"It's a beautiful, sunny day — 40 below," says singer-songwriter Tim Easton, as he drives along Resolution Road, which is near his home in Fairbanks, Alaska. He's juggling bad cell-phone coverage and twisting mountain arteries — the very same ones trekked by Ice Road Truckers' life-risking stars. When Easton says, "The world of gigs is miles away from my mind," you tend to believe him.
The Akron native is no stranger to foreign lands. He's been touring them for years. He released his first solo album, Special 20, a decade ago. Before that, he played in a pair of mid-'90s regional roots-rock acts, Kosher Spears and Haynes Boys, and spent time busking abroad. Travel and music have been the twin engines of Easton's life.
His dad worked for the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, which transferred the Easton fam to Japan for a spell, when Tim was in the second grade. "We flew over Anchorage," he recalls. "I remember looking out the window. It was mountains and glaciers as far as the eye could see, and it made an impression. That surely could have kicked off some wanderlust."
Easton got his first guitar when he was a teen. He wanted to learn Beatles and Stones songs. But his older brothers were blues pickers and soon turned him on to Doc Watson — opening the floodgates to artists like Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, and Hank Williams. "If you're curious," he says, "it's just a matter of time before you get it all." Henry Miller's and Jack Kerouac's books also played into the young Easton's cultural awakening. Soon, he was on a bus to see the Grateful Dead in Pittsburgh, guitar in tow. He busked outside the venue and made some cash.
Having discovered "creative begging," Easton plied his new trade from Akron's Highland Square to Columbus, where he attended Ohio State University. Then he headed to Europe, where he hooked up with a still-undiscovered Beck Hansen. "We met a couple girls and brought them back to my place in Paris," recalls Easton. "We cooked pasta for them, and then we started singing. And they left, because they didn't like what we were playing.
"I wanted to see the world, and I wanted to do it without saving a lot of money," he continues. "I learned to play songs and learned to turn tourist money into beer."
It's around this time that Easton really started to take roots music seriously and explore how it connects with audiences. To this day, his own songs are built on those basic Americana structures. "You catch them with a voice and a sound," he says.
Easton's adventurous spirit and reverence for classic songwriting grew from these formative years. He began hanging out with other singers and songwriters at campfires and on street corners. His repertoire reflects this learned intimacy; so does his often ragged delivery. Whether it's a rugged rock twang, a folk-blues shuffle, or gentle, harmonica-guided jangle-pop, Easton has covered nearly every corner of American music in the past 10 years.
His first two albums have some nice moments (particularly Special 20's country-folk "All the Pretty Girls Leave Town" and the ghostly ballad "I Would Have Married You," from 2001's The Truth About Us), but Easton really put it together on 2003's Break Your Mother's Heart. "Black Hearted Ways" — whose melody sparkles like the Old 97's — and the ambling Bakersfield-blessed rave-up "Lexington Jail" rank among his best songs.
By comparison, 2006's Ammunition is something of backward step. Quiet, spare, and subdued, it lacks some of its predecessors' crackle, settling on a more reflective tone. Still, Easton invokes Bringing It All Back Home-era Dylan on the Bush-bashing "News Blackout," assails religious missionaries in "J.P.M.F.Y.F.," and offers a funny paean to the old days in "Dear Old Song & Dance."
For his new album — tentatively titled Who Wants It? and due sometime this summer — Easton is sifting through more than 50 songs. Some of them are half-finished tracks that date back five years. "I was able to take some time and get it right," he says. What doesn't end up on Who Wants It? will most likely find spots on future albums, says Easton.
One of the new cuts, a steely, garage-blues stomper called "Burgundy Red," finds Easton once again turning up the volume. "I want to let people know the direction I'm going," he says of the track, which can be heard on his MySpace page. "It's louder and a lot more aggressive."
As he navigates Alaska's frozen roadways, Easton ruminates on his part-time home (he spends half the year in Joshua Tree, California). "It's like the way America used to be," he says of the Last Frontier. "Plus, the scenery and nature can't be beat.
"But when you go for a walk in Ohio," he concludes, "you aren't worried about something out there eating you."