Tom Wilson answers his phone while trudging through a bitterly cold Hamilton, Ont. morning on the way to see his grandson. I have to do a double-take. Grandson? Is it possible that Wilson, the hulking figurehead of Hamilton's rough-edged, blue-collar rock scene for the past 30 years, is now a doting granddad?
I then remind myself that there have been many misconceptions about Wilson since he rose to prominence in the 1990s fronting Junkhouse a band whose shadow has perpetually lengthened since their break-up in 1998. Back then, Wilson took the band around the globe like a motorcycle gang leader, stalking stages like a buffalo, and leaving crowds of flannel-clad indie kids cowering in their wake.
But the reality is that Tom Wilson is a consummate, sensitive artist. His paintings have adorned nearly every album he's put out since the end of Junkhouse, whether with Blackie & The Rodeo Kings — his highly successful collaboration with Colin Linden and Stephen Fearing — or his solo projects.
In fact, if any Canadian musician deserves to be evaluated as "plays well with others," it's Wilson. He's taken that to new extremes with his latest incarnation, Lee Harvey Osmond, a partnership with Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies and Brent Titcomb of underrated '60s folk rockers 3's A Crowd. The group's brand new sophomore release, The Folk Sinner, also includes a host of well-known Can-Rock names such as Hawksley Workman, Oh Susanna, Josh Finlayson and Andy Maize of Skydiggers, Huron's Aaron Goldstein, the Sadies' Sean Dean, blues harmonica virtuoso Paul Reddick, as well as songwriting contributions from Colin James.
Wilson dubbed the Lee Harvey Osmond sound "acid folk" upon the release of the group's 2009 debut, "A Quiet Evil," and it still holds true on "The Folk Sinner," a dark and disturbingly seductive collection of songs that in many ways seems Wilson's natural element.
"I don't see the world as side projects," he says. "We all work so hard and try to live in the moment, there's actually no time for anything on the side. The difficulty of being an artist of any kind is living in a world that doesn't accommodate their way of thinking."
Drawing a parallel with Junkhouse, Wilson goes on to say that when that band signed with Sony, he had to fend off accusations of selling out, something that seems slightly ludicrous today.
"[The label] tried to manipulate us right from the beginning, although it never happened because, let's just say, I was the only guy in the band without a criminal record. All I was concerned with was surviving. I had a house and two kids, and these people telling me I was selling out were 10 years younger and couldn't see that.
"The idea of making a second Lee Harvey Osmond record was just a continuation of that idea that you have to create. That's what writers and musicians are here on this planet to do, while politicians and businessmen are here to control the world. So, I'm going to keep making these records until they nail me shut in a box."
Assembling the Lee Harvey Osmond community has been equally satisfying for Wilson, and is the fulfilment of an idea he says has been with him since he forged lasting bonds with fellow Hamiltonians Daniel Lanois and his brother Bob long before the former became an internationally renowned producer.
"They told me that when you're in a studio, conducting yourself as a musician, it's important not to show off. I don't mean showmanship like James Brown, but trying to put the focus on yourself. It's most important to let the song be the king, and everyone involved with this project understands that and gets a great deal of satisfaction working in that way. As an example, Hawksley and I wrote the track 'Break Your Body' together, and it seemed entirely natural for him to play and sing the parts he wrote on the record. I loved the way he sang the chorus, so he came in and did it, and it was exactly what the song required."
Viewing Lee Harvey Osmond from that perspective, the partnership between Wilson and Timmins — who serves as producer, as well — makes a lot more sense, even though they appear to come from polar opposite schools of performing.
"I'd be the first guy to admit that I'd never expected Michael and I to even end up in the same room together," Wilson says. "For one thing, he's a hockey addict and I'm not. But what brought us together was our shared belief in the job of being an artist. I've also admired him ever since [Cowboy Junkies'] 'The Trinity Session' came out in 1988. I couldn't stop listening to it; it went straight into my heart and my lungs. Around that time when [Lee Harvey Osmond drummer] Ray Farrugia and I started making a plan for what Junkhouse would be, we used 'The Trinity Session' as a blueprint. For me, there's no better example than Michael Timmins of someone who puts the song ahead of everything else and makes incredible music without showing off."
Another point of pride for Wilson when it comes to Lee Harvey Osmond is paying tribute to the Canadian folk-rock tradition in his own way. "The Folk Sinner's" opening track is a stunningly sparse cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "Oh, Linda," a nugget from his 1966 debut, and the album title itself is Wilson's own summation of where he fits into the grand scheme of Canadian music.
"I've played rock 'n' roll my entire life basically, but I've really always viewed myself as a folk singer," Wilson says. "For a lot of reasons it's been hard to convince people of that, mostly because I don't fit the mould. I'm a big hairy guy who's been known to associate with some shady characters. So that's where the idea of 'the folk sinner' came from, that maybe one day I'll get some redemption and be admitted into the club."
Lee Harvey Osmond's special guest-heavy "Folk Sinner Live" concert is March 22 at The Great Hall