Here is Gordon Lightfoot, one of the last of the true troubadours, still laying down fresh musical cuts when most of his 1960's compadres have slumped into the artistic Barcalounger of nostalgia racks.
The Canadian singer-songwriter, who performs Wednesday at Chastain Park as part of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Pop Series, is speaking by phone from his home in Toronto. And there is in his voice a rather puckish lilt for a 52 year old man who's weathered some heavy bouts with John Barleycorn, written 170 songs and survived many changes in the public taste.
"I'm getting into a more ethereal thing now," he says in a playful, guess-if I'm-putting-you-on tone, referring to the mysterious dreamscapes in such 1980's tunes as Sea Of Tranquility and Fourteen Karat Gold.
"The other day," he continues, "I told my producer about a new lyric, and he asked me what it was about. I said, 'It's about nothing.' What else could I tell him? The last thing the world wants is another song about a current issue. I'm still telling stories, but they're between the lines, you know?"
Mr. Lightfoot has created in his melodic songs a personal mythology with a certain amount of truth behind it. His is the image of the romantic knight-errant, thumbing for a truck ride on a dark highway with the 12-string slung across his back, who - after spending all night in a loud, smoky tavern - is able to capture the beauty of a mist-covered lake at dawn, echoing with the call of the loon.
As times have changed, Mr. Lightfoot's songs and his excellent band (Terry Clements on lead guitar, Barry Keane on drums, Rick Haynes on bass, Mike Heffernan on keyboards) have moved away from the fresh acoustic clarity of his early favorites (Early Morning Rain, Don Quixote) in favor of a slicker, more cushiony studio sound.
Something was gained in the process and perhaps something was lost. In any case, Mr. Lightfoot no longer breaks into the pop charts as he did in the first half of the 1970's (such as, If You Could Read My Mind).
But as the concert song list will show, some of his lovliest ballads have been quietly released in subsequent years, benefitting from this mature musicianship, including The Ghosts Of Cape Horn and the title song of his fine, under-appreciated 1982 album, Shadows.
On Wednesday evening, Mr. Lightfoot will also offer Ring Them Bells, a recent release from Bob Dylan, one of his 1960's comrades-in-arms ("I played it for Bob when he was in Toronto recently, backstage before his concert, and he liked the way I did it just fine.")
Even if his records do not represent any bulk-competition for Janet Jackson, Mr. Lightfoot is still in strong demand as a live performer. With his mellow aged-whiskey baritone and weathered-handsome looks, he cuts a virile figure on stage. Singing of old love affairs, the dangerous beauty of the sea and the sweep of his native landscape (his Canadian Railroad Trilogy is an epic show-stopper), Mr. Lightfoot is the kind of vintage that goes down especially well with a bottle of wine in the open air of Chastain.
The Last Time I Saw Her is often the powerful emotional crest of his concerts and for good reason. Mr. Lightfoot, who remarried two years ago, says he wrote it for his first wife. "That song was real."
The line on Mr. Lightfoot used to be that he gives a great concert - when he's sober. The new line, he says, is that he's been sober since 1982, has trimmed down and loves performing again.
"Yeah, I was gettin' pie-eyed for awhile there - trying to string a guitar with one hand with a beer in the other...Now I've got a bouncy new baby, 11 months old, and the first song of my new album is in the can."
"Tell those people in Atlanta they're gonna have a great time."