With a warm, distinctly weathered voice and enormous pop-country crossover appeal, Canadian-born Gordon Lightfoot became one of the most successful of the deeply introspective, primarily folk-influenced singer-songwriters of the 1970s. A national treasure in his home country, the Orillia, Ontario, native, who turned 80 last November, resumes his latest tour — the aptly titled 80 Years Strong — on April 3rd, with dates expected to stretch throughout the year. Lightfoot also recently announced that he’s been working on his 21st studio LP, which will represent his first new album in 15 years.
Inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012, Lightfoot’s most enduring songs as a solo artist include the AM radio staples “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Sundown,” and the epic tale of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” But his songwriting influence on country music reaches back even further, with several of his early tunes recorded by Grand Ole Opry staple George Hamilton IV, and “Ribbon of Darkness,” a 1965 Number One single by Marty Robbins (later a Top 20 hit for Connie Smith).
In a recent chat from his home in Canada’s musical epicenter, Toronto, Lightfoot talked about touring at 80, the importance of his signature song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and what country superstar he’d like to hear sing one of his hits.
You’re 80 now and back out on the road again.
I’ve always been out on the road. I did about 80 shows last year.
With all those performances, are there any songs that you find have taken on a different perspective than when you wrote them?
No, I think the thought has been consistent. I’ve been writing songs and imagining things that take place in my life and it’s more or less stayed consistent. The importance of some of these tunes, the topical songs like “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” or “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” those have really proven to be important songs and the meaning I get from that, it means a whole lot to me sharing that with the world, and meeting a lot of people that have related in one way or another, to building a railroad across Canada or to shipping on the Great Lakes. It’s been an opportunity to meet with hundreds of people who in some way have identified with somebody or something that had to do with that unfortunate tragedy. We sing it all over the world.
You have new music that you’ve been working on for release later this year. How did that material come about?
I developed a case of pneumonia. I was in the hospital a whole week before the first show, a set of seven shows we had coming up. And there I was, stuck in the hospital, and they were saying, “You’re going to have to be here for a few days.” I said, “I’m sorry, but we’ve got shows to do. We can’t reschedule the shows.” I finally got them to let me out after about three to four days and went out and did the seven shows. They had me on antibiotics, and the antibiotics gave my memory a jog. I remembered a group of songs I had written back in 2001, just before I had the aortic aneurysm, which almost killed me. It put me out of business for two-and-a-half years.
So these were songs written before your most recent album, 2004’s Harmony?
Yes. I started thinking about this material and just a few weeks ago I found it all and got it together. There’s enough material there, more than enough, for another album, so I’m probably gonna make one more album. The magic number is always 10 [songs], but I can probably exceed that, up to 11 or 12, I’m sure. It will be a nice, full album. It’s very philosophical. It’s honest. It’s got a lot of toe-tappers in it.
Some of your earliest recording was done in Nashville in 1962 with Chet Atkins. How did that come about?
I got chosen to go down with a group of people to record there. There were three or four of us. That didn’t actually get me started, though. It didn’t actually get me on the road. It was another three or four years before I got to the point where I could do a whole show, to get out there and do it.
How would you describe those songs? Were you comfortable with how they turned out?
It was a cross between Jim Reeves and Pat Boone. It was not going to be my cup of tea because the folk revival was just starting at that point, and I wanted to do the folk-rock thing, do the guitar and play the coffeehouses. I didn’t want to get into doing the really smooth country stuff that people were doing at that time. I guess I was rebellious. But I wanted to become part of that folk revival. There was Pete Seeger and there was Bob Dylan, and that was the situation I went into. A lot of my stuff got recorded by really notable country artists too, from Johnny Cash right on down.
The biggest country hit with one of your songs had to be Marty Robbins’ cover of “Ribbon of Darkness.” What did you think of the way that version was done?
What a wonderful arrangement they brought to that song. And a great vocal. They just did such a wonderful job on it. I actually got to meet him a couple of times. He came to see my show at one point. I was very honored by that because I loved his song “El Paso.” Marty was of heroic stature to me. That he recorded one of mine, I was very proud.
Do you ever hear artists these days and think about what they might be able to do with a particular song of yours?
Yes. I sort of think, in the back of my mind, what would, say, Garth Brooks do with this one? You think about the way his lyrics flow. I just met him last summer at the Stagecoach Festival up in Palm Springs. When I’m writing there has to be a system to it. You have to be able to memorize it. That way you don’t have to think about it. I used to be really good at it, but I’m not as good at it now. I write songs and I can’t remember the words. [Laughs]