Robbie Robertson gets CMW's Lifetime Achievement Award, and he thinks 'it's quite wonderful'
Toronto native says Canada has been ‘generous’ and ‘heartwarming’ over the years
Robbie Robertson is no stranger to honours and awards.
The Grammys' Lifetime Achievement Award and lifetime awards from the National Academy of Songwriters and the Native American Music Awards are among his many accomplishments. Robertson is now set to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award in the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame from Canadian Music Week (CMW).
But the man who's been credited with revolutionizing rock 'n' roll as the guitarist and principal songwriter for the legendary group The Band says he's not done thrilling fans just yet.
"I have just finished a new album and it's coming out in September," Robertson told CBC Toronto's Dwight Drummond in a wide-ranging interview. "This album, it's one of the most special things I've ever done."
Here is part of their conversation.
DD: One of my favourite parts of the Robby Robertson story is how you got introduced to the guitar. Talk about what life was like on the res and how you came to music and how you came to this instrument.
RR: You know, I felt fortunate growing up between Toronto and the Six Nations Indian Reserve because these two worlds really bounced off one another and contributed to me having just a broader imagination when I was a kid. The most impactful thing to me is seeing all my relatives at Six Nations that everybody played an instrument, or sang, or danced or did something, because they had to supply their own entertainment. It wasn't like big shows coming through the res all the time.
At some point one of my uncles said, 'Come here, you put your finger on the thing' and he showed me a little bit and I thought, I like this. One would play a fiddle, maybe a homemade fiddle even, somebody would play a native drum, somebody would play something else. They said: 'What instrument would you like?' I said I think the guitar. And they kidded me. They said, 'Oh, you know cowboys play guitars.' It was interesting that my mom got me my first guitar and it had a picture of a cowboy on it. But I was being taught by the Indians how to play this guitar with cowboy on it.
DD: How soon did you realize that you're good at this?
RR: In the beginning it's a struggle and it hurt your fingers, but you want to get past this place. And when I did cross over that line, I realized I just didn't want to do it when the relatives were coming over. I wanted to practice all the time. I got addicted to it.
DD: But you're a famous guitar prodigy; they said by the time you were 16?
RR: I was on a mission, and so at some point I did say to myself, and this was probably when I was 13 years old, I did say, I'm getting as good at this as any of these guys and I'm just 13. Can you imagine when I'm 14, you know. So by then I could see a light, I could see something I was drawn to.
DD: Rock 'n' roll was just coming your way as you were picking up this instrument.
RR: That's what it was. You know when I reached puberty and rock 'n' roll came along, I was standing at the crossroads. I started getting interested in girls. I already had a guitar in my hand and rock 'n' roll was born. It's called the vix. I had a group — Robbie and the Robots — and we were like the opening act for Ed in a small arena in Toronto. I saw Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks and they were amazing, they were the real thing and they were from the south. They were a real rockabilly band just like Carl Perkins and Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and everybody else. I just thought this is so authentic and I was drawn to it and I really liked them. They didn't shoo me away. One day I heard Ronnie say 'I need to get some songs, I got to go in and record an album and I need to find some songs.' I went ding! I had been writing songs and I went off and I wrote two songs, came back to him, play them for him and he said, 'I'm going to record both songs.' I was shocked but I acted like, Oh, good, good. I'm happy to hear that.
DD: It's been 50 years after Big Pink and the start of The Band. What's new?
RR: I have just finished a new album and it's coming out in September. This album that I've made, it connects to the documentary that they're making on me now. It's in conjunction with Imagined Entertainment in the United States and Bell Media and Canada. Incredibly talented people are doing this. I just scored The Irishman, Martin Scorsese's new movie and this album you know all these things are connecting. We are just putting together the 50th anniversary of The Band album into a collector's edition and re-releasing that and we've gone back in and mixed it and mastered it and added bonus tracks and all kinds of things with that.
This album it's one of the most special things I've ever done and it connects to these other elements. Ironically, they're giving me a Lifetime Achievement Award while I'm up here and I'm like, 'Wait a minute guys, wait a minute, you know I've got a couple of surprises for you yet.'
DD: You're in every Hall of Fame, both for the playing and the songwriting. What does it mean, though, to get a Lifetime Achievement Award? Even though you feel like you're not done yet, you still have more to give us?
RR: You know, in Canada over the years it's all been so generous and so heartwarming. This is my hood. This is where I come from for sure, and everybody has always been wonderful at celebrating the work that I've done over the years. I'm honoured that they're giving me an award for what I've accomplished over the years. It's quite wonderful. I keep thinking they've run out of awards, they've run out of honours and everything. And I'm just going to keep testing them. I'm going to see just how deep this well is.
With files from CBC Toronto's Dwight Drummond and Kate Cornick