His vehicles teem with painted words and glittery ornaments, yet Fred Tober’s life on the road isn’t always as shiny as his rhinestones. By Vince Hempsall
Fred Tober has a lot in common with his white 1978 Chevrolet camper van, which is awash in painted words, images, and hundreds of rhinestones. The 70-year-old country singer has a shock of long white hair that stands out from his permanently tanned scalp. He’s adorned with rings, necklaces, and bedazzled sunglasses and belts. And he’s an anomaly. I mean, who doesn’t own a phone these days?
If you’ve travelled through Osoyoos, British Columbia, in the winter, or anywhere in the south of the province during summer, you might have spotted Tober’s one-tonne van. It’s hard to miss, considering every available surface, from tires to radio antenna, is covered in plastic gems and statements like, “Living a country song,” and, “CDs for sale.” It’s one part art project and one part marketing tool for the retiree, who says he started singing when he turned 61 and now tours most of the year selling his CDs.
Because he doesn’t have a phone, it took me four months to track Tober down and arrange an interview via his friend’s landline. He has a deep voice, reminiscent of Johnny Cash, and a frenetic energy: in a few minutes the conversation bounces from his German upbringing (he moved to Canada with his parents in 1957), to his two music CDs, to his other van, a 1991 Mazda MPV that he’s also painted and bejewelled, “even the motor,” he says. I ask him why he paints the vans. “Because it’s fun,” he replies, before switching topics again and launching into his history in Kamloops. Tober lived there for 30 years, working at various mills, and he was engaged to a woman named Bonnie. “But she passed away five years ago,” he shares. “That’s why I left Kamloops.”
Suddenly I get it: the country music, the life on the road, the lack of phone, the art-car projects. “The face on the cover of my first CD, that’s Bonnie,” Tober says near the end of our call. After promising to find him in Osoyoos one day, I hang up and then listen to one of two songs of his I could find online. “I still have everything that came between us,” he croons. “My old guitar and a weakness for the wine. So tonight I thought I’d write one for the memory, when times were good and you were mine.”