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Tim Isberg taps area history for songs on new album ‘Prairie Fire’

Tim Isberg has forged a connection with early prairie history through family connections, growing up in Fort Macleod and researching papers for university courses.

Now the singer-songwriter has shaped some of that history into 12 story songs for his new album, Prairie Fire.

Isberg’s songs explore such diverse topics as the arrival of the railway, iconic scout Jerry Potts, steamboats on the Saskatchewan River and letters from an early Mountie to his fiance in Toronto.

The songs on Prairie Fire are all about real events and people on the Canadian prairie in the late 19th Century.

“It started with just one song based on some reading and an essay that I was writing,” Isberg said of Fire Kept Alight. “I came up with an idea for a story song for that particular topic which was some marginalized Metis and fur traders at the end of the fur trade.”

“It was the catalyst really for a song. It wasn’t the catalyst for an album, a theme or anything like that. I thought well, this is an interesting story to tell, and I had a guitar rift in mind. It kind of married up and went together.”

As Isberg continued his studies for a minor in western Canadian history as part of a university degree he realized how much he already knew.

Some of that knowledge comes from his own family history. Isberg’s great grandfather was an early pioneer in southern Alberta who had an uncle that was a member of the North West Mounted Police in Macleod in 1877.

Isberg’s family knowledge was supplemented by what he learned in school, from working at the Fort Museum as a youth, and from what he had learned on his own to feed his interest.

“I also realized how much I didn’t know, the more I read about things. There’s so much more information out there now than there used to be.”

As Isberg continued his studies, he wrote another history-related song. That’s when he came up with the idea of a themed album based on that early prairie history.

Isberg was challenged by the task of writing enough songs for an album based on a theme within the time frame of the mid to late 1800s.

“So many things happened over just 30 years. One family would have experienced all the events in some way, shape or form that I sing about on the album, which start with Confederation and the fur trade, up to extensive settlement and the transcontinental railway.”

Fire Canoe is about the steamboats that carried goods on the Saskatchewan River. Letter from Fort Macleod is based on a NWMP surgeon writing his fiance. Country Wife Lament is about an Indigenous woman abandoned by her fur trader husband. A legendary NWMP scout is celebrated in Ode to Jerry Potts.

Isberg wrote about his own great grandfather in the song, Hugh Christie Lancaster, who arrived in this area in the 1800s at the age of 14.

Scattered Bones explore the well-known Cypress Massacre. Steel Wheels is about the impact of the railway. Manitoba’s First Outlaw tells the story of Metis Gilbert Godon.

The title track, Prairie Fire, is about the call to arms in the 1885 North-West Resistance. The final song, Better Times Ahead, provides a hint of optimism.

Prairie Fire features Isberg on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, Jamie Cooper on drums and percussion, Derek Vokins on bass, Jeff Bradshaw on dobro and pedal steel, and Marc Latouche on acoustic and electric guitar and mandolin.

Prairie Fire was recorded at DanLyn Studios in Sherwood Park, and was co-produced and engineered by Juno- and Grammy-winning Miles Wilkinson.

“I really think this is my best work so far,” Isberg said of Prairie Fire, echoing comments made by others in the music industry.

Prairie Fire will be released March 23 on streaming services and radio. Until then, people can hear the single Fire Canoe on Isberg’s Web site, and Steel Wheels will be available on Feb. 16.

Pre-sales of the album are under way on-line.

Isberg said there is potential for Prairie Fire to be adapted into a play, which will allow the characters to expand on the events and people in the songs.

Isberg will return to his home town on Thursday, June 27 for a concert at the Empress Theatre in conjunction with Fort Macleod’s 150th anniversary celebration. He will perform all the songs from Prairie Fire, along with some of his earlier work.

A souvenir booklet with the lyrics from songs on Prairie Fire, along with some other information about the people and events Isberg sings about, will be available at the concert.

“I’m excited about bringing the show to Fort Macleod,” Isberg said. “This is huge for me. I’m super excited to stand on the Empress Theatre stage, again, and put on a show that has songs that everyone in the audience will be able to connect to in some way.”

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