Album Review – Corb Lund’s “El Viejo”

Spanish is the native language of the people south of the United States border, not north of it in Alberta, Canada, where the legendary cowboy and singer/songwriter Corb Lund hails from. But “El Viejo” also happened to be the nickname for another Canadian legend and Corb Lund’s mentor, the great Western singer Ian Tyson, who passed away in 2022. Loosely translated as “the old one” or even “father,” Lund’s new long player El Viejo is dedicated to the late Mr. Tyson.

With Lund’s last album Songs My Friends Wrote from 2022 and now this one, you get the sense that Corb is setting into the middle portions of his career, and not trying to chase the next hit record or big singles anymore. He never was a hit machine in the conventional sense, but in the alt-country scene and during his heyday, Corb put a hell of a lot of skins on the wall. Now he seems content making music for himself and doing it his way as opposed to the hustle and grind.

In the case of El Viejo, this means setting up a bunch of mics in the living room of his Lethbridge, Alberta home, inviting over his long time Hurtin’ Albertains band, and recording songs acoustic style, often in one take. In fact, there isn’t an electrified instrument to be had on this new album, and the services of an outside producer were not solicited.

A loose theme that emerges from the album is gambling, from the opening song “The Cardplayers” about being unjustly accosted by a pit boss for cheating, to “When The Game Gets Hot” about how to cheat without getting caught, to some of the passages of “El Viejo (For Ian)” lamenting the expiration of blackjack tables at so many of the Nevada casinos where Corb and Ian Tyson used to hang together.

But the more unspoken theme is Corb Lund pondering his own age after the passing of an old friend. “Out On a Win” recounts the life of a mixed martial artist who’s done it all and may still have a puncher’s chance in the octagon, but is admittedly past his prime and looking for one last victory to go out on. “I Had It All” is about winning big, but then frittering it way carelessly. Perhaps both of these morals are ones Corb can relate to in his own way.

Per usual, Corb Lund delivers his songs with sly bits of humor interwoven with his cowboy poetry, along with a dash of real world drama. “Old Familiar Drunken Feeling” about a diabolical trip to a legal dispensary is a hoot. Lund songs are always delivered with self-awareness, and often, surprising worldliness. It’s rare that you hear Western singers evoke Arabic terms such as “Insha’Allah,” which translates to “God willing.”

And despite the stripped down and acoustic nature of these recordings, the tracks all feel full and fulfilling, even if they may not convey the same energy as other Corb Lund material by somewhat defanging guitartist Grant Siemens and the other Hurtain’ Albertains. But perhaps El Viejo has an intimacy other Corb Lund albums don’t.

When it was Ian Tyson’s heyday, Corb was the scrappy young opener and up-and-comer, learning the tricks of the trade from the oldtimers, including guitarist David Baxter who Corb seems to also reference in the “El Viejo” song, or perhaps it’s cowboy poet Baxter Black. Now Corb is the de facto oldtimer. He’s currently gearing up to take the band 49 Winchester out for their first Canadian tour in March where he’ll be introducing them to audiences who’ve been enjoying Corb’s music for now going on 30 years, believe it or not.

El Viejo doesn’t just add to Corb Lund’s musical legacy. In many ways, it closes a circle and begins a new era. He may not be “viejo” himself, but they grey hairs are moving in, and he’s now the one many country and Western singers look up to. El Viejo embraces this new season, and new role in Corb Lund’s legacy.

1 3/4 Guns Up (8/10)

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