Where He’s Been: A conversation with Jason Eady
By Kevin Broughton
The word comes up often with Jason Eady. His songwriting process, the way someone plays pedal steel, the setup in a recording studio; he tags all with this adjective that can mean anything from farming without pesticides to a really hard chemistry class focused on carbon. One gets the feeling, though, that Eady is using either the “having systematic coordination of parts” or “forming an integral element of a whole portraitures” usages.
His sixth and self-titled album is being released today on 30 Tigers. His three-year layoff from the studio (since 2014's Daylight & Dark), overlapped with his easing into a fifth decade, produced a simpler, subtler Eady sound. Unplugged. Laid back. Smart. Organic.
The album’s first single, “Barabbas,” has been widely circulated and critically praised already. Such an ancient name – that of he who received clemency while the Savior bore the sins of the world – certainly raises an eyebrow. I heard the judge ask the jury, which one’s the one to go? Then I heard them say my name, and why I’ll never know. So begins a lilting, introspective look at how fallen humans deal with guilt, forgiveness and redemption. Powerful in its humility and simplicity, it sets the tone for an album so beautifully understated that it’s the best record to date in 2017.
There’s a lot of flavor: bluegrass (“Drive”); story songs (“Black Jesus” and “Why I Left Atlanta”); and a poignant tune about the backside of cheating, “Where I’ve Been.” There’s a love letter to his daughter, and a reflection of turning the big four-oh. What’s missing? A mediocre cut. No throwaways here.
We caught up with the Mississippian-to-Texan, fresh off a jaunt to the Emerald Isle, and talked about how to write a waltz, tag-team songwriting, and re-immersing in the Arabic language.
You’re just off the road from a mini-tour in Ireland. A lot of roots/ Americana artists seem to have strong followings in Europe, Ireland and the U.K., while they might struggle to build an audience stateside. Why do you suppose that is?
Yeah, man, I’ve 100 percent noticed that. My wife, Courtney [Patton], and I have been going over there for several years. And before this time we had never taken a band, it was just these small acoustic tours.
But we noticed that exact thing, and we’ve talked about it. I think one thing is they just love roots music there; they just appreciate the authenticity of it. They like that sound coming from the States, especially from Texas and the South. So I definitely think that’s part of it.
Another thing I’ve noticed: I think – in Europe, where not everybody speaks English – harmony tends to be a big thing there. It sounds good to them even if they don’t know the language. And unlike in the United States, that’s all they can latch onto.
Help me fill in a couple holes in the bio your publicist sent me. It says you grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. But I was a resident of the 6-0-1 for 20 years, and I’m thinking Rankin County. In broad strokes, tell me about your upbringing, and where you went to high school.
That’s exactly right. I went to Florence High School. But yeah, I grew up with that Southern music, and it’s a huge asset. Because it’s not like anybody had to sit me down and say, “You have to listen to this much blues music, and this much Southern rock and this much country.” All of it was there, and none of it was compartmentalized.
Whether it was church on Sunday, or a street festival in Jackson on a Saturday afternoon, music was always around. My dad was in a bluegrass band, and on Tuesday nights he’d have a bunch of those guys over, and they’d sit around in a big song circle and play old country and bluegrass songs. They had a songbook with all the chords in them -- I’d give anything to still have that book today. But they’d sit around and play -- I was probably 12 or 13 at the time – and when they left, my dad would hang his Martin up on the wall. And I would sneak in and grab that guitar and the songbook, and sit in my room for hours trying to figure all those songs out.
So that was the beginning, and before long I was playing in a little band in Puckett (Mississippi, population 354 in the 2000 census). This guy had a gig in his garage every Friday night – he had a PA and everything – and so I’d be right there with them, playing these old songs. I was 15 maybe, just starting to drive, and before I knew it I was playing in honky tonks around Jackson. My dad had to go with me so I could get in.
I’d like to know what you did in the Air Force, how long you were in, and how you got from it to full-time Texas musician. And how old a boy are ya’?
Ha. I’m 42. I had gone to Nashville to try and do the whole singer-songwriter thing when I was 19. One day I got really frustrated with the whole thing. And I realized that I just wasn’t ready. I was always into the “songwriter” thing, wanting to be taken seriously as a songwriter. Then I got up there and realized how good those people were, and that I just wasn’t there yet. So I thought I needed to get out and see some things, get out and find some things to write about and see the world. So sort of on a whim one day, I joined the Air Force and ended up going to school to learn Arabic.
Wow. You were military intelligence?
I was, yeah. That was my job.
I was in for six years. Went in in ’94 and got out in 2000. I moved back to Mississippi and had put the whole music thing behind me. I worked a job there for a couple of years and then the boss opened a second office over in Ft. Worth, and he sent me out there. I hadn’t played a show since before the Air Force; I had given it up and gotten married and had a kid. I thought, “Those days are gone. I didn’t do it, I missed that opportunity so I’m moving on.”
And after a while, I started to go out and play open mics just for fun. I needed a hobby. I had never quit writing songs, though, so I’d do some covers then throw in a couple of mine.
Now there’s one thing about Texas more than any other place I’ve seen: They want you to play your own songs. If you don’t, they kinda wonder what’s wrong with you.
Anybody can do covers.
Right! So it just kinda took off; it got to the point where I was starting to get gigs. I wasn’t asking for it, but I surely liked it. I was doing my own thing, and after about six months I started coming in late to work and…well, I turned 30, that’s what it was. I decided if I was gonna do it, that was the time, so I quit my job and make a go of it. Been doing it ever since, so 12 years now.
|Courtney Patton and Jason Eady|
Listening to your self-titled album – and in particular the opening cut, which we’re fixin’ to get to, I promise – I kept asking, “Who is this girl with the angelic harmonies?” Turns out her name is Courtney Patton, and y’all are married. Furthermore, y’all released an album of duets in December called Something Together.* What kind of songwriting dynamic was that, as it appears each of y’all brought some songs to the table? Mechanically and logistically, how did that work?
We met each other musically seven or eight years ago. We’d played shows together but sort of lost touch because Courtney quit music for a while; we ended up reconnecting about five years ago. Coincidentally, we were both divorced. We’d get together and play songs and write songs. We were friends for a long time before, so it worked out great.
We don’t write as much together as people might think. She still writes with a lot of other people, as do I. And I tend to write more on the road, while she writes a lot when she’s home alone. But we figured if people want to hear what we sound like together at live shows, let’s give them what they want.
We did Something Together in the studio in a day – about four hours, really, with some really good microphones. It was some of her songs and some of mine. But one day we’re gonna sit down and write a duets album together, like George and Tammy.
I can’t wait. Let’s get to your current record.
NPR took a liking to “Barabbas,” and you said the song was about reacting to guilt. I wonder, pop culture-wise, if yours is the first stab at his character since Anthony Quinn played him in a movie…
Yep, Quinn played Barabbas in 1961. But I’m curious about co-writing a song with three other guys (Larry Hooper, Adam Hood, Josh Grider.) What was that division of labor like? Did somebody have the original name, or concept, or what?
Yeah, that’s pretty much what happened. Larry Hooper – who’s a great songwriter out of Texas – had the lyrics to the first verse and the chorus written out. And he had the whole idea of doing a song about Jesus and Barabbas, from the latter’s point of view. That was 100% him. And I took it and gave it a melody and wrote the third verse.
I knew it still needed something, and just happened to be playing a show with Adam Hood. And he grabbed Josh Grider, and things just kinda went from there. So, it wasn’t one of those deals where four guys sat in a room and crafted a song together, which is really cool. Sometimes when there’s a group setting, you can tend to compromise a little. With this type of writing, everybody gets more of his contribution put cleanly into it.
So that’s where it came from. And we were very careful, very intentional about not – in the lyrics – not mentioning his name or Jesus’s name or the time period. We wanted all that to come from the title, so it could be a universal song
You’ve said that as you’ve matured as an artist and a songwriter, “The real joy comes from the process, rather than the end goal.” Expand a little bit on that, and if you can, give an example from this new album.
I guess what I mean is writing for the artistic part of it. For the art itself, and not writing with the idea that you need this many radio singles, or this many ballads or this many up-tempo songs. Because I’ve done that on previous albums; in the back of my mind, it’s been, “I’ve gotta have at least one radio song.”
Over the years, I’ve found that whenever I think or anticipate like that, I’m almost always wrong. So planning things out like that is a futile exercise, and I’ve had more success with songs that I didn’t think anyone would respond to. And I’ve learned by now that if it’s a song that I like and feels natural and it’s going down well in the studio…and if it comes from an authentic place, I just have to trust in that, because it’s usually gonna translate.
Speaking of the process…listening to Something Together, there are several songs in ¾ time, some real pretty waltzes. This is kinda random and it’s never occurred to me before, but do you (or does anyone) sit down and say, “this is gonna be in ¾,” then write accordingly? Structurally, the phrasing is gonna be different; but do you hear it in your head first, and just let the words follow?
I think everybody’s different, so I can’t presume to speak for anyone else. For me, whenever I write, I sit down and just start playing guitar. Someday it might be bluesy, or country, or folky, but I just start strumming. And things either start happening or they don’t; I’ll have ideas jotted down, but it’s not very rigid. I don’t say, “Today I’m gonna write a song in ¾ time.” It’s a lot more organic than that.
So that’s where it starts, and then it just becomes what it becomes. And usually – I’ve found with all my songwriting – the faster and more effortlessly a song comes out, the better. I try not to overthink it.
You’ve got some pretty heavy hitters on this record. Let me just throw a couple names out, and you tell me how you got them there. First, Lloyd Maines plays a bunch of instruments; how did that work?
Yeah. Lloyd played on my A.M. Country Heaven album, and I’ve known him for years. You can’t play in Texas and not know of Lloyd Maines; he’s so central to this thing out here. I knew I wanted him on this album because I love the way he plays Dobro. And I also knew that steel was gonna be the only electric instrument on this album. So I knew it had to be someone who came at steel from a very organic place, and didn’t use a lot of pedals and a lot of effects. And I even told him, “I don’t want much reverb; just do your Lloyd thing.”
And of course, he nailed it. He did exactly what we were hoping he’d do.
And oh by the way, Vince Gill sings harmony on “No Genie in This Bottle.” He’s no slouch. How’d you manage that one?
Most of these people on the album are on it because of Kevin Welch. Kevin’s the producer and he knows all these folks. He spent a lot of time on the road with Vince, and I don’t know if he ever recorded one of Kevin’s songs, but they were together a lot during that whole thing during the 80s and 90s. And there’s an Austin City Limits episode out there where Kevin’s in the background, playing rhythm guitar for Vince.
So they’re good buddies, and while we were putting this record together, I just brought up Vince’s name and that I loved his harmonies. Kevin said, “Well, let me call him and see if he wants to do something.” And we sent him a couple of songs to see if he was interested, and if so, to pick one. And that’s the one he picked, and of course he just nailed it.
Did y’all do it live?
We did not. Unfortunately I’ve still not met Vince; I’m hoping to. But we did it the way a lot of records are made these days: We sent him the files and he just did his vocals and sent it back. But man, I’m hoping to. I’d love to do another song with Vince someday.
This makes how many albums for you?
This is my sixth, not counting the one with Courtney.
Then I think we should say seventh. Why a self-titled record now?
Because you only get one shot at it. I always said that one day I was gonna write a really personal album. I wanted to write most of the songs on it myself, and was going to make it about my personal story, something very authentic. And that’s definitely what this album is. There’s a song about my daughter. There’s a song about turning 40.
I’ve done a lot of different things over the years: songs made for Texas radio, songs that were bluesey-er. The last one was much more traditionally country. On this one, I tried to bring all those things together. Here’s everything that I do, all put together. And once I realized that I’d done that, I knew this was the time to make it self-titled.
Before we get out of here, I want to circle back to your time in the service and what you did, if that’s okay. You were military intelligence, Arabic-trained and got out not long before 9/11. Did you “what if” for a while, and do you pay attention to the news with a special perspective?
Yes, I got out a year before 9/11. It was a strange time for me because all that was still felt very fresh, and I knew that all of my friends who were still enlisted were about to have their whole lives changed. A part of me felt pretty guilty about that. And I definitely watch the news differently now than I did before I went in. I got a world perspective during my Air Force time, and especially being in intel, got to understand a lot of background about what goes on in the world. Once you see things from that perspective it's hard to go back. I still keep up with the news daily.
Did you choose Arabic, or did the Air Force choose it for you?
I didn't choose it. I went in to be a linguist but they picked the language. ** It wasn't something that I would have ever chosen, but looking back I'm really glad that it worked out that way. I learned a lot about that culture and it opened my eyes to a lot of things in that part of the world. That never would have happened without my time in the Air Force.
I’ve read that career diplomats assigned to that part of the world tend to fall in love with the Arabic language. Apparently there are so many words that can’t be translated to English with any sort of simplicity.
I love it. It's a pretty incredible language. They say that the language you speak plays a part in the way you think. I can see that. They do have words that would take us whole sentences to translate. My daughter is studying Arabic in college right now so I'm getting to get back into it by helping her. I'm having to brush up on it, and am remembering how much I like it.
Eady and I ended up swapping book recommendations, as we’re both fascinated by history and foreign policy. One he suggested is a real keeper, if you’re into that stuff: Prisoners of Geography – Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World. I heartily endorse his endorsement.
Just in case, you know, you wondered if this guy might be a thinking man’s songwriter.
* This record was released with little fanfare in December 2016. It would have otherwise made my Top 10 list in the FTM critics’ poll.