Across the street from Gordon Lightfoot’s home in Toronto, there’s a mansion under construction.
“It’s a very large house, let me say that much,” Lightfoot reveals on the phone with City Paper on a recent Monday evening. The singer is at home practicing guitar and giving interviews ahead of his upcoming tour.
The home’s future tenant, the rapper Drake, is currently on tour in Europe.
“My 14-year-old granddaughter is really interested in the fact that Drake is building a house across from mine,” Lightfoot laughs. “She keeps me posted on where he is and where he’s going.”
Lightfoot has only good things to say about his future neighbor — he’s even a fan of Drake’s music.
A half century ago, Lightfoot was Drake’s equivalent — a Canadian performer crossing into the U.S. to rank among the most celebrated musicians of the folk genre’s golden age. In a career that mirrors the rise of country crooner Chris Stapleton today, Lightfoot first found success as a songwriter. Celebrated folk acts the Kingston Trio and Judy Collins recorded his songs, including “Early Morning Rain,” before he gained momentum as a singer in the late ’60s with songs like “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.”
It was 1971 when “If You Could Read My Mind” made him an international star. A string of major hits followed, including “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway,” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
Although it’s been 45 years since his biggest songs made waves on the radio, Lightfoot’s influence as a songwriter persists. Remarkably, his touring band closely resembles the ensemble that first recorded these songs, including bassist Rick Haynes, a fixture of his sound since 1968, and drummer Barry Keane, who joined the group in 1976.
“I have a group of musicians who are very professional, and I have to keep up with them,” says Lightfoot.
To that end, Lightfoot makes a point not to tour as a greatest hits act. Of the 220 songs he’s recorded over his career, he categorizes 40 as “the cream of the crop.” Among that batch, 15 are standards that he plays at every concert, leaving room for 10 songs to rotate through on any given night.
“I have far too many songs to pack into an evening, but I make sure we don’t miss any of the standards,” he explains, adding that even the hits still excite him. “It’s a different experience every time because those songs have proven their value, and I can get everything out of each song every time I do it.”
At 78 years old, Lightfoot acknowledges that he’s living on borrowed time, and he works each day to stay in shape for touring and performing. He maintains an office in Toronto, where he’s integrally involved in booking and managing his ongoing touring career, and spends his evenings playing and singing in his music room at home.
“I practice daily for 45 minutes to an hour, and I have a gym class I go to every day,” says Lightfoot, who took up regular exercise in 1982 to improve his singing, around the same time he gave up drinking.
“I want to build up stamina and keep my strength so that when I get out on stage in Charleston, South Carolina, for instance, I want it to sound like things are warmed up,” he explains. “I don’t feel like a grandfather. I love to play and I love to sing and I love the communication that I feel with my audience.”
The response he gets on the road keeps Lightfoot motivated and focused: “I feel very grateful that I’ve been able to last as long as I have, because my enthusiasm has not failed me, and I really believe in the material. These standards seem to hold water, somehow.”
But even after playing “Sundown” thousands of times, Lightfoot says he can’t let down his guard.
“Performing requires total concentration,” he advises. “It’s like playing golf — if you take your mind off the game, you’re dead.”
Lightfoot’s current tour, a two-week run through the Southeast, takes him from Texas to Florida, via stops in Charleston and in Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium. Don’t call it a swan song, however. He says he’ll tour as long as he’s able, inspired by peers like Willie Nelson — whom he took his grandchildren to see perform — and Kris Kristofferson, a friend he’s gotten together with twice in recent months.
“Kris Kristofferson’s shows are poetry in motion,” says Lightfoot of his contemporary.
But back home in Toronto, his grandchildren’s interest in the next generation of Canadian hit-makers may outweigh his influence, despite their pedigree.
“My granddaughter is trying to talk me into seeing Justin Bieber when he comes to the Air Canada Centre,” Lightfoot chuckles. Although he may not be the only grandfather at the Bieber show, Gordon Lightfoot will likely be the only senior in attendance who understands the thrill of taking the stage to the roar of an adoring audience — a feeling he deservedly still enjoys.