Chris Luedecke, 35 and a father-to-be, is at the hospital with his wife Teresa for an ultrasound to check in on the twins when my call comes in. I offer to call back later in the day but instead he humbly excuses himself to navigate the corridors in search of a quiet place to chat.
Better known as Old Man Luedecke, the Nova Scotia-based banjo songster’s recent life history reads like a storybook, and the jubilance in his voice suggests it’s a happy one.
Dawson City sits on the banks of the Yukon’s Klondike River and is rich in gold rush and prospecting history. It was a place of hopes and dreams and it still is for many young people hoping to earn a few bucks in the town’s tourism industry.
In 1998 one of those people was 22-year-old Chris Luedecke, a young wanderer from Toronto. Another was Teresa Bergen, an adventurous Nova Scotia gal.
The two met, fell in love, and crisscrossed the country before finding themselves en route, by way of bicycle and thumb, back to the Yukon in 2001.
“(Teresa) got a residency at the art school up there and so we spent the winter in a cabin and that totally changed the courses of both our lives,” Luedecke recalls. “She decided she was only going to make pots and I decided I was only going to play banjo.”
Discovering the banjo
Luedecke acquainted himself with the banjo in ’97 when we was looking for “something honest” in his life, “probably because I didn’t feel I was terribly well-served,” he reckons. “I never felt like I was going to have much of an ability to offer anything authentic and the banjo just seemed to be the vehicle that sort of excited the most number of things I was looking for, and beyond.”
Through a continuous effort to find satisfaction in songwriting, Luedecke eventually fashioned a ditty that made him proud.
“It was just like a complete intoxicating wonder,” he recalls of penning “Yodelady,” a song that eventually made its way on to his 2003 EP “Mole In The Ground”.
“I had stayed home from work and played hooky for the day hoping to write a song,” he says. “And then I took that song mid-afternoon to all the bars in Dawson and played it again and again, and it was pretty thrilling.”
A move back to Halifax in the fall of 2002 would be the couple’s final cross-country procession.
“Mole’s” college radio success paved the way for “Hinterland” in 2005, a record that affirmed Luedecke’s songwriting talent and his aptitude for Clawhammer picking, a banjo playing style with origins in American old-time music.
“I Quit My Job” and “Joy of Cooking,” songs that dignify relative poverty and simpler living, became singalong and foot-stompin’ anthems at shows.
“There’s a huge amount of determination that’s gone into being a solo banjo player and trying to make it work,” Luedecke explains. “A lot of those songs were written for myself, just trying to keep on task. I was just like ‘I know this is a good thing and it’s the right thing for me to be doing, but man there’s nobody else getting credit for it,’” he laughs.
“Falling in love gave me a palette for expression that I didn’t expect it would, and it was really a unique channel that worked well with the banjo,” he adds.
“Proof of Love,” Luedecke’s first record with a full band behind him, was released in 2008 and welcomed with endless praise. The following year it won the Juno Award for best solo roots album.
At this point he and Teresa had settled in Chester, a seaside village on Nova Scotia’s south shore, where they lived above a garage and continued making music and pottery.
“For whatever reason we have these feelings that there are obstacles to overcome, and there’s no question that there are,” he says reflectively. “Some of them are in ourselves and some are in the world and both of them are genuine, so ‘Hinterland’ and ‘Proof of Love’ are really kind of fervent in their desire to break free into an authentic life, or at least some version of a life that you imagine you want to live.”
When “My Hands Are On Fire and Other Love Songs” hit record store shelves in 2010 Luedecke had earned a solid reputation and degree of popularity he never imagined possible and was receiving invites to folk festivals across North America.
It didn’t hurt that the album, another with a backing band, earned him a second Juno.
“That record has a lot of love songs on it too, and I think they all will,” he explains. “Love songs that make you think are noble goals.”
So, what about that “something honest” he was searching for when he picked up the banjo a decade and a half ago?
“Found it, lost it. Found it, lost it. I kind of knew the minute I could tune the banjo that I was going to be playing the banjo for the rest of my life,” he says.
“I’d like to see what’s possible. … I think there’s a fundamental risk in what I do and the sort of honesty that I aspire to is something that enables me to get up in front of people, and the sincerity that I bring to things is something I believe in, therefore it’s easy for me to sing. That’s something that I always want to be true. But at the same time I like to take some risks, and sincerity is definitely risky, but at the end of the day the only songs worth singing are the ones that I know are right, the ones that resonate with me on many levels.”
Old Man Luedecke returns to St. John’s for a solo performance at The Ship Pub Thursday evening.
For information, visit www.oldmanluedecke.ca.