DEL Barber is a Prairie boy at heart.
The evidence is all his fourth full-length album, Prairieography — out today via True North Records — the Junonominated Winnipeg country/ roots troubadour paints vivid pictures of small towns and the hard-working people who populate them. His portraits aren’t rendered in misty, pastel-hued watercolours; they’re rougher, grittier. Barber lets the brush strokes show.
The 30-year-old was inspired by another document of life on the Prairies:
Cowboyography, the 1987 album by venerated Canadian singer/songwriter Ian Tyson. He rediscovered the album on a drive through southern Alberta.
"I was so impressed with how he was able to connect me with that place directly," he says. "I realized that what I was trying to do."
It’s something Barber did with success on Prairieography’s predecessor, 2012’s Headwaters. As its title suggests, that record was all about returning to the source, about going home again.
Prairieography is mostly about the people who never left — in particular, those whose lives exist somewhere between urban and rural.
"It’s a subject I want to continue to write about until I’ve exhausted it," he says. "There are so many great stories about characters who live in both worlds."
Barber is not an autobiographical songwriter. He prefers instead to tell the stories he’s picked up along his travels. Some are seemingly plucked from the headlines; lead track Living with a Long Way to Go details the day-to-day struggles of a farmer who decides to work on the oilpatch in order to save his family business: "Heading out to Fort Mac/Gonna make a comeback/make a million dollars pulling oil from the ground."
The song feels especially topical in light of Neil Young’s Honor the Treaties tour last month. Barber is a big fan of Young’s — he sings a cover of Harvest Moon — but he feels the issue is complex, especially for folks who need to make choices like the protagonist in his song.
"I think the way Neil Young spoke about this issue alienated people instead of bringing them together," he says. "The stories are all more complicated than we think they are. We’re all dirty."
Prairieography marks a departure for the singer/songwriter, skewing more country than the albums before it — a stylistic shift Barber attributes to his songwriting style.
"(The lyrics) seem more direct and precise," he says. "They’re not ultra-poetic, which is why it sounds more country. I’m not trying to be a part of high art or something oblique."
That’s part of the reason he loves playing for rural audiences, which major tour circuits often neglect.
"They keep me honest," he says. "They don’t have a lot of patience for obliqueness. The more direct the narratives are, the more sincere they come off. It’s easier to perform songs that are easier to understand. It’s a tradition of folk and country music that gets lost."
Barber’s plainspokenness is complemented by warm, textural soundscapes that were recorded live to analogue tape at Empire Recording. Field sounds of grain augers and combines made it on to the finished product, which was co-produced by Barber and his steel player Bill Western. A silo was painstakingly transformed into a reverb tank.
"We didn’t want it to sound too manufactured," Barber says. "We thought, ‘How do we make these songs sound like the landscape?’ Winnipeg, the Canadian Prairies and the western States — there’s a lot of grit to them."
The fact that Prairieography was made entirely by prairie people also gives it a homespun vibe.
"It felt like making a record with friends," he says. "It sounds like the Prairies."