On her most recent album, roots/Americana/folk artist Eilen Jewell, the finest thing to come out of Idaho which can’t be mashed, fried or roasted, dipped into the blues. Well, the blues and people with “blue notes, a blue approach”, for a set of covers that may serve as an entry point, a guide to starting a love affair with a century of music.
“That’s really what I hoped this album would be for people,” says the singer/songwriter who has recorded seven albums, including with the Boston gospel/bluegrass outfit The Sacred Shakers.
On Down Hearted Blues - reviewed here - there are familiar and lesser known songs first recorded by Memphis Minnie and Howlin Wolf, Charles Sheffield and Betty James, given the Jewell treatment. But what were the records which shaped the young Boise version of Eilen Jewell? What were her musical gateway drugs?
Ahead of her Australian shows with her band, Ms Jewell ‘fessed up.
YOU’LL BE MINE – HOWLIN’ WOLF
Written by Willie Dixon; performed by Howlin’ Wolf
“It was on a record that I discovered in the attic of our garage when I was about 15. The turntable had been broken for many years - I probably broke it as a toddler - so we never had any way of playing these records and they went into the attic for many, many years. I knew I had to listen to the album first. I knew just by looking at it that I was going to love it - somehow I had a premonition about this Howlin Wolf record.
“I went to a yard sale later that weekend and I got my own turntable, a little crummy plastic one that looked like a bass case with little speakers that are really no good at all but I loved it and it was only maybe a dollar. As soon as I got home I played this Howlin Wolf record and it was love at first listen. I knew that it would be important for me the rest of my life, and it really has been. From there I have always been searching for more blues album along those lines.”
Her father was plugged into the 1960s blues revival that swept America after the British invasion had reminded Americans of their own brilliant culture. His attic stash was rich with it. So what made Howlin’ Wolf, the big man born Chester Burnett, stand out?
“He put everything into it. His voice was so amazing, so interesting and he and Willie Dixon did so many songs together that are still so important. It’s rock ‘n’ roll really, the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, and it spoke to me on this very instinctive level. I just got it right away.”
BOOTLEG SERIES VOLUME 1-3 – BOB DYLAN
“My dad went and got the cassette tape - I think it came in a set of three or four cassette tapes - and we went on a long family road trip. As all family road trips are where we are out here, out west [in Idaho]. For what felt like days we just listened to the Bob Dylan bootleg in the cassette player of our station wagon. My brother remembers this happening and he shudders when he thinks of it: it was so much Bob Dylan.
“But for me, I have this very wistful feelings of nostalgia for that time because I had nothing else to do but sit and listen to these really early Bob Dylan recordings. I was looking through all the liner notes and I wanted to know more about this Bob Dylan guy. I had become familiar with some of his songs, the more well-known ones like Like A Rolling Stone, and the one about ‘everybody must get stoned’ [Rainy Day Women #12 & 35] but these ones just really spoke to me. Obscure things tend to speak to me, always have: the B-side of the 45 is always the one that I go to first and I prefer the hidden treasures.
“I was fascinated by the fact that these hadn’t been released before and had a lot of these songs about Woody Guthrie, and I want to know who Woody Guthrie was. So it was another gateway drug for me because it got me curious about Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, the roots of that branch of modern music, the folk roots. And it got me interested in Bob Dylan, and I’ve loved pretty much everything he’s ever done since then.”
THERE’S A TEAR IN MY BEER – HANK WILLIAMS
“I had always avoided country music when I was in high school and earlier, because I was delving into the blues and Bob Dylan and early rock ‘n’ roll, and I thought, ‘that’s it, I don’t want to hear anything country’ because I thought country music was the country music of the ‘90s, which was basically pop music with maybe a fiddle or something and a vapid message about the land and a truck.
“But I didn’t realise there was a thing called classic country music until I got to college and somebody said to me, ‘What about Hank Williams? Come on you don’t know There’s A Tear In My Beer?’ And I was like, someone has a song called There’s A Tear In My Beer? That woke up my brain - wait that sounds really amazing. They put it on and I was sold, his voice has so much yearning in it. Hank Williams was my gateway drug to country music.
One of clever ways of classic country is being witty in song titles and lines but still touching real emotions in the song itself.
“It’s really heartbreaking and he has a lot of songs like that. Like Movin’ On Over, it’s kinda funny on the one hand but he’s talking about how he is in the doghouse now and there’s this dark humour in there. He ends up with ‘this doghouse here is mighty small, but it’s better than no house at all’ because she’s thrown him out.”
ANY EARLY RECORDINGS - BILLIE HOLIDAY
“I stumbled across her in a movie in the early ‘90s, one of her songs was featured. I had no idea about Billie Holiday – no one had mentioned her name in Idaho in the ‘80s - so I waited until the credits rolled, who sang that song I need to know. It was the first time I ever sought out an artist. I think I was probably 13 or so.
“I went to the library and I looked her up and sure enough there were all these Billie Holiday tapes and I took them home and wore them out I played them so much. She was the first person who I had to seek out; before that music just came to me on the radio, just bashed me over the head until I said okay I like that. But she was my discovery she was the first artist I said to myself ‘I want to someday sing exactly like her’. She was my inspiration for singing specifically.
“No one can sing exactly like Billie Holiday, except for maybe David Sedaris, but I think she was important to me because of that little glimmer, that inspiration that maybe I could sing one day at a formative stage. She taught me and I tried to imitate her and so far she’s the only vocal instructor that I’ve had, for better or for worse. I owe a lot to her.”
What was it about her singing that resonated so deeply?
“It’s really hard to put my finger on it. Her vocal delivery, it feels like she is singing for herself. It’s not show-offy, it’s not acrobatic; it feels like it’s coming straight from her, from in her heart, from her soul or something. It feels like you’re really listening to somebody who is telling you something very personal and I think she had a very personal connection with her own voice. At least that’s how she comes across.
“I’ve also always liked how it sounds like one of the horns, like it fits in so well with the horn section, like another instrument. An instrument that is capable of making words, which is perfect.”
Eilen Jewell in Australia May and June.
Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne, May 23; Caravan Music Club, Melbourne, May 24; Theatre Royal, Castlemaine, May 25; Meeniyan Town Hall, May 26; Chateau Apollo, Adelaide, May 27; Leadbelly, Sydney, May 30-31; Hardy’s Bay RSL, June 1.