Discs of the year:Old Man Luedecke's heart strings

The banjo-picker calls his discovery of the banjo "a real gift." We call his album, Proof of Love, one of the best of 2008.

"It seemed like a loser's instrument, you know, like a real underdog," says Old Man Luedecke of his chosen tool, the banjo. "Here's this happy-sounding thing that's full of life and totally unknown to me and everything I've known."

Luedecke, given name Chris, is seated in the back corner of a downtown coffee shop, under the blast of a poppish song he's unable to identify ("Who is this, Spirit of the West?"). He's just had a meeting at the CBC up the street---they've commissioned him to write a piece, with Jesse Zubot, for the show he and Rose Cousins will play with Symphony Nova Scotia in February---after a two-hour nap back home in Chester, which he took after stepping off the red-eye from Calgary this morning. In a few hours he'll be back on a plane headed in the opposite direction, to England. He'll be in Nova Scotia for about an average work day.

Old Man Luedecke
Proof of Love (Black Hen)One of our best lyricists, Luedecke presents his country-hewn story songs with a full band (including the always welcome Rose Cousins on harmonies), presenting them with weight and elegance. Crafted in the east and recorded in the west, Proof of Love creates its own sense of place, of a time, yet ahead of it.

But he affably, as is his way, talks about the banjo in between sips of dark roast. It's the crux of his music---a highbrow blend of verbose soul-baring and folk storytelling---and it's a rare thing, outside of a country band, to see a singer-songwriter wield it so prominently. He found his at 22, in Vancouver.

"I fell in love at the same time, and a lot of my earliest songs are informed by that. I think a lot of things got set in motion, a lot of hope got set in motion, that enabled me to have a strong place to be authoritative from, you know? Or at least take a stand from. I've been in it for awhile now," he says of his wife, Teresa, "so that's changed, but that was initially a real mission, an awakening. It was a real gift: This is obviously what you're supposed to be doing. And long before I should have ever been doing it." He laughs. "I could barely tune the thing and I'm like, 'Alright, where do I go?' You know? I was pretty keen. I think that's the way people get bitten by music, or the arts, or anything, really. Holy shit, I'm an accountant!"

Old Man Luedecke recommendsLake of StewAin’t Tired of Lovin’ (Woodhog)"It’s a really joyful album of vegans in Montreal, singing. Like 10 vegans, singing all at once. They’re kind of hillbilly in a really nice way. Every refrain has the full force of 10 people singing together. Annabelle Chvostek of The Wailin’ Jennys is in the band, and she’s just a marvelous singer and player. I really like the spirit of it, something about it is really infectious to me."

After two albums---Mole in the Ground and Hinterland---of essentially solo recordings, Luedecke released his third album, Proof of Love, this spring. It was recorded by jazz vet Steve Dawson in five days out west. "I showed up in Vancouver on one day, they took the picture that's on the cover," says Luedecke, who at 32 is not very old at all. "I met these guys who were going to be in the band and we played for two days. I went back in the third day and did the solo tunes. And then a fourth day at Steve's studio in his backyard, and that was it."

An English lit major who takes major time crafting his songs, Luedecke found recording fast, with a band of strangers, to be a welcome challenge. "I was really crying for something new, and part of that was letting go of some of the control," he says. "I don't know how to play the upright bass---you need to trust that somebody's going to be doing it reasonably well. I know a lot more about what I'm looking for in the sounds now than I did then, but it's part of an ongoing process."

Luedecke's been on the road for the last half-year with Proof of Love (the Symphony show will be the next time Halifax sees him), touring with Christine Fellows and Kim Barlow, hitting festivals and generally raising his profile all over the country.

"For the most part I feel like I'm starting to get out there into a community of music listeners, so my music just doesn't come right out of left field all the time," he says. "It's one of those things that has been a good asset, I think, because I am playing this weird music, I'm not wedded to the tiny fractured section of the population that just listens to banjo music."

Though he actively courted a full-band sound on his latest album and sometimes plays with a trio, Old Man Luedecke is still a solo act, often sitting alone up there. And he relishes it.

"I can't dance on stage---it's just not true to me. But what is true to me is trying to get people, you know? Get them to listen. Because the words are so important to me---I want them to enjoy themselves but I really want to make sure they get something out of the tunes," he says. "There's so much music, there's such a cacophony of things around us all the time, I want what I do to be special."

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