sure, and yeah, I talked to a lot of people close to me about it, and everyone seemed to agree that it was the right thing to do.

I don't know what it's like to be a mainstream artist. It's different, right? But my entire career has been built around doing what I want to do, so no one was surprised that I would want to do something on my own. I have management people that I trust who know the music business inside and out, and I value their opinions on stuff but they don't tell me what to do. They advise me when I ask for it and they're excellent at that, but they respect my wishes. And some of them are Albertans too, and they were very in favour of this situation being talked about.

MARTINI: What are you working on right now? Beyond coal. Can you work on music and be involved in the coal stuff at the same time?

LUND: Oh yeah. I mean, thinking about coal all the time would drive me crazy.

But specifically I’m working on a bunch of stuff. I’m making a record called Songs My Friends Wrote. You know how sometimes people put out a tribute record to a famous person and a bunch of less famous people do their songs? This one’s somewhere in the middle, because some of my friends that are songwriters are more well known than me, some are less well known than me, but it's gonna be all my favourite tunes from my favourite artists that I’ve known over the years. So I'm working on that.

And I'm working on a new record, because my newest record came out in June, so by the time we can tour, God knows, it'll be a year and a half old. I'm probably not the only one in that situation, but it’ll be kind of weird, because I'm going to probably have a new record by the time it's time to tour again, so do I tour them both at the same time? I don't know what to do. Whatever, there's bigger problems than that. But yeah, I'm writing a record and I think the new record is gonna be kind of aggressively acoustic. It's gonna be sonically kind of like Steve Earle Train a Comin’ mixed with a bit of bluegrass and mixed with the Pogues maybe, and mixed with Marty Robbins.

MARTINI: A lot in the pot. That's exciting.

LUND: And I'm also working a lot, which has been kind of cool. I’m working a lot on my guitar playing and my voice, just sharpening the tools. It sucks having to put a record out during COVID, and it's financially been shitty, but aside from those things, it's kind of been okay for me because, like, I've been doing this my whole life since I got out of university, real heavy, right? And I'm not the kind of person that would say, “Hey, I'm going to take a year off and work on my guitar playing,” so in a way it's kind of a gift.

I’m fortunate, I know a lot of people had a really shitty time last year. I've missed playing live, but it's been kind of nice to have time to focus on sharpening the tools a little bit, which you don't get a chance to do once you get a career going. It's like, “Make a record! Write a record! Tour the record! Write another record!” and you get into a cycle, which, can't complain, it's great, but it's nice to have some time just to take three steps back and actually work on your tools.

There’s not a whole lot I’ve written that I’m uncomfortable with… Not so far.

MARTINI: Yeah, totally. Yeah, I mean if there's a silver lining to this terrible year that's it. Everyone's picked their thing that they're going to hone their craft at and developed weird hobbies.

Taking a year away from touring, I'm curious how that impacts the incoming album. If it'll feel different, having an album that requires that you just take a step back from thinking about what the fans will think of something or trialing stuff on live audiences—I don't know if you do that before an album's out, if you try stuff out.

LUND: I do, yeah. Quite a bit. It's interesting to me about COVID, because 15 years ago when Napster came along and all the digital stuff happened with music, people used to ask me, “Is this gonna affect your business, or your life or your career?” And I would say no, not really, because most of my career’s been built on live music. And it affects it a little bit, because the royalty rates suck now, but most of my income that I use to keep the lights on comes from live playing and selling t-shirts at live shows, so it's all live, live, live oriented. And I used to say, “And that's never going away!” Psych.

MARTINI: Yeah, you don't want to say that sort of thing out loud.

LUND: Yeah, I'll never say it again. But yeah, at first I was pretty freaked out and scared about it, but we've gotten by, and I have appreciated the time. And it's been nice to be home and see the family more and friends and all that stuff.

MARTINI: You did rodeo.

LUND: When I was young, yeah. My family's done it forever. Yeah, I rode steers as a kid—that's like the junior version of bull riding. And then I steer wrestled a little bit in high school, because that's what the bigger guys do. Smaller guys are better for—or women, sometimes—are better for riding events, because there's not as much body to flop around, you know? All the big, beefy guys either are calf ropers or steer wrestlers.

So I did that a little bit in high school, but it didn't stick because I was into playing guitar by that time. Totally different group of friends, right? I had a group of friends that was into rock 'n' roll, and I had some cowboy friends, and they didn't really mix very well. Now they do. When I grew up, Western music was completely separate from all that stuff, rock 'n' roll stuff. But now I talk to bronc riders, “Oh yeah, I listen to Metallica before I get on the broncs.” And if you go to a rodeo now, it's like any sport. You don't hardly even hear George Strait anymore, you’re hearing Van Halen between guys, right?

MARTINI: It's funny, I was rereading some profiles of you before chatting, and I feel like there’s this theme of talking about your history with the smalls and talking about country music, and how different—you know, your fans are these two completely different groups of people, these Converse-wearing hipsters and these boot-wearing truckers, and I feel like maybe it's just a generational thing, but I don't see that big of a difference between them.

LUND: Yeah, I'm fortunate that I have a freakishly wide demographic, and I don't know why that is. Partly because of my background, I guess, but I really value that. And I think—this is gonna sound a little naive, maybe, or pie-in-the-sky—but I honestly believe one of the best things people can do to get along is just get into a room together and have a good time in something they all share right? Maybe that's a little naive, but I think it's a starting place sometimes.

It’s just scary confronting the government so directly, or confronting billion-dollar coal companies.

Back to what we were talking about at the very beginning of this, I find it more powerful—and every artist has a different threshold of this, and I respect all approaches—but my approach with messaging has mostly been to put it into songs. I think it percolates into people's brains more that way. Like, I've seen Steve Earle shows, and he's very direct. He berates the audience about all his issues in between every song, and that's cool. But I find that putting messages into music and letting people just enjoy it and internalize it is a cool way to approach it also.

And because I have such a wide audience, I think it's extra useful, and I'm in an extra fortunate position. Ian Tyson does this too. He'll have a cowboy song, and then he'll slip in a verse that’s a little more compassionate, but the medicine goes down smooth because it's encased in this cowboy imagery. That kind of thing. I think that's a powerful thing. And for me, I'm better at that than I am at ranting about stuff. So that's just been my personal approach to things.

MARTINI: That said, do you feel like this is a thing that you've evolved on? It kind of sounds that way, the way you're talking about how—

LUND: My skin's thicker. Is that what you mean? Like I'm just used to doing it. Yeah, I mean who knows, I don't know what the future will hold. I'm still pretty involved in this coal thing right now, and it's not over, so we'll see what happens, but I don't know.

MARTINI: Do you identify as anything politically?

LUND: A freak? I've never been able to find the political party that comes close to agreeing with all my positions. I guess I would identify as a pragmatist. It's weird, because if you're a student of history, these things change, but at any given point—especially now, because things are extra divided, it seems like—it seems like there's a slate of issues on this side of the spectrum, and there's a slate of issues on this side of the spectrum, and you're expected to buy all of them, or else all of these ones, and I just don't think that way. I think it's partly because I have a rural upbringing and then spent my adult life in an urban setting, and I’m very familiar with the values of cowboy lifestyle, but I'm also very familiar with the values of an artistic lifestyle. So my politics are all over the map, and it’s very issue-based. So who I vote for changes. It just depends on what issues are most important to me at that time.

And I think everyone's like that to a point. I mean, there's some ideologues out there who do buy the whole slate and don’t think about it, but I have more respect for people who think about each issue, and I think a lot of people probably are somewhere in the middle, and they maybe are a little more this way or a little more this way, but they don't agree with every single thing. That's just human, right? We're not all the same.

MARTINI: Yeah, I think short of direct democracy, we're all kind of forced to vote, to make our political desires known by voting for parties that don't necessarily fit our beliefs point-by-point, you know? We're working within the broken political system we've got.

LUND: There's an old saying, I can't remember who it's attributed to, about how democracy is absolutely the very worst system except for every other system. Because it’s messy. But I'm happy that we live in a situation where we can scream about stuff and be able to do that.

MARTINI: What are you looking forward to the most after the pandemic?

LUND: Just getting drunk and playing loud, sweaty music for 400 people at a 300-seat bar.

Miranda Martini is a writer, editor and musician in Calgary. She's also The Sprawl's membership editor.

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