By Kevin Broughton
Jason Eady is a country artist with a bluegrass soul. He cut his teeth with his stepfather in central Mississippi, going to picking parties and bluegrass jams, but his six solo albums to date have all been in a traditional country vein. But on the heels of his critically acclaimed self-titled 2017 record, Eady has gone fully unplugged and put his own unique, rocking stamp on the bluegrass ethos. With help from an A-list duo from the genre, he’s made his best album to date, I Travel On, released today on Old Guitar Records.
It’s a good-time record made by a man at peace with himself and the world. We chatted about being positive while staying authentic, clearing out a Croatian bar in Paris, and jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. And other stuff.
I Travel On is a distinct departure – in several ways -- from your self-titled 2017 album. That one made our top 10, but it was pretty understated and a little somber in places. Musically and thematically this record may be its polar opposite. What were your mindset and/or goals with regard to the musical approach this time?
Well, this record and the last one seem pretty different, but I think of the last record as a bridge to this one. Before the self-titled album, I’d been very electric, with lots of steel guitar – country music. Sonically, they were bigger productions – not huge, though – than the last album. On the last one we kind of pulled it back; it was more of an acoustic album. I Travel On is fully acoustic. So I think there’s a sonic thread running through to it. And I had been wanting to move that direction.
About three years ago we played a show in Bozeman, Montana. And this room is fantastic; it’s one of those places everyone plays when they go to Montana. But it is small. I don’t know the actual capacity, but I would guess 30-40 people, and it’s wider than it is deep, so there are only about four rows of chairs. And we started bringing in all our gear, but the thought of cramming all those amps in just seemed weird to me. So we grabbed all our acoustic guitars, stripped down the drum kit and played the whole set that way. And it just sounded great. So I went into the last album with that idea, and toured that way as well.
The first thing I noticed on the opening cut, “I Lost My Mind in Carolina,” was that you brought in a stud on acoustic guitar. Got a ringer on Dobro, too. Who are these guys, and what was the recording process like?
Rob Ickes (dobro) and Trey Hensley (guitar) are the two guys. And my favorite thing about this record is that it’s real and organic. Our developed the sound by touring around and playing that way, where everybody did their own natural thing. And we came up with a sound that’s sort of bluegrass on the top end and a real groove on the bottom. While we were driving around the country we listened to these guys – they’re a duo, and they are absolute studs in the bluegrass world; their very first album got nominated for a Grammy in the bluegrass category. They’re just phenomenal.
So as it came time to make this record, I wanted it to be our live band, but I didn’t want there to be overdubs. I wanted the record to sound like we’re all sitting in a room. Our lead player can do all those things, but I didn’t want overdubs. So since we had been listening to them, and I just called Trey and said, “Would you guys want to do this?” He said yes. It came from a very real place; we didn’t just say, “Who are some studio badasses we can call?” We tracked 100 percent live from top to bottom, no overdubs. Our band would work them up the night before, but we had never played them with Rob and Trey before we recorded. Everything you hear on this record is what you would have heard if you had been standing in the room while we recorded.
Yeah, I know!
There’s a real blues/bluegrass feel to the whole thing.
I would never in the world set out and try to make a pure bluegrass record, because I have way too much respect for the genre. To be in that world, you really have to live it your whole life. You can’t dabble in bluegrass. But yeah, it was a conscious thing we were going for; we’re calling it “groove grass.” We wanted to hint at bluegrass, and people will definitely hear that aspect of it, but with pure bluegrass you don’t have drums or a bass guitar. “Groove grass” sums it up, really.
I want to get into several specific songs in a minute, but something stands out on the album as a whole and I’d like to get your take on it. Brent Cobb told me a couple of years ago that it’s possible to write country or roots songs with authenticity and depth without their all being sad and depressing. I think that’s rare, but it certainly holds true for this album of yours – and to a large degree the last one. What do you think of that premise? You seem to be a pretty happy guy.
I am. And I love Brent, by the way, I think he’s one of the best artists around today. Just incredible. But he’s right. And there’s that temptation when you’re writing songs that you want to be authentic or real; they can turn out depressing. But I wanted this album to feel good. There are some points on the record where if you want to listen to words and dig into meanings – and I worked hard on the words – there’s some depth to latch onto if you want to listen to it that way. But I also wanted this to be a record that you could just put on and play and enjoy. I get that there’s a need for feel-good music, where you don’t have to just think all the time. There are plenty of examples of people – like John Prine and Paul Simon – who write great songs, but I don’t know what they mean half the time. They just feel really good. Just put it on. Move your feet. Move your head.
But Brent’s right; you have to pull yourself out of that box, because it seems like there are two extremes in country music right now. It’s either said and depressing, or it’s so fluffy, about drinking beer on the river on the weekend.
Speaking of being a “Happy Man,” there’s a song with that very title. Were you making a statement for the record with that one?
I definitely was. I just wanted to get that out there. God forbid if anything happened to me, anyone could listen to that song and know that I’m a happy person and have lived a good life, and these are the reasons why. Because when you boil it down, there’s really only a few things that make you happy: There’s friends, there’s family, there’s doing what you love and the experiences you have. Here, there are two verses with three things each that make me happy. And at the end of it, I couldn’t think of anything else. The simplicity of it was very intentional.
And the origin of it – I don’t want to drag this out but this is a funny story – was overseas last year. We went to Paris, France to play a festival and wound up in a Croatian bar right across from the Notre Dame Cathedral. We could hear music playing inside that was lively, so we went in. This was like a Tuesday night but there was a party going on, so we wandered in. The bartender asks Courtney and me what we were doing there and we told him we were musicians. He asks my name, and dials me up on Spotify, and just started playing my music randomly, however that works. And it was just like three of my most depressing songs, one after another.
Yeah, man. Cleared out the bar. Everyone went outside to smoke all at once. Killed the whole vibe of the room. I started getting depressed! And I thought, “Good gosh, if I heard this for the first time I’d think this fellow is depressed, too. This guy’s got problems.” So I wanted to get it out there, that it’s not the case. I’ve written plenty of sad songs, but that’s just something I like to do sometimes. And ironically, “Happy Man” is one of the slowest songs on the record.
About the only thing that comes close to a downer on this album is “She Had to Run,” about a woman getting out of a dangerous domestic situation. Is there a story behind that song?
Yeah, I won’t go into the details of it because it’s a very personal song, but one I needed to write. And I knew when I got ready to make this album that this song would be the outlier, but it was too important to me. I had to get that one on there. I just hope that maybe there’s one person who hears it and thinks about getting out of a situation like that.
I won’t pry into specifics, but let me ask: Does the person who inspired it know about the song?
She does. We haven’t talked about it a lot because it’s still too close, too fresh. She got out, but it was frighteningly close. It was so close that the next person who was with that guy didn’t get out.
“Always a Woman” is intriguing. Tonally, it’s dark and in a minor key – by the way, is there another chord, or just C minor?
That’s it, the whole way through.
Lyrically, it’s kind of an ironic Valentine. “There’s only one thing between the devil and a good man” is really clever, because it can mean two very different things.
Unpack that song for me.
That’s the first song I wrote for this album, and the only one where I had a title set beforehand. Courtney and I were hanging out with a friend who was having a bad time and she asked what was the matter. He kind of shrugged it off and she said, “Is it a woman?” He said, “It’s always a woman.” I wrote that down, and I sat down with my guitar and just started droning on that C minor chord. And it’s a very specific fingerpicking pattern that never stops for four minutes; if you watch me play it my fingers [on the neck] never move.
And like we were just talking about, I didn’t want to write another sad song. So I had the first verse and thought, “This song has to turn. ‘Always a woman’ doesn’t have to mean good or bad.” So musically we used some dynamics to change things up, and I tried to change that phrase from a positive to a negative as well. And I think the whole theme of the record is finding the positive in things and moving forward. And that’s why we called the album “I Travel On.” It’s about moving forward. A lot of the songs are about physically traveling; this one does it in a mental space.
And the feedback/distortion thing is a nice backbone. Nothing electric there?
No! That’s the dobro player raking across the strings, and the fiddle player doing it in some spots, muting his strings. Everybody thinks there are electric instruments on that song and there aren’t. We had a videographer come in and shoot while we were recording that song; you’ll see it when it comes out.
And I guess you had to include at least a couple waltzes to preserve domestic bliss. I take it that’s your bride singing harmony on “Below The Waterline?”
Ha. Yeah, if you hear harmonies on this album there Courtney’s. I’ve always wanted to write a bluegrass power waltz. I love those, because they make the harmonies just scream. Courtney and I wrote that one together.
I was gonna ask if she got a co-write on that one.
She got two. We wrote that one, and “Now or Never,” the second track on the album.
This is kinda random but the key of C minor on “Always a Woman” made me wonder: Do you have a favorite key, or one that you end up doing the bulk of your songs in?
I write most of my songs in D and I don’t know why. And I had originally written that song in D minor, but when we got into the studio to record we got to that point in the chorus where you go up, and I couldn’t quite hit it. And when we lowered it, it kind of came alive, got darker.
Staying with random: You recently went skydiving with your mom and daughter. What possessed y’all, and would you do it again?
That was all my mom’s idea. She had originally wanted to do that thing in Vegas where you bungee-jump off of a tower on one of the tall buildings. And later we were together at Christmas and she said something about skydiving, and my daughter wanted to do it with her. So I bought it for my daughter, but every time they tried to go the weather was bad, then my daughter went off to college. She was home a few weeks ago and the weather was perfect. And on the drive over I thought, “When am I ever gonna get to do this again? All three generations are here. This is once in a lifetime.”
Tell me about the moment before you went out the door of the airplane.
It’s the most terrifying and exhilarating thing. On the way up it’s in your head what’s gonna happen, but it’s just indescribable, the way you feel standing in that door. If you’re not afraid looking out, you’re not human. There’s nothing about it that’s natural or normal. You have to try and get it out of your head, and trust the person who’s strapped to your back.
That was the worst moment, because we did a high jump. We were at 14,000 feet. I loved it. But there’s really no way in the world to use words to describe what it feels like.
Would you do it again?
You know, when I first did it I said there was no way – I was glad I did it but wouldn’t do it again. But there are times I find myself thinking about it. I don’t think I’d go out of my way to, but if somebody said, “You wanna go do this,” I think I probably would.
Y’all are doing something kinda neat, a sightseeing, musical bus tour of Switzerland with 40 fans. I’m familiar with musical cruises; is this something y’all came up with, or have others done it?
Courtney and I have gone to Switzerland five years in a row, I think. We have a promoter over there and we love it there. And you can drive from one corner of the country to the other in five hours. But we did something like this last year, with Reckless Kelly and toured Ireland. We were their guests And Courtney and I decided we had to do this in Switzerland. So it’s seven nights and five shows, and we’re personally putting it together, where we’re gonna stay and eat and the venues we’ll play. The response has been great. We’re really excited about it.
I Travel On is out today.