Al Tuck was at a party in 2012 when a friend suggested he write a song about Stompin’ Tom Connors. For Prince Edward Island native Tuck, who’d already written a tribute song for legendary PEI songwriter Gene MacLellan (Tuck was married for a time to his daughter, fellow singer-songwriter Catherine), the timing was right: his young daughter had recently discovered Connors’ music, and the two were enjoying listening to it together. “Sometimes it just takes a little encouragement,” says Tuck.
The song, “StompinTomConnors.com,” is the second track on his latest album, Fair Country, which also kicks off with a cover of Connors’ 1973 hit “To It and At It.” Because while Tuck may be known for his genre-straddling, this album, his ninth, plants him firmly in old-school country with a mix of originals, co-writes (a number of them with Alex Rettie) and covers, including “Fly Right on By” by Rita McNeil and “Always on My Mind,” made famous by Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson, among others.
“My other albums have had drastic mixtures of styles,” says Tuck, admitting that he wanted to do something that would be more accessible to a broader audience, who would know what to anticipate from start to finish. “And it seems to be going up the charts finally out there,” he laughs. “So maybe I was on to something?”
Tuck, who’s been performing across the country for more than two decades, first came to music singing in a boys’ choir. When he was 15, he picked up a guitar and taught himself to cover tunes by Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. “It took me a while to find my voice,” he says, describing early experiences trying to channel the blue”. “I realized I didn’t know how to present that, being a skinny white boy,” he says. “I found my voice by easing off the contrived style I was working off of, and trying to be more myself.”
It was in Halifax, where Tuck was based from the mid-1980s until he moved back to PEI in 2004 to be closer to family, that he first formed Al Tuck and No Action, a band with a rotating cast of musicians (in St. John’s, Tuck says, it’s referred to as “Al Tuck and No Filter”). He released his early albums through murderecords, the label formed by the members of Sloan, later earning gigs opening for bands like Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson, among others.
“I didn’t know how it was going to go, exactly. But this is exactly what I always wanted to do.”
And yet, for many Canadians, Tuck still flies largely under the radar. “I live anonymously, largely,” he says, “but every now and then, there are moments of glory or gratification.” Among them must surely be the fact that he remains beloved among higher-profile singer-songwriters, many of whom cite him as one of the very best. For example, Broken Social Scene’s Jason Collett has dubbed Tuck “the greatest songwriter of his generation.” Feist calls him “a living legend in our midst.”
While he shies away from defining himself as a mentor, Tuck, who’s been nominated for an impressive array of awards – including a spot on the 2013 Polaris Music Prize long list – treasures what he calls his “eye for talent” and enjoys supporting artists as they find their feet. He counts himself lucky, for example, for having been among the first to hear Old Man Luedecke’s early songs. Nor has he ruled out the idea of moving into the role of producer down the road. “I suppose I’m open to it, if it was for the right person,” he says.
But Tuck admits that he hasn’t necessarily oriented his own career on getting ahead in the industry. “I’ve never been happy with the status quo, exactly, but I guess I haven’t had the kind of driving ambition you need to break out,” he admits. Even Fair Country, risked not getting the attention it deserved after Tuck, intrigued by an idea, released it in June 2015 as a red wooden match box featuring a download code. It was released again more recently on CD, and Tuck remains hopeful there will be a vinyl pressing. “I’m just grateful for giving it this second wind,” he says.
Miraculously for such a non-careerist as Tuck, Fair Country reached No. 1 on the Earshot National Folk/Roots/Blues Chart, thanks to the campaign work of award-winning promotions and publicity firm SpinCount, who also handle Joel Plaskett, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Amelia Curran and Donovan Woods.
For Tuck, the goal these days (beyond the playful fantasy of having a band that could double as a baseball team) is simple: to keep writing and to keep playing – though he admits that writing has taken a backseat in recent years, simply because of the backlog of songs he’s already amassed. “Every so often there’s an urge, you know, or an itch [to write], but it would have to really get under my skin for me to want to pursue it – but that’s how I can tell that it’s really going to have some value.”
No matter how his path may have meandered, Tuck says he’s never doubted his decision to pursue a life in music. “I didn’t know how it was going to go, exactly,” he says, “but this is exactly what I always wanted to do.”