After a 28-year career in the Canadian Forces that has taken him to many trouble spots in the world, Major Tim Isberg is familiar with the impact trauma and battle has on local residents.
Isberg sees the same look on the faces of people in High River, which last year was devastated not by war but by flood.
“There was tragedy, death, fear and destruction and there was perseverance, courage and effort that would have made Alberta pioneers proud,” Isberg said. “Although not a war in that sense of the word, it was a battle. Not only has the landscape been scarred, but one look in the eyes of the townsfolk will show signs of the same on their soul.”
“The whole story should not be understated, nor overshadowed by the politics or other current events. I admire the resilience of the community,” Isberg added. “It’s a community of survivors, and those who know one. It’s a different town. If it’s not already, it will be a stronger town.”
Isberg, who was raised in Fort Macleod, put those sentiments into his song Come Hell or High River.
The singer-songwriter performed the song for a High River audience last month during the Reboot High River concert in that town.
“I guess my message is to first signify the event somehow in few words,” Isberg said. “Although the song should have a sense of melancholy and a minor chord haunting mood, I didn’t want the song to be overly sad or political; but an anthem of sorts about standing your ground and fighting for something worth saving. The music ending signifies the recovery, healing and relief.”
Isberg was stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan as chief of the literacy and language programs for the Afghan National Security Forces that are part of a NATO training mission when the devastating flood hit High River, where his sister Lori lives and works at Highwood high school.
The troops had minimal external media and little news of Canada, and Isberg learned of the situation through word of mouth, Internet and Skype calls.
“It didn’t quite sink in right away,” Isberg said of the level of devastation in High River.
Isberg is no stranger to the power of rising rivers, having been involved in military support to flooded communities before across western Canada, twice deploying to Manitoba in 2011.
Despite that background Isberg was not prepared for the devastation the Highwood River wrought on the town.
“The speed and extent of the water and resulting devastation to the town and its people caused me not only pause, but wonderment and shock,” Isberg said. “Looking back is one thing, but at that time, even for me so far removed from the event, it was a growing sense of bewilderment. The only certainty was nervous uncertainty.”
Isberg has ties to High River through his sister and people in the town he has come to know over the years, including fellow musicians with whom he performed at local venues.
“They are my friends and some of these fine folks lost their homes and instruments,” Isberg said. “Like many businesses, the loss of both a home and the tools of your livelihood is more than just salt in the wound. As a soldier, as a brother, and as a musician, I get it. I’ve seen a lot in my life, and my connection with High River is a both a personal and shared sense of mutual appreciation and for being there in time of need.”
Posted thousands of miles away in Afghanistan, Isberg was frustrated he could not be in High River to lend a hand to his sister and his friends.
Isberg did contact fellow musicians back in Canada to apprise them of the situation in High River, and to ask them to help out.
The music community responded, with people including Juno Award nominee Chloe Albert turning up at Isberg’s sister’s door to help clean up.
Lori Isberg was overwhelmed when Albert said, “Your brother sent me.”
“She told me her name was Chloe and that my brother sent her,” Lori Isberg said. “I started to tear up. It felt like I was being looked after. I so needed help and to know that everything was going to be okay.”
Tim Isberg, meanwhile, was working 12 hours a day, seven days a week in Afghanistan, but High River was never far from his mind.
“The thought was definitely there to maybe write a song as my contribution, but it wasn’t until after I returned home that I sat down and put pen to paper,” Isberg said.
Isberg describes his songwriting process as “sporadic,” with some songs developing over a period of years.
“As a guitar player, I tend to come up with a chord riff of some sort and a phrase that seems to stick, and I take it from there. Other times in a deliberate song such as the High River one, I jot down words and phrases that come to mind about the story I want to tell, concurrent with some chord patterns of one mood and tempo or another to consider. I used to write a lot of short stories in my younger years and my storyteller type songs surely have been influenced by that part of my character.”
Isberg sought advice and assistance from songwriting friends and tried out different versions of Come Hell or High River at live performances.
Isberg took the song to friend and well-known producer and engineer Miles Wilkinson for his input and then laid down most of the tracks at DanLyn Studios in Sherwood Park.
“I had what could only be described as a stellar cast,” Isberg said of the people who helped with the recording of Come Hell or High River.
Come Hell or High River features Stewart MacDougall on piano, Gord Matthews on guitar, Thom Moon on drums, Smokey Fennell on pedal steel, Don Marcotte on bass and Gerry Woolsey on sound.
The lineup for the Reboot concert was filled before Isberg finished the song but once word reached that community room was made for Come Hell or High River.
Isberg is not from High River, was not there during the 2013 flood and was a last-minute addition to the lineup so people did not know about the song when he got up on stage.
“Standing there solo in front of a surely curious crowd, I had a little anxiety — not in performing but in the uncertainty in how the song would be accepted by the very community for whom it is intended,” Isberg said. “As it turned out, I could not have asked for a better response.”
Come Hell or High River will be one of the tracks on an album Isberg plans to release in the spring of 2015.
At present the song and lyrics are available to listen and for free download at http://www.reverbnation.com/p/5qxCEQ.