On his new album, Barber reflects on farming and family, using music to bridge the gap.
On “Still Got You,” Del Barber croons about watching the stars and picking tomatoes. It’s the simple things he holds tight, too, but there’s a wistfulness in his voice. “The best things we have, we just didn’t earn,” he sings. The song wrestles with how grateful Barber is for the life he leads, while recognizing that so many folks have so much less.
It’s that sense of reflection that carries through Barber’s seventh studio album, Almanac. While it might seem like a love song about a person, it’s actually written for his home: specifically, the farm and ranch he shares with his wife and family in rural Manitoba. When Barber isn’t touring with his band or in the studio recording music, he’s working the 2,000-acre farm with cattle, chickens, row crops and cut flowers.
It can be difficult to balance his two lives: that of an award-winning musician who tours through the US and Canada regularly, and that of a farmer and rancher with a working farm and business. “Over the years, I’ve developed a relationship where I can come and go from the farm…I pick particular jobs on the farm and commit to doing them,” says Barber. For instance, he’s the designated fence guy—each spring, he’ll fence all the pastures. Whether he’s touring or home, he’ll schedule that work in, so everyone else can focus on the day-to-day.
The work also helps Barber write his music; the repetitive nature of farming acting as a sort of meditative process. “During harvest time, I’m hauling grain, or I’m in the combine and I don’t have anyone else around. My mind immediately starts to work on songs,” says Barber. “In terms of the music, it’s a symbiotic relationship. I get to do something completely different. It’s physical, it’s outside and it gives me something to write about.”
It also keeps him humble. Sure, as Barber will tell you, he may not have the star power of a Chris Stapleton or a Maren Morris, but performing music for applauding audiences doesn’t have much in common with shoveling cow manure or weeding the garden beds. “I definitely feel like there’s a distinct wake-up call every time I come home and have to go back to the farm,” says Barber. “Sometimes, music seems like a really important pursuit. And other times, when you watch a calf that you’ve been trying to keep alive for a week, in the ice and snow, and it dies—It gives me perspective on my own life and career and it makes me realize that I’m pretty small potatoes.”
Despite that occasional self-deprecation, Barber does strive to forge connections in his music, particularly bridging the divide between urban and rural communities. “I want to celebrate rural life and dispel some of the myths of it,” says Barber. “I want to tell the truth about my experience, the good and the bad, and try to make the conversation between urban and rural people have an ounce of nuance. Oftentimes, I just feel like it’s just so politicized, especially in the United States. I just feel like so often, both parties just don’t understand each other.”
Despite his efforts to bring those two communities closer together now, Barber didn’t grow up on a farm. He grew up in a suburban town just on the edge of Winnipeg, in the center of Canada, but he was always drawn to farm life. His first jobs were as farm laborer on u-pick strawberry farms and driver for grain farmers. He started working harvests on big farms close to the border with North Dakota. And, through all of this, he was playing in bands and writing songs. They all touched on rural life, from his debut Where The City Ends in 2010 to 2014’s Prairieography, which netted him Songwriter of the Year at the Western Canadian Music Awards.
Barber’s talent is in noticing and highlighting the granular—the small details that make up his everyday life—cooking for his family, tending to the cows, clearing pasture. These are what make his songs resonate. That’s why the title Almanac works so well for the latest album. The songs are both a record of how life is now and a prediction for the future. “[Almanacs] are informed by history. Predictions are informed by what’s happened before, and I think good music does that as well.”