The Campfire Songs of Tim Hicks

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Tim HicksMost would agree, there’s no better way to ring in the onset of summer than by gathering around the fire with some good friends, cold brews, and great music.

And that’s just what multi-platinum and multi-award-winning artist Tim Hicks had in mind with his latest offering, “Campfire Troubadour” — a collection evoking what it truly means to be a storyteller.

The seven-song anthology hit streaming sites just a little over a month ago to thunderous applause, and the singer/songwriter couldn’t be happier.

Fact is, while Hicks has always had deep roots in Canadian country music, the artist would tell you he comes from humble beginnings; just him, a guitar, a microphone and a (sometimes) crowded bar.

It was those years that built the musician a vast repertoire of solo acoustic material designed to please an intimate audience — a feeling he revisits with “Campfire Troubadour”, which strips down his trademark chart-topping and powerful sound for something a little bit more personal.

The same can be said for the lyrics themselves, which call back to a simpler time, designed to help listeners leave the hustle and bustle of their busy lives behind, and appreciate the now.

We recently sat down with Tim via Zoom (of course) to go through the new collection, digging deep behind the scenes to the inspiration and stories behind the songs, track by track.

Tell us everything about “Campfire Troubadour”. It’s a very cool bunch of songs with a very different sound and vibe for you. How did this project come to be?
This is something we talked about doing for a long time — and what I mean by that is doing a stripped-down thing. Before having a recording contract, at least half of my gigs were by myself, acoustic guitar, just driving someplace in southern Ontario, setting up the gear in the corner, taking requests, and singing for my supper — that kind of thing.

Those were the gigs that I really cut my teeth on in terms of being an entertainer, because there’s really nowhere to hide. You’re sort of naked in the room, with just your guitar.

But I loved the vibe of those gigs, and I also love camping, especially when there’s a few guitars around.

Over the years, we’ve had some awesome campfire jams even just in my backyard, and that’s become a big part of my family’s story. So, it just kind of hit me like a ton of bricks one day — hey, why don’t we do, theoretically, a campfire record? Something that would sort of bottle that energy or vibe and put it on a record.

I phoned up Jeff Coplan in Nashville and said OK, it’s time. That was at the beginning of the second lockdown in Ontario, and that was it. I was so frustrated that I was just throwing my hands up in the air. I knew I had to do something creative, or I was going to go crazy. January, February, and March, we wrote a ton over Zoom, then picked the songs and I cut my tracks sitting right here, at home. We never thought this idea was going to make it to a release, but we’re super-pleased with it. I found it refreshing not to have to write for radio or write for any sort of format — I could just kind of pick songs and write what I wanted to write. It really was a pleasure.

Tim-Hicks-Campire-Troubadour-Cover-Art-minPenning tracks you don’t think are going to get recorded isn’t a new thing for you, is it? I seem to recall you telling me you guys were pretty sure “No Truck Song” wasn’t going to make it onto the EP, but it ended up the lead single.
We’re always doing stuff like that. I mean, this is the thing — especially when I’m recording with Jeff — a lot of the time. In fact, when it’s just him and I, I just make it my mission to make him laugh. I’ll say ridiculous things or do ridiculous things while we’re cutting vocals. I learned on the first record that if I do it and it goes to tape — so to speak — it could end up on the record. So, I have to be very careful about what I do and say, behind the microphone, because he might put it in the final mix — even if it’s just silly noises. We try to take things to a different place and be a little left of centre. I’m often surprised at what makes it and what doesn’t.

I know you and Jeff Coplan have a long history; how did you guys get together in the first place?
Jeff and I go way back to 2012. I was slated to work with one producer, and it didn’t work out for whatever reason. I think it was a scheduling issue, timing and probably a budget thing too back then.

I remember feeling pretty bummed out when it fell through but my day-to-day manager, Denny Carr, says — don’t worry, there are lots of others and I really want you to meet this fella, Jeff Coplan. We were slated to write and when I met him that day, he answered the door — and I’ll never forget this — wearing a British flag shirt he wears on stage sometimes. He had his guitar on, and he was playing the lick at the beginning of “Hell Raisin’ Good Time”. I said, nice to meet you — what is that?

He says, I don’t know, it’s just something I’m working on — maybe we can work it into something. I hadn’t even taken a pen out of my backpack yet and we were already writing. It was just meant to be — just magic in the air. It was shortly after that we were on a roll. We wrote “Hell Raisin’ Good Time”, “Got a Feeling” and “Stronger Beer” all in one week. It was just ridiculous. Now, if we’re working on something together or even if we’re not, we’re speaking almost every day. We’ve become really tight friends.

“Stronger Beer”? I don’t know if I’ve heard of that one.
YA RIGHT!

So, getting back to “Campfire Troubadour”, I know how important your songwriting is to you, so I know there’s some stories there. Let’s go through the tracks, so you can tell fans a little bit about each of them — one by one — starting with “Slow”.
I’ve had “Slow” since 2017. I pitched it to go on everything; “Shake These Walls”, “New Tattoo”, “Wrecked This Town”. I’ve always loved it, and I thought it was really cool, but I could never get my team to bite. I think that was the first song I ever submitted with harmonica on it, because I used to do that in my routine all the time when I was playing in bars. I would play Neil Young or Blue Rodeo, or Bruce Springsteen, with the neck brace on and everything, because you’re looking for any way to augment your sound when you’re by yourself.

“Slow” was a song that just was dying for it. So, I cut a little harmonic and sent it in, but I could tell they were uncomfortable. I pitched it on every record and couldn’t get it in. But as soon as we said campfire, all of a sudden it made sense. It’s a really powerful thing when you finally find a home for a song you’ve had kicking around, so I was really pleased we got to release it. As soon as we cut it, I thought this has to be the opening track. It just made sense to kick off the record.

The next one is “Horses and Hearts”. I noticed the trio of writers on that — and all those names look pretty familiar.
Of course! Jimmy Thow and Erik Dylan are guys I’ve written with hundreds of times. We just got really lucky one day and wrote it on Zoom. I was sitting right here, and I had a little strumming thing going on that was sort of Eagles, and I had the campfire idea in my back pocket. — but I wasn’t articulating that to anyone quite yet because I didn’t want anyone to steal my idea.

Eric Dylan said, I’ve got a title that goes with that strumming, I think, “Horses and Hearts” — and he went on to tell this story. I don’t know if this is true or not, but he was saying a buddy of his who had horses was telling him you can’t just have one horse, you’ve got to have at least two or more because horses will die of loneliness. Like I said, I don’t know if that’s true or if it’s an old wives’ tale. But we thought that would make a great country song. It was one of those songs that kind of wrote itself and we were stuck on the last little bit.

I was just kind of strumming along and sang as a placeholder whoa, whoa, horses and hearts. Eric and Jimmy were both like, well, why does it need more than that? Why don’t you just sing oh, horses and hearts? We’re always trying to say something so ground-breaking, when sometimes all you need is something simple. It was one of those special moments.

“The Good, the Bad and the Pretty” (Campfire Edition).
I knew I was going to confuse everybody by putting a song out to radio and then not releasing it on a record, and I was looking at troubadour as its own thing. So, the track had to have a different feel to the one on radio. Better yet, an acoustic version.

“The Good, the Bad and the Pretty” was one I wrote with Deric Ruttan and Derek Hoffman at the CCMA SOCAN Songwriting Camp. I had that title in my pocket, but I had it as the good, the bad and the ugly. And I could tell when I was pitching it, that especially Ruttan was uncomfortable with the word ugly, for whatever reason. He’s got this way just sitting back in his chair and looking at me. He says, can you sing it? Can you sing the word ugly, and make it sound good?

Then we have this discussion in the room about what singable and what’s not, which always is hilarious to me because if I can sing it, it’s singable, right? That’s just the way it goes. I was getting a little frustrated because we had to write under a timeline for that thing. You have to write, record and mix your song in the same day and present it to everybody by 8 p.m. We had producers running down the path with thumb drives to make it in time.

I said to Derek, I don’t know man, what do you want to call it? The Good, the Bad and the Pretty? He’s like, that’s way better! Yes! That’s exactly what I want to call it! I said, that’s not even a thing — it’s not an expression. He said, yeah, neither was eight days a week — let’s write it. And when such an experienced songwriter pens his mouth, you listen to what he has to say. So, we instantly changed course and there you go. “The Good, the Bad and the Pretty”.

“Annaleigh”.
That’s an easy one. I’ve written lots of songs to my wife, and I wrote “Throw a Ball” for my son, and a couple others before he was born, anticipating his arrival. One time I was in Nashville, and my daughter was having a really hard time. She was missing me — I was away a lot. The only thing I could think to do was write a song for her. I worked most of it out, but I knew I had a write the next day with Driver Williams, a great songwriter, and guitar player in Eric Church’s band. I knew he had a little girl, too, so I had it cocked and ready to go for when I saw him.

I played it for him, and he loved it right away — we just had to clean up the verse lyric. So, that’s another one I had since 2016 or 2017, and pitched it to go on everything.

Every campfire we have at home or camping, if I have a guitar, usually somebody asks me to play it, or I just play it because it’s just one that means a lot to me. My daughter is a total firecracker, just like her mom Amanda, really. There’s one line in it that gets me every time — but I’ll know where to find you, down any road you take, from the trail of broken pieces, from all the hearts you’ll break. That’s my daughter in a nutshell. Since then, she was really putting the pressure on. Daddy, when are you going to put my song on a real record? As soon as I told my manager that, we got to cut it. We got to get that one on a proper record.

“Last Can”.
With this one, I keep hearing from people it has a real “Stronger Beer” vibe to it. I say, of course it does — because the two knuckleheads that wrote “Stronger Beer” wrote this song too! This was just me and Jeff being stupid and silly.

One night on Zoom, I think we were scheduled to write with a third person, and they bailed last minute or just didn’t even show up. Every now and again, me and Jeff get in these moods, and I’ll say tonight we’ve got to write one of our silly country songs.

I had this little gem stored away for us and he had ‘don’t you take my last can of beer’ or something like that. I thought, wouldn’t it be fun if each verse it changed . . . one verse she’s taken his last beer, one verse it’s big bag of weed or his last cigarette, or whatever it is. Then the third verse, she’s taken his last shot of whiskey.

He doesn’t even really care that she’s going, he just wants her to leave all the vices behind. I laughed so hard, especially when Jeff sent back the mix and he’s in the background doing all of the percussion with his mouth.

How could you not just grin when you hear this song? It’s tailor-made to give you a chuckle. I’m always looking for songs that are going to put a smile on somebody’s face. A little bit of comic relief in the show is always welcome, as far as I’m concerned. “Last Can” is no exception of that, for sure.

This one definitely isn’t new, “Don’t Look Back in Anger”.
Covers have always been a little bit of a painful thing for me — only because I would play 40 to 50 covers a night for years and years and years. So, when my career as an artist finally took off, I didn’t want to play covers anymore because I’d already done that. I just wanted to play my own songs.

This time around, however, it kind of made sense. I thought, well, I’ve been far enough removed from all those gigs, I can look back on it with a lot of nostalgia now. But then the discussion became; what do I do?  Should it be something everyone would expect? Should I do “Patio Lanterns”?

But I’ve got fans in Germany and Australia that maybe won’t know that song. Same thing with Blue Rodeo or Neil Young. I had almost settled on a different song and for whatever reason, we’re coming down to the 11th hour and Jeff was like, listen, you’ve got to tell me what we’re doing here — we need time to cut this and get it out.

I honestly was not an Oasis fan in the ‘90s. I was way too into, country, rock and classic stuff like The Beatles.

During the pandemic, I really started to dig backwards into ‘90s nostalgia, and I discovered that I really love Oasis. I really get it now, as an adult, and I’ve watched the documentary Supersonic a zillion times. I keep it on my laptop, and I watch it on flights. I came down here and sat down, and for whatever reason, turned on my microphone, and played “Don’t Look Back in Anger”.

I thought — I think that’s it. What’s really strange about that is I never covered it when I was playing in bars. It was “Wonderwall” and “Live Forever”. But, I always wanted to learn it. Then I got to thinking, if I was at a campfire and half in the bag, and somebody busted that out, I’d know it by the first chorus, and I’d be singing along. Isn’t that the whole point of a campfire?

281-Tim-HicksTo get everyone singing along? It’s very important to me to involve the audience in whatever I’m doing, so this was the one I wanted to do. I ran it by Jeff, and I ran it by my record label, just to see if we could get it cleared. Because that’s the next thing — how do you get Noel Gallagher to sign off on some Canadian country guy? But somehow, they were able to get clearance for it — and it was awesome.

I can’t wait to be able to play it live in an arena. I want to get everybody singing so sadly, I can’t wait. It’s going to be a really cool moment.

We have one last track, after all these songs and all these beers, we’re talking about beer again — “After All These Beers”.
Hey, listen, I can’t put my name on something and not have at least one song about beer. Or is it really about the beer? “After All These Beers” is not really about the beers — it’s a love letter to my friends. Amanda and I have run with a crowd of couples that the wives are all friends from way back, some as far as high school.

We all got married around the same age, and all the husbands hang now, too. We all started having kids around the same time. So, we spent a lot of year’s pre-kids hanging and partying — and really kicking it hard.

Then, of course, that kind of thing changes and evolves, but somehow, we still manage to get together at parties, when we’re allowed of course.

I wanted to write a song for them, really, just to say thanks for being there and for being such good friends. They could all care less about what I do, and there’s never any weirdness there.

That’s just my job, and it happens over there. When I come and hang with them, I’m just one of the guys and I really enjoy that. I wrote the song with Emily Doty and Dave Thomson.

Dave grew up on the next cul-de-sac over from me in Niagara Falls when we were kids. We used to play ball hockey together on the street — come in when the streetlights come on boys. I’m really pleased we got to write this one.

One of the reasons I wanted to go through by track was because, with “Shake These Walls” you were proud of the fact you had a hand in writing every song on that album, and that was a first for you.

All these albums later to have you sit here and tell me about the writing process, is really cool to hear. I know that’s such a source of pride for you.
I’m a tortured songwriter. First and foremost, I’m a singer and entertainer. In songwriting, I’ve had to learn quick. I really get a kick out of writing, plus all of the artists I love and look up to — Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, the kind of roots Rock Troubadours, so to speak — really influence me.

They always wrote their songs, and that, to me, is what I aspire to be.

There was a long period of time where I didn’t hear one song that was pitched to me that I liked enough to cut. So, it was left up to me to write the kind of songs I wanted to sing, and I really do enjoy writing.

But as a conduit to get to the concert, right? Because that’s first and foremost for me.

When it comes time to play again, I’ve got these new songs and I’m excited by that. I can’t wait to play. I’m ready. I got my guitar by the door, just waiting for the go ahead.

Let’s do it!

Check out TimHicksMusic.com for more music, merch and upcoming tour dates.

Photo: Dustin Rabin
Photo: Dustin-Rabin
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