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MUSIC: Lightfoot tours again after near-fatal illness

By Jack Hill

This article was published October 3, 2008 at 2:48 a.m.

Gordon Lightfoot

— Paul Bunyan, a northwoods American example of towering strength, was a fictitious character. If our Canadian neighbors to the north were to settle on their own true-to-life version of someone similar, they might select singer-songwriter-guitarist Gordon Lightfoot, who has survived more than most real people.

Lightfoot, who will turn 70 on Nov. 17, was in a coma for six weeks after a nearly fatal acute abdominal aneurysm in 2002, but he has regained his health and his will to perform again.

"It laid me out for 19 months," Lightfoot says, "and I didn't remember much of anything. I had 'Minstrel of the Dawn' going through my head, but I didn't think about it much. I worried about how would I be able to continue.

"The recovery took a while, but it was very fortuitous as it took my mind off my condition. I didn't play or perform for 28 months. I had to relearn guitar a lot, and it took a while for that. I found out that exercising and practicing are the best way to go about that.

"I was determined to perform again, even though I wasn't absolutely sure I would be able to sing again. But they had me in speech therapy and my first year back, I did 40 shows and have increased that to 60. I go to the gym; rehearse once a week at my house and feel pretty strong. I don't think much about recording, but Istay in a state of preparation for playing."

Starting out in the early 1960s coffeehouse scene in Toronto, just as the likes of Bob Dylan were doing south of the border, Lightfoot wrote songs that have been recorded by Dylan, Johnny Cash, Peter, Paul & Mary, Barbra Streisand, Glen Campbell, Nanci Griffith, Sarah McLachlan, The Grateful Dead, Jesse Winchester, Tori Amos, Judy Collins, Conway Twitty, Don McLean and Jane's Addiction.

His breakthrough American hit, "If You Could Read My Mind," came in 1970. His best-known songs are "Early Morning Rain," "(That's What You Get) For Lovin' Me," "Ribbon of Darkness," "The Way I Feel," "Did She Mention My Name," "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," "Sundown" and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."

"I'd have to say that 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald' is my favorite of my songs," Lightfoot admits. "It's a very powerful song to play, an easy one and the people love it. I've met so many people throughthe years that have a connection to that tragedy. When I first heard about it, I just took the facts as well as I could set them forth and I had a melody that was ready to go, and had my chords and away I went. I was done within a couple of months.

"Sometimes I would be on a roll, and have four or fivesongs going on in my head at once. I hate to tell you the number of songs that ended up in the waste can."

As to whose versions of his songs pleased him the most, he cites Peter, Paul & Mary for their having done his "Early Morning Rain," and Elvis Presley for also recording it later.

"I was just happy whensomeone did one," he says, "and to cap that, I never heard a cover of one of my songs that I didn't like. Sure, I heard some strange versions occasionally, but they always seemed to do a good job. I would be amazed that people would enjoy my songs enough to want to record them, and it inspired me and made me want to work harder."

Though not exactly a nextdoor neighbor, Lightfoot admits to knowing Arkansas native Ronnie Hawkins, a fellow Ontario resident for decades.

"He and Wanda live up by Peterborough, by a beautiful lake. He's just a fabulous guy and so much fun. He's helped so many people and loved seeing other people get ahead."

Lightfoot brings a band on his tours, and for years he has maintained the same lineup of friends and musicians: Rick Haynes on bass, with Lightfoot since 1969; Terry Clements (1970) on lead guitar;Barry Keane (1976) on drums; and Mike Heffernan (1981) on keyboards.

He professes to be in good health and enjoys life on the road, as he now lives alone; his marriage came apart while he was sick.

"I hope to be able to continue on, like Willie Nelson, or Kris Kristofferson and Ian Tyson. And look at Ramblin' Jack Elliot, who's still got the desire and the drive. I have 35 or 40 songs I draw from out of my catalog that are good and strong on stage that have stood the test of time."Gordon Lightfoot 7 p.m. Sunday, Robinson Center Music Hall, Broadway and Markham Street, Little Rock Tickets: $54, $44 (501) 975-7575 or www.ticket master.com or all Ticketmaster outlets

Weekend, Pages 59 on 10/03/2008

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