Eilen Jewell

TrackAlbum
Fourth DegreeBoundary County
Dusty Boxcar WallLetters From Sinners & Strangers
Where They Never Say Your NameLetters From Sinners & Strangers
Rain Roll InSea Of Tears
Codeine ArmsSea Of Tears
Santa FeQueen Of The Minor Key
Worried MindSundown Over Ghost Town
SongbirdSundown Over Ghost Town
It's Your Voodoo WorkingDown Hearted Blues
You Cared Enough To LieGypsy

Eilen Jewll photo

 

 

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Eilen Jewell playlist

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

It was a gig we had been looking forward to for quite a while. We were going to see one of the very best songwriters around these days, whose previous two albums had been remarkable for their quality. As expected, he proved to be just as good live as his recorded work had suggested. But the real revelation of that night was not Jason Isbell’s performance, which was excellent, but that by the supporting act.

Eilen Jewell proved to the best such act I had seen since Martin Stephenson and the Daintees opened for John Martyn at a concert in Oxford in 1986. What struck most was not just the high quality of her song writing but also the superlative musicianship of her band. All of them were outstanding, but her guitar player, Jerry Miller (to avoid confusion he is not the same person as the Jerry Miller who was a member of Moby Grape) stood out for his technical skills and musical versatility. He was the perfect foil for Jewell’s finely crafted songs and her blend of classic country, rockabilly (he occasionally reminded me of James Burton, high praise indeed in my book) and jazz. One song particularly impressed me that night, which we will get to later in the piece. So …

… who is Eilen Jewell? She was born in Boise, Idaho, which could not really be described as a hotspot for American musicians – although I might stand to be corrected. After studying music at St John’s College, Santa Fe (where she also busked occasionally) she moved on to Boston where she graduated to playing at local folk clubs. Over time she acquired a band there which included her now-husband, Jason Beek, on drums, Johnny Sciascia on double bass and Jerry Miller on guitar. This line-up has remained consistent through much of her career as have the influences which underpin her music. These include great country female country artists like Loretta Lynn (she made a tribute album to her, Butcher Holler, in 2010) and Emmylou Harris, She was also a fan of early female rockabilly singers like Wanda Jackson and of gospel singers such as Mavis Staples. Her tastes also ran to jazz and especially to the singing of Billie Holiday. Other major inspirations for her style of song writing were artists like the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Lucinda Williams, John Fogerty and Bob Dylan. This taste for classic song writing did give her music a strongly ‘retro’ feel. However, it is far more than an amalgamation of other people’s styles. Jewell instead created her own synthesis centred on her very distinctive voice (in both senses of that word).

This individual style was apparent from the release of her fine debut album, Boundary County, in 2005. It introduced her trademark combination of styles and her impeccable taste in both her arrangements and in her choice of backing musicians. Jerry Miller’s deft guitar playing is another main highlight of the album. It is particularly outstanding on my selection from it, Fourth Degree. Like many of Jewell’s love songs there is an astringency to her delivery which creates a nice tension with the romantic character of her lyrics. Her singing here also has a jazz edge to it, which is reminiscent at times of someone like Peggy Lee.

My next two selections come from her second album Letters From Sinners & Strangers. Dusty Boxcar Wall, is a brilliant cover of an early Eric Andersen song. Jewell has described it as her favourite ‘train song’ and it is one of the very best ones. Like all the finest covers, however, Jewell makes the song very much her own. Here’s a superb live performance which showcases the excellence of her band:

By contrast, Where They Never Say Your Name is a beautifully moody showcase for Jewell’s superb voice (see live clip at the end). Like Hank Williams and John Prine, her songs sometimes have a deceptive simplicity, which means that their subtleties and layers of meaning only become apparent with repeated listenings.

Rain Roll In, from 2009 album Sea Of Tears, is one of these songs, which manages to convey a rather bleak message behind a beautiful melody (see live clip at the end). Jerry again adds some typical tasteful licks which enhance the song without drawing attention away from its message. From the same album, Codeine Arms has a similar dark undercurrent, which reminds me at times of some of Hank Williams’ bleak late songs.

The song that really knocked me out when we saw Eilen, however, is the next choice, Santa Fe, from Queen Of The Minor Key. For me at least, this is close to being a perfect song. It achieves almost that seamless marriage between music and words which is the hallmark of such songs. A live performance of it is here –

The next two come from Eilen’s 2015 album, Sundown Over Ghost Town. Worried Mind is a very different type of song, a beautifully melodic one which celebrates what could best be described as ‘mature love’. Songbird, in contrast, shows the folkier side of her work and would not have been out of place in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.

The Down Hearted Blues album released in 2017 was a tribute to some of Jewell’s favourite blues artists. These included great songwriters like Willie Dixon and some of the best early female performers like Memphis Minnie, and from the sixties, Betty James. My pick from the album is her cover of Charles Sheffield’s It’s Your Voodoo Working. I’m afraid I might be straying into Dave Stephens’ territory here as it was originally released on Excello Records in 1961. Like many other Excello records the song has, in Jewell’s words, “a swampy, Southern edge to it”. Eilen’s version (see below) has a brighter, breezier quality than Sheffield’s much grittier one. However, both are equally excellent in their very different ways.

My final selection is another superb cover, this time of a song by the excellent Idahoan songwriter, Pinto Bennett. He is one of the finest honky-tonk performers of recent times but is far too little known. You Cared Enough to Lie is a classic in that genre, which Jewell interprets brilliantly on her most recent album, Gypsy. For comparison’s sake here is here is Bennett’s original recording.

To sum up then, if you like literate, intelligent, meticulously crafted country/ folk/ jazz/ blues music performed by musicians of the highest calibre then, if you are not listening to Eilen Jewell already, you should begin doing so immediately. And the additional selling point here – if one is needed – is that in Jerry Miller you will get to hear one of the very finest contemporary guitarists at the same time.

 

Eilen Jewell photo 2

Eilen Jewell Band (l to r): Jason Beek, Eilen Jewell, Johnny Sciascia, Jerry Miller

 

 

Eilen Jewell performs ‘Where They Never Say Your Name’ on Acoustic Sunrise with Anne Williams on WNRN in September 2008.

 

Eilen Jewell Band at Threadgill’s in Austin, Texas during SXSW 2009 performing ‘Rain Roll In’.

 

The band play ‘Worried Mind’ on nationally syndicated eTown Radio.

 

‘It’s Your Voodoo Working’ official video.

 

Eilen Jewell Band performing ‘Rich Man’s World’ outside of Bitterzoet, Amsterdam – Paradiso’s Sugar Mountain concert series September 2016.

 

“Songs of empathy, sensuality, and humor, songs that help convey a full range of human feeling; pleasure sits alongside protest, which is perhaps as sensible a way to live in 2019 as anything else. As impressive as these textured emotions are, Gypsy succeeds as a record because of Jewell’s facility with roots music…and that skill is what ties the disparate Gypsy together, making it sound fully realized and easy, which is a pretty alluring combination.” Stephen Thomas Erlewine, AllMusic

 

Eilen Jewell official website

Eilen Jewell bandcamp

Eilen Jewell on Signature Sounds record label

Post to Wire interview 2018

Eilen Jewell’s 7th Australian tour (2020)

Eilen Jewell biography (AllMusic)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs ….

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1 Comment

  1. David Lewis
    Sep 22, 2020

    Great list. I just want to point out the superb band again. They are really terrific.

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