AS DELICATE QUESTIONS GO, asking a songwriting legend about mistaken reports of his death is a doozy.
Luckily, Gordon Lightfoot brings it up first over the course of a lengthy evening chat, and there's humour in that warm, familiar voice as he mentions it. The context is a discussion of a recent surprise appearance the Canadian folk music pioneer made at Hugh's Room in Toronto during a CD release show by his longtime friends, the Good Brothers.
"I didn't know if I was going to perform or not, they'd just pronounced me dead about two days before," chuckles Lightfoot, 71, over the rumour that spread from Twitter to blogs to news organizations' websites on Feb. 18.
"But I brought my guitar in the trunk of my car, and I said if it feels right I'll get it out and do something. So I did, and I played a song they'd never heard before."
The false rumour became news worldwide, and probably didn't hurt ticket sales for his Canadian tour, which comes to the Halifax Metro Centre on Friday night. Lightfoot laughs at the suggestion that he might get a good song out of this dark comedy of errors, preferring to let it stand as a bizarre quirk that will eventually be overshadowed by the more momentous events of a five-decade career.
"I don't care if I do anything with it, but I did get my picture on the front page of the Toronto Sun, with the headline, 'Dead wrong,' " says Lightfoot, appreciating the irony of it all.
"I've been quoting Mark Twain a lot lately. 'The rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.' He said that back in 1897. I guess they thought he died while he was abroad, and the way news travelled back then, it took a while for him to get a correction.
"I was able to clear mine up in about eight minutes after I heard my own obituary on the radio. I was driving my car, right past Mount Pleasant Cemetery, on my way back to my office after visiting the dentist."
It's not surprising to see Lightfoot take it all in stride, considering his shows in 2005 were performed under the banner of the Better Late Than Never Tour, following his recovery from a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm in 2002 that put him out of action for a while. He still plays over 70 shows a year in Canada and the U.S., although he doesn't know if there'll be another recording of new material anytime soon.
He says the muse still comes to him, with a handful of new songs written and several more that didn't make the cut for his last release, 2004's Harmony. But he'd rather spend the three or four years it takes to write, arrange and record with his six children, four grandchildren and the legion of fans that can't get enough of timeless compositions like The Way I Feel and Ribbon of Darkness.
"I've got lots of responsibilities, family and business, but the touring is still the other world for me," he says. "I love performing my material in front of a crowd, I love the communication. I can feel it in my bones when I'm out there, I can feel the connection.
"Musically we're still very strong, it's a great-sounding band, we always strive for absolute intonation in the instruments, which we probably didn't have until 15 years ago. We'll probably sound even crisper than the last time we were out there. ... I've got my shows boiled right down to the sap now, by the time we get out on stage. I've got the very best of what I feel goes over best, and what I feel best doing and what is most expected. Lucky for me, the three or four biggest hits are the ones that work every night: Sundown, If You Could Read My Mind, Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and Carefree Highway."
In January, Lightfoot was able to hear many of those songs from the audience, during a tribute held at Hugh's Room with performers like Madison Violet, the Good Lovelies, Nathan Rogers and Old Man Luedecke.
The singer is diplomatic when it comes to judging other performers' versions of his tunes — "I never heard a cover I didn't like. ... I'm just happy it got done," he says — although he's always been a fan of Elvis Presley's recording of Early Morning Rain, along with more obscure recordings like rockabilly legend Billy Lee Riley's approach on The Way I Feel and a 1980 disco version of If You Could Read My Mind by Viola Wills.
But one project that remains close to his heart is The Long River: A Personal Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot recorded by Cheticamp musician J. P. Cormier, which reinterpreted Lightfoot's songs with Cormier's own bluegrass and folk influences and a feeling of energy that Lightfoot says is often missing from covers of his songs.
"That was just absolutely wonderful. I love his work. I've met him three or four times now, he's a great guy," says Lightfoot of Cormier.
From the sounds of it, the next time listeners get to hear Lightfoot sing his own songs on record will likely come when he starts going through the tapes of his annual week-long stint at Toronto's storied Massey Hall. Over the years, the event has become the ultimate celebration of the man and his music, and he says it may also form the essence of his final musical statement.
"I've recorded a bunch of stuff there that will probably come out after the fact. I may put it out when I retire, or it may come out when I'm pushing up daisies. I'll retire the first time I can't play Massey Hall. Because I'm not going to stop at this point, my motto is 'Don't stop now.' We're not getting any younger, in the band, and people have health issues now, and there's going to come a time when one of us is going to go down, and that'll be it.
"But if we can go another four or five years, that'll be great. I don't mind doing the work, I can tell you that. I enjoy performing, I love the communication. I've always been a live performer; I always was, years before I ever saw a recording contract of any worth."
Published with permission from Stephen Cook, Entertainment Reporter at The Chronicle Herald, Halifax, NS. Original article posted at the newspaper's web site TheChronicleHerald.ca.