Singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot released his first solo record in 1965 but he'd played shows for a few years before that, which is why you can't really quibble with his current tour heading out under the name of "50 Years on the Carefree Highway" — the road in question, of course, also the title of one of his biggest hits.
"It's a bit of a motto that somebody dreamed up," he says by phone from his home near Toronto. "I don't think it's been quite that long, maybe about 48 years. But it's close to that."
Lightfoot says that 50 years ago he was probably still busy learning songs that were popular in the folk revival scene of the day as well as country tunes by singers he admired including Buck Owens, Hank Williams and Marty Robbins.
"What I was doing was getting a repertoire, a real good repertoire," he says.
He'd played around in a duo called the Two Tones but it wasn't until the release of his debut album "Lightfoot!" in 1966 that his own material started gathering him notice.
Songs such as "I'm Not Sayin'," the single that preceded the album, and "Early Morning Rain" earned the singer his first measure of fame. The decade that followed produced hits such as "If You Could Read My Mind," "Rainy Day People," "Sundown" and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
Then as now, the 74-year-old Lightfoot says he often felt most at peace on the road
"It's the excitement of being in motion and being active that way," he says of heading out on tour, which this year will see him play about 70 or so shows. "Because it kind of provides an escape from the normal life that we all lead in the meantime. We're out there enjoying getting away from it for awhile and it's almost like a rest."
Lightfoot says he plans his sets to please his fans and also keep things fresh and interesting for him and his band.
"I put in 10 or 11 songs that they really want to hear and if you left them out they'd be really disappointed," he says. "We also keep working at bring in some dark horses, too, at least half a dozen that they're not expecting to hear."
We wondered if he had an all-time favorite among the many songs he's written.
"Some of the ones I really love people probably don't even know," Lightfoot says. "I have one called 'Restless,' which I think is a real humdinger. I do it almost every show. Of the mainstream stuff I've got to say I always enjoy 'If You Could Read My Mind.' But I also like 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald' because it's a really great one on stage."
Many of his songs have been covered by other artists, from Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan to a just-released version of "I'm Not Sayin'" by the temporarily reunited band the Replacements. It's hard for him to pick one favorite over the others.
"I've tried to answer that question so very many times," Lightfoot says. "It's a hard one to answer but I've got it boiled down to one line: I never heard a cover recording that I didn't like. I'm honored, I'm surprised.
"What can you say that they would like the songs that much? They've done such a wonderful job, everybody. My God, I love the one by Elvis, 'Early Morning Rain,' I think he just nailed it. Barbra Streisand, the one she did, 'If You Could Read My Mind.' Even the Kingston Trio did one way back at the beginning."
New material in recent years has been sparse. After 1998's "A Painter Passing Through, it was six years until "Harmony," an album that his band finished from his demos after a near-fatal medical crisis left Lightfoot laid up for weeks.
"That was originally just guitar and vocal, that was it," he says. "The other parts the guys put on while I was in the hospital. They'd bring the stuff over and let me listen to it. It took my mind off my condition a great deal — that's probably what helped me recover so quickly."
Since then he's only put out "All Live," a 2012 set of live recordings he'd set aside for more than a decade, planning for them to come out after he was no longer around.
"It was going to be posthumously released but 10 years later I'm still walking around," Lightfoot says. "And if I wait around it's going to get messed up.
"They're all raw mixes — that's exactly the way it was on stage — and they might have decided to remix the whole thing and I didn't want that to happen."
Might there be new songs, a new album one of these days?
"I'm always writing some songs," Lightfoot says. "I've got about three or four songs that I noodle around here. But the time factor, my goodness, I don't know how long it would take me. At this tender age I don't know if I want to take on the job.
"I think I can do it with shows," he says. "I love traveling. Most of it's seen from a car window, but it's an interesting life and being backstage and getting ready to do the shows. Tuning your guitar and getting ready, it's just a thrilling experience."