Fri, Aug 24
Sat, Aug 25
Red Brick Roads 2018
John Paul White, Bonnie Bishop, Devon Gilfillian, Jarekus Singleton, Liza Anne, Small Pools, The Dip, The Josephines, Travis Meadows
300 Jefferson St
Doors 6:00 PM / Show 7:00 PM
John Paul White
It’s a small, complicated word with a tangle of
meanings. It’s the title of John Paul White’s new album, his first in
nearly a decade, a remarkably and assuredly diverse
collection spanning plaintive folk balladry, swampy
southern rock, lonesome campfire songs, and dark acoustic pop. Gothic and ambitious, with a rustic, lived-in sound, it’s a meditation on love curdling into its opposite, on recrimination defining relationships, on hope finally filtering through doubt.
Beulah is also a White family nickname. “It’s a term of endearment
around our house,” White explains, “like you would call someone
‘Honey.’ My dad used to call my little sister Beulah, and I call my
daughter Beulah. It’s something I’ve always been around.”
Beulah is also something much loftier. For the poet and painter William Blake, Beulah was a place deep in the collective spiritual unconscious. “I won’t pretend to be the smartest guy in the world,” says White, “but I dig a lot of what he’s written. Beulah was a place you could go in your dreams. You could go there in meditation, to relax and heal and yourself. It wasn’t a place you could stay, but you came back to the world in a better state.” And perhaps the music on this album originated in that “pleasant lovely Shadow where no dispute can come.” According to White, the songs came to him unbidden—and not entirely
welcome. “When these songs started popping into my head, I had been home for a while and I was perfectly happy. I wasn’t looking for songs. I didn’t know whether any would pop back in
my head again, and I was honestly okay with that. I’m a very happy father and husband, and I love where I live. I love working with artists for a label that I think is doing good work.”
Far from the grind and glamour of Nashville—where he worked for years as a working songwriter before stepping into the spotlight himself—White settled in his hometown of Muscle
Shoals, Alabama, a wellspring of gritty Southern rock and soul since the 1960s. Together withAlabama Shakes keyboard player Ben Tanner and Shoals native Will Trapp, he founded and runs
Single Lock Records, a local indie label that has released records by some of the Yellowhammer State’s finest, including Dylan LeBlanc, St. Paul & the Broken Bones, and legendary songwriter
and keyboard player Donnie Fritts. The label is based in a small ranch house a stone’s throw from White’s own home, which would come in handy when those songs started invading his
head. “Honestly, I tried to avoid them, but then I realized the only way I was going to get rid of them was if I wrote them down. I got my phone out and I’d sing these little bits of melody, then put it
away and move on. But eventually I got to a place where it was a roar in my head, and that pissed me off.” Due to his experiences as a gun-for-hire in Nashville, White was reluctant to romanticize the creative process, to turn it into a spiritual pursuit. “Then one day I told my wife I think I’m going to go write a song. She was as surprised as I was. I went and wrote probably eight songs in three days. It was like turning on a faucet.” Most artists would kill for such a downpour, but White was wary of the consequences. He knew that writing songs would lead to recording them, which would result in releasing them, and that means touring and leaving home for weeks at a time. “As soon as I write a song, I start thinking what other people might think of it. I’ve talked to friends about this: What is it about us that makes us do that? Why can’t I just sit on my back porch and sing these songs out into the ether? I don’t have an answer for it yet, but I think it’s just part of who I am. I need that reaction. I need to feel like I’m moving someone in a good way or in a bad way. I need to feel like there’s a connection.” White threw himself into the project, no longer the reluctant songwriter but a craftsman determined to make the best album possible—to do these songs justice. He cut several songs at the renowned FAME Studios in his hometown, where Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Allmans, the Osmonds, Bobbie Gentry, Arthur Conley, and Clarence Carter recorded some of their most popular hits. One product of those sessions is “What’s So,” which introduces itself by way of a fire-andbrimstone
riff, as heavy as a guilty conscience—the kind of riff you wouldn’t be surprised to hear on a Sabbath album. But White’s vocals are gritty and soulful, a product of the Shoals, almost preacherly as he sings about earthly and eternal damnation: “Sell your damn soul or getright with the man, keep treading water as long as you can,” he exhorts the listener. “But before
you do, you must understand that you don’t get above your raisin’.” It’s the heaviest moment on
the record, perhaps the darkest in White’s career.
At the other end of the spectrum is “The Martyr,” one of the catchiest tunes White has ever
penned. The spryness of the melody imagines Elliott Smith wandering the banks of the
Tennessee River, yet the song is shot through with a pervasive melancholy as White wrestles
with his own demons. “Keep falling on your sword, sink down a little more,” he sings over a
dexterous acoustic guitar theme. This is not, however, a song about some unnamed person, but
rather a pained self-diagnosis: “These are the wounds that I will not let heal, the ones that I
deserve and seem so real.” White knows he’s playing the martyr, but he leaves the song
hauntingly open-ended, as though he isn’t sure what to do with this epiphany beyond putting it in
a song. The rest of Beulah was recorded in the Single Lock offices/studio near White’s home. “I can be
more relaxed about the process. We can all just sit there and talk about records or baseball without feeling like someone’s standing over our shoulders. That’s a big deal to me, not to feel
pressured. And I’m only about twenty yards away from home, so I can walk over and throw a baseball with my kids or make dinner with my wife.” Some of the quieter—but no less intense—songs on Beulah were created in that environment,
including the ominously erotic opener “Black Leaf” and the Southern gothic love song “Make You Cry.” As he worked, a distinctive and intriguing aesthetic began to grow clearer and clearer, one based in austere arrangements and plaintive moods. These are songs with empty spaces in them, dark corners that could hold ghosts or worse. “There were certain moments when Ben and I would finish up a song, listen back to it, and think how in the world did we get here. But that’s just what the songs ask for. These are the sounds in my head. This is the sound of me thinking
and living and breathing and doing.” Once White had everything assembled and sequenced, it was time to give the album a title, to
wrap everything up for the listener. Beulah stuck—not only because of family history or Blake, but because White realized that making music was his own trip to Beulah. “If you had to sum up what music is for most people in this world, it’s that. It’s that escape. It’s that refuge. You go there and you come back and you use that to help you with your life. You always have that as a
place to go.
Singer-songwriter Bonnie Bishop and producer Dave Cobb had almost finished recording her 2016 album, Ain’t Who I Was, when Cobb’s cousin Brent burst into the studio with a just-written tune he wanted them to hear. As soon as he and co-writer Adam Hood began playing it, Bishop had a “Killing Me Softly” moment, as if their fingers were strumming her fate — or at least, her manifesto.
In what became the album’s title track, she sings Lord I’m finally proud of who I am now/Thank God it ain’t who I was, her soulful, Dusty-ish voice simultaneously mingling the weariness of struggle, the relief of confession and the power of renewed hope.
Turns out that optimism was well placed; Ain’t Who I Was has earned Bishop the best reviews of her career. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Billboard and Rolling Stone offered praise; the Nashville Scene called it brilliant, noting, “A gifted songwriter and a powerhouse singer, her voice booms with the force of a Texas straight-line squall.” American Songwriter observed, “Her vocals mix the Southern sass of Shelby Lynne with the guts of Susan Tedeschi, leaving room for a fair amount of Bonnie Raitt-styled grit and gumption.” No Depression asserted, “If we can go ahead and choose the BEST album of the year, it's clearly Bonnie Bishop's.” Lonestar Music magazine added, “Bonnie’s brilliant voice makes this gut-punching record a seamless triumph.” And in her childhood hometown, the Houston Press anointed her as the “new queen of country soul.”
That recognition has opened several other doors for Bishop, among them singing on preacher’s son Paul Thorn’s knockout gospel album, Don’t Let the Devil Ride (tracked at Memphis’ legendary Sam Phillips Recording), then joining Thorn on tour, and undertaking her first — and second — Scandinavian tours, plus her first official U.K. trek to coincide with the album’s release there. She also performed on the 2017 Cayamo cruise, and is booked again for 2019.
But scoring the perfect album title track to accompany her six co-writes and three other covers, and working with Nashville’s hottest producer — who helped Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell become award-winning chart toppers — were just two of several fortuitous developments for a woman whose life and career have had more twists than a tornado. The fact that Ain’t Who I Was exists at all is a testament to Bishop’s courage, because doing it represented a huge leap of faith — one she thought she’d never take again before meeting Cobb.
By then, Bishop had spent 13 years on the road, doing all the heavy lifting herself. After five albums, one failed marriage and too many years of not making ends meet, she’d decided to give up — despite earning Grammy and New York Times Song of the Year recognition for co-writing “Not Cause I Wanted To,” which Bonnie Raitt covered on her comeback album, Slipstream. Bishop also had witnessed actor Connie Britton perform another of her tunes, “The Best Songs Come From Broken Hearts,” on the hit TV show Nashville.
At the time, Bishop was living in the show’s namesake city. But she packed her possessions and retreated to her parents’ ranch in Wimberley, Texas, to lick her wounds, mourn her dead dreams and figure out what to do next. For therapy, she began writing stories.
“I started seeing these threads connecting through them in a way that allowed me to celebrate what I had done, instead of beating myself up for having failed,” Bishop explains. “I thought maybe I could make a career doing that. So I applied to graduate school.”
But before she headed back to Texas, she called Thirty Tigers co-founder David Macias, a friend. Macias, whose multi-faceted entertainment company handles Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, Simpson and Isbell (whose Cobb-produced album won 2015’s Best Americana Album Grammy), told her not to give up.
“You just need to make a great record with a real producer,” he said. Then he put her in touch with Cobb — who was in the midst of producing what became Stapleton’s (and Cobb’s) Grammy winning album, Traveller. After hearing her demos, he told her she should be singing soul, not country, and that he was looking to make an album with a soul singer. Her.
During Bishop’s childhood years in Houston, her mom made sure she got familiar with the Motown sound. After her mom married Bishop’s stepfather, football coach Jackie Sherrill, the family moved to Mississippi so he could turn around Mississippi State’s football program.
She spent fall Saturdays on stadium sidelines, dodging linebackers while toting Sherill’s headset cord, helping him achieve what still stands as the best record in MSU history.
During the week, she attended public school and learned how to sing with soul from the girls in choir class, where, unlike Texas, she was a racial minority.
“There’s a lot of Mississippi in me. It’s definitely where learned that I had a voice; it’s also where I found that soulful groove,” Bishop says.
But she’d never fully tapped her soul side, and found the prospect daunting. After an 18-month break from performing, during which she’d finally made peace with her decision and started graduate school, she reflects, “I had doubts about whether or not I could still even sing.”
Despite that fear, and the danger of further heartbreak if she failed, she placed her faith in Cobb and gingerly rekindled a flickering flame of hope.
When Macias heard the tracks she’d recorded, he financed the entire album.
Though enduring what amounted to a break-up with her old identity was painful, Bishop is glad she went through it, because coming out the other side has been nothing short of a rebirth. It’s made her more appreciative of her current success — which includes her namesake fan recording another Bishop tune, “Undone,” on 2016’s Dig in Deep. She’s also performed at the 30A Songwriters Festival, AmericanaFest and other prestigious gatherings, occasionally singing with gospel mavens the McCrary Sisters and other roots music luminaries. She’s also been busy with a variety of new projects since settling in to her new home in Fort Worth, Texas.
One of them is The House Sessions, a just-for-fans album mixing acoustic versions of songs from her early catalog with a few never-before-released tracks.
“I wanted to put new versions out there for super fans who loved me before any of the success from Ain’t Who I Was — the fans who have been there from the beginning who love those songs and ask for them all the time,” she says. It’s also an effort to re-embrace her early career, a time when, by Nashville standards, she was a failure.
But as Nashville’s establishment — and legions of roots music fans — are now well aware, she ain’t who she was. In fact, the self-described “singer/songwriter/storyteller” has not only spun that “failure” into success she couldn’t fathom just a few years ago, she’s vastly expanded her creative pursuits. Bishop’s website features Story and Song, a series of writings about various songs accompanied by video vignettes; she’s also posted Let’s Talk About Bonnie, a beautifully designed and illustrated, printable online book of candid career anecdotes and insights. Bishop is also resuming summer-session graduate studies at Sewanee, and is working on a book about her renowned stepfather, who retired in 2002 after a 30 years as a head coach at Pitt, Texas A&M and Mississippi State.
“I learned so much from him about perseverance — how to get back up after you get knocked down; how to chase a dream — all the things I would need to know to survive the music business,” she says with a laugh.
And yes, Bishop is preparing to record a follow-up to her life-changing 2016 album. She already has a title: The Walk. Like Ain’t Who I Was, it will be full of soul. And truth.
Devon Gilfillian fires twin barrels of gospel-blues and southern soul on his debut EP. Fueled by groove, guitar, and the powerful punch of Gilfillian's voice, the songs shine a light on a young songwriter who grew up outside of Philadelphia, absorbing everything from the R&B swagger of Al Green and Ray Charles to the rock & roll heroics of Jimi Hendrix. Now based in Nashville, Gilfillian puts a personalized stamp on those childhood influences, rolling them into five original songs that showcase not only his songwriting and singing, but also his talent as an instrumentalist.
Raised by a musical family, Gilfillian grew up singing. He took up the electric guitar at 14 years old, kickstarting a fascination with classic rock and other sounds from an older generation. By the time college rolled around, Gilfillian was playing three-hour shows in a local cover band, performing songs by the Meters one minute and the Beatles the next. The gigs allowed him to explore the full range of his influences, but Gilfillian wanted to play his own music, too. With that in mind, he moved to Nashville, eager to chase down his own muse.
Released in May 2016, the self-titled Devon Gilfillian finds him stepping into the spotlight as a solo artist. He recorded the songs with a small group of friends and collaborators, tapping drummer Jonathan Smalt and slide guitarist Jesse Thompson as co-producers. Equal parts swampy, funky, and enthralling, the record finds Gilfillian planting one foot in the classic sound of his influences, with the other foot pointing somewhere new and uncharted. After all, he's no revivalist. No nostalgia act. No retro wannabe. Instead, Gilfillian is a classic artist for the modern age, discovering new life in soulful sounds that have been making people dance for decades.
“A great, new blues talent…young, original, soulful and intense…superb, blistering guitar” –BLUES & RHYTHM
“Jarekus Singleton is making some serious blues noise...blending modern-day blues and emotionally intense soul with melodic, hot-toned lead guitar, funk-seasoned rhythms and hip-hop flavored lyrics” –LIVING BLUES
Stinging blues guitar and potent, original songs herald the emergence of a major new talent. - USA TODAY
Jarekus Singleton is one of the most exciting blues guitars to come along in years.....Boundless enthusiasm.....Singleton shoots super-heated notes through the chords with an emotional directness and a musical spirit that's all his own. - DOWNBEAT
At just 30 years old, Jarekus Singleton is a musical trailblazer with a bold vision for the future of the blues. Springing from the same Mississippi soil as Charley Patton, Muddy Waters and B.B. King, Singleton’s cutting-edge sound—equally rooted in rap, rock and blues traditions—is all his own. He melds hip-hop wordplay, rock energy and R&B grooves with contemporary and traditional blues, turning audiences of all ages into devoted fans. With his untamed guitar licks and strong, soulful voice effortlessly moving from ferocious and funky to slow and steamy to smoking hot, Singleton is a fresh, electrifying bluesman bursting at the seams with talent.
Singleton's Alligator debut, Refuse To Lose, features a scintillating guitar attack and lyrically startling original songs all sung with a natural storyteller’s voice. Produced by Singleton along with Alligator Records president Bruce Iglauer and recorded at PM Music in Memphis, the album is an impossible-to-ignore first step onto the world stage. With songs telling real life, streetwise (sometimes funny) stories brimming with surprising images, pop culture references, infectious rhythms and unexpected musical twists, Refuse To Lose unleashes a new wave of blues for a new generation of fans. Jarekus Singleton has been tearing up clubs and festivals across the US and Canada and has performed twice at the world-renowned Chicago Blues Festival. With the addition of high-visibility performances including Springing The Blues Festival, Biscuits & Blues in San Francisco, The North Atlantic Blues Festival, The PA Blues Festival, The Mississippi Valley Blues Festival, Heritage Music Blues Festival, The Cincinnati Blues Festival, The Festival International du Blues, Mont-Tremblant, Quebec and many more, Singleton is on the cusp of international stardom.
Born into a family of church musicians and vocalists on July 11, 1984 in Clinton, Mississippi, Jarekus Singleton was immersed in gospel music as a child. Taught by his uncle, Jarekus began playing bass guitar at age nine in his grandfather's church band. He later switched to lead guitar and began to sharpen his instrumental and vocal skills, falling in love with the music of all three Kings (B.B., Albert and Freddie) as well as Stevie Ray Vaughan, rappers Twista and Jay-Z, and even country artist Brad Paisley. In his late teens, Jarekus pursued a career in basketball, becoming a top-seeded national player in college until an injury took him back to his music full time. For a short period he performed as a rap artist, writing his own lyrics. Before long though, he began combining his rap wordsmithing with the music of his Mississippi heritage, creating a thoroughly modern, masterfully updated take on the blues. In 2009, he formed The Jarekus Singleton Blues Band, quickly building a reputation as a tremendously gifted musician and performer. Jarekus self-released his first CD, Heartfelt, in 2011, and fans and media quickly took notice of these brand new original songs. Three tracks from that CD continue to play in regular rotation on B.B. King's Bluesville on SiriusXM Radio, the most-listened-to blues radio station in the world. But radio wasn't alone in praising the rising blues star, as the rest of the world began paying attention.
Singleton was named a "star on the rise" by Blues & Rhythm magazine in the UK. Guitar Center named him the 2011 King of the Blues in Mississippi. He received the Jackson Music Award for 2012 Blues Artist of the Year and for 2013 Local Artist of the Year. The Jackson Free Press named him the 2013 Best Local Blues Artist. Living Blues praised Singleton for his “emotional intensity,” saying he "blends styles and elements across genres and generations.” Audiences at his shows run the gamut from older blues fans to younger rockers and rap aficionados, all of whom call him their own. “Blues is honest music," says Singleton, who, with Refuse To Lose, is determined to put his own stamp on the genre. "I love the blues tradition, and have always been inspired by the masters. But I want to create something for today's audience that is as original and new as those blues masters were when they first started making records. I want to create blues for the 21st century."“Jarekus Singleton is destined to be the next big name in the blues world.” --Blues & Rhythm Magazine (UK)
“Growing up, people would always say I was too happy to be depressed, or too social to have anxiety,” says Liza Anne Odachowski, the critically acclaimed songwriter better known these days by her stage name Liza Anne. “In their eyes, because I was one thing, I couldn’t also be something else. I think we all exist in duality, though. I can be everything and nothing all at once.”
Duality is at the core of Liza Anne’s arresting new album, ‘Fine But Dying,’ her debut release for indie powerhouse label Arts & Crafts. Synthesizing the elegant sincerity of Angel Olsen with the wry lyricism of Courtney Barnett and the unapologetic candor of Feist, the music is both tough and vulnerable, bold and withdrawn, a helping hand and a middle finger. Firing on all cylinders with distorted alt-rock guitars and explosive drums one minute, hushed and delicate the next, it’s an eclectic collection that reflects the messy complications of growing up in the modern age, as the 23-year-old grapples with the fallout of falling in love, reckons with the patriarchy, and stares down the panic disorder she refuses to let define her. ‘Fine But Dying’ is the sound of an artist taking total control of her life and her art, a proud misfit crafting an aggressively infectious kiss-off to an industry (and a society) that’s tried to box her in from day one.
After bursting onto the scene with their 4 song self-titled EP, Smallpools has toured to all corners of North America supporting Twenty One Pilots, WALK THE MOON, Neon Trees, Grouplove, and Two Door Cinema Club, as well as playing both Lollapalooza and Firefly Festival. The release of their self-titled debut EP gained them critical acclaim and brought them their national TV debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live, performing their debut single "Dreaming" which was produced by Captain Cuts. You can hear watch the music video for "Dreaming" here, which has almost 9 million views, and counting.
On March 20th, 2015, the band released their debut album, LOVETAP!. Receiving over 85 million Spotify streams, the band performed their second single "Karaoke" on Late Night with Seth Meyers followed by two successful North American headlining tours.
In addition, "Dreaming" reached #1 in July 2015 at pop radio in Japan resulting in a sold out headlining show at Club Duo in Tokyo and a premier slot at Summer Sonic Festival.
Last year, the band co-wrote the song "Break Up Every Night" on The Chainsmokers' debut album, Memories... Do Not Open, which was released in April via Disrupter/Columbia Records. The song was performed on the duo's Saturday Night Live debut on release day.
On August 4th, 2017, Smallpools released their latest EP titled, “The Science of Letting Go” via Kobalt Music Group. They performed that same night in celebration of the release to an eager sold out crowd in Los Angeles. The EP has garnered over 20M streams on Spotify since its release. A video for the single “Passenger Side” was filmed and directed by modern dance icon Phillip Chbeeb (Ed Sheeran, Step Up Revolution). 2017 also saw the band supporting Misterwives on their “Connect the Dots” North American tour.
Smallpools consists of Sean Scanlon (vocals/keys), Michael Kamerman (guitar), and Beau Kuther (drums).
Hailing from Seattle, The Dip is an electrifying seven-piece ensemble that melds vintage rhythm and blues and modern pop with “impeccably crafted, 60’s-steeped soul” (KEXP). The group quickly gained notoriety throughout the Pacific Northwest for their eminently danceable live shows that feature the powerful vocals of frontman Tom Eddy (Beat Connection), bolstered by the deep pocket of their unmistakably detailed rhythm section, and the spirited melodies of “The Honeynut Horns”. Hard-hitting but sensitive, The Dip harkens back to the deep soul roots of the decades past and pays tribute to this history through the grit and grace of their performances. The band’s 2015 self-titled debut, recorded to tape at Avast! Studios, propelled them to notable appearances at prodigious festivals such as Sasquatch! Music Festival, High Sierra Music Fest, Summer Meltdown, and Capitol Hill Block Party as well as built anticipation for their 2016 release, Won’t Be Coming Back (EP). After a nation-wide tour promoting their most recent single, “Sure Don’t Miss You,” the band finds themselves crafting their second full length album in the confines of their Seattle studio. Whether young or old, you can’t help yourself from grinning ear-to-ear when you see these gentlemen hit the stage. I wouldn’t hold back dancing for that matter either! Ladies and gentleman, give it up for The Dip! Hit up the dance floor, and put it in your hip!
An orphan who turned into a preacher
A preacher who turned into a songwriter
A songwriter that turned into a drunk
A drunk that is learning to be a human being
Travis Meadows spent years trying to escape himself. He’s anything but selfish, so he’d find a way to get away––a bottle, a bag, a sermon––and he’d share it with everyone. That was then. Now, Meadows isn’t trying to get anybody lost or high. Instead, he’s trying to get every single one of us to settle in deeply to ourselves––and love what’s there.
“I feel like what I’m doing is giving people permission to be okay with who they are, where they’re at now,” Meadows says. “A lot of us say stuff like, ‘If I’d been married to this guy or this girl, or if I had enough money, or if I had a better job. If I wasn’t an alcoholic, or if I drank more. If this, if that, then, I think I could be a better person.’” He pauses. “I think the key to life is being okay with who you are.”
Meadows isn’t just waxing poetic about the perks of self-acceptance. The 52-year-old has clawed his way to the peace he’s found, and his willingness to map that journey through his songs has saved more lives than his own. On his anxiously awaited new album First Cigarette, Meadows proves once again that when he sings the truth he’s living, he can set us all free. “I’ve always put secrets in my records, but I had this ring of fire that nobody could get in––a defense mechanism from my childhood. Nobody gets too close,” he says. “I think this record is a way of me letting people in a little more, inside the ring of fire.”
Disciples have been dancing by Meadows’ fire for years. Eric Church, Dierks Bentley, Jake Owen, Mary Gauthier, Brandy Clark, Blackberry Smoke, Hank Williams, Jr., Wynonna Judd, Randy Houser, and others began writing with, recording, and praising Meadows as soon as they heard his work. Songs such as “Riser,” the title track for Bentley’s 2015 album; Church’s “Knives of New Orleans” and “Dark Side”; and Owen’s “What We Ain’t Got” are all Meadows-penned chart-climbers.
Much of the attention began in 2010, when Meadows self-released Killin’ Uncle Buzzy, a raw masterpiece that left listeners stunned. “I was in rehab, and one of my counselors suggested that I keep a journal, so I basically made a record out of that journal,” Meadows says. It became an unlikely phenomenon, handed from friend to friend and artist to artist with whispers of, Listen. It’s the best thing you’ll hear all year. In 2013, Meadows followed Killin’ Uncle Buzzy with the acclaimed Old Ghosts and Unfinished Business. “On Killin’ Uncle Buzzy, you’re listening to a guy trying to figure out how to get sober,” Meadows says. “Then two years later, I was sober, but I wasn’t that guy anymore. That’s what ‘Old Ghosts’ was––me just trying to move forward. I feel like this record is more accessible. People can listen and go, ‘Well, hell. I’ve done that, too.’”
An intimate record utilizing just Meadow’s blues-hewn voice and mostly acoustic guitar with pops of electric and other strings, First Cigarette is an intensely relatable meditation on love, acceptance, and redemption––an artistic and personal triumph, especially for a man whose early life was defined by loss and pain. At the age of two, Meadows watched his baby brother drown. When his parents divorced, he wound up living with his grandparents rather than either of his parents. “My dad went and got married and had a baby, and they were almost a normal family,” Meadows says. “And my mother also went and almost had a normal family, whatever that is.” His thick Mississippi accent makes the ‘r’ at the end of father and mother soft in his mouth. “I was over there with my grandparents like, ‘Well what the hell happened to me? Why am I not good enough to be part of that family?’ I carried that resentment for a long time.”
Adversity would remain a constant in Meadows’ youth. At the age of eleven, he began using drugs. At fourteen, he was diagnosed with cancer. He would go on to beat the disease, but not before it cost him his right leg from just below the knee. Meadows picked himself up and began playing drums––“They’d sneak me in the back door and I would play for people in bars”––but tired of lugging all that gear and picked up the harmonica. “I could put all my instruments in a Crown Royal bag, and I would sing and play the blues,” he says. Then, in his 20s, Meadows underwent another conversion: he became a Christian. He preached across the South and in 20-something countries for 17 years. “Preachers fall hard,” he says. “I had some questions I didn’t like the answers to. So I quit and went back to my old friend alcohol.”
First Cigarette benefits from all of the battles Meadows has lost and won, including his now seven years––and counting––of sobriety. Album opener “Sideways” is a gut punch. A blend of confession and advice, the song explores what happens when emotion is stifled. Meadows wrote “Sideways” after performing and speaking at an adolescent addiction treatment center. He asked the kids there, all younger than 18, if anyone wanted to share their story. A girl raised her hand, spoke, and broke Meadows’ heart. “She floored me,” he says. “I said, ‘Well, I’d want to get high too. How did that make you feel?’ One tear came down her cheek. She rubbed it away and said, ‘I don’t feel nothin’.’ One of the counselors and I were talking later. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you’re going to treat everything in your life like a nail.”
“Pray for Jungleland” channels Bruce Springsteen as it celebrates him, nostalgic for love at eighteen and a world that revolves around Friday night. Written with Drew Kennedy, the song is the first of several on the album that capture youth with misty-eyed levity––a departure from Uncle Buzzy that Meadows is clearly enjoying. “McDowell Road” serves as a thematic bookend for “Jungleland,” while the slow-building “Pontiac” offers anchoring advice and warm memories as hopes for young hearts.
A standout on an album stacked with gems, “First Cigarette” features searing vocals that shift back and forth between defiant muscle and naked delicacy. “I am little more content, I am little more content with who I am than who I was,” Meadows sings. “I have learned to love the comfort when it comes, like the first cigarette the morning buzz.” Written with Connie Harrington, “Hungry” showcases Meadows’ unique ability to haunt and soothe at the same time. “Hunger is the thing that motivates us to get up and try again,” he says. “I pray that I never lose that hunger.” The gorgeous “Better Boat” takes another moving look at Meadows’ hard-won contentment.
“Life can be a little challenging for all of us. It’s beautiful and it’s tragic, it’s awesome and it hurts,” Meadows says. “I hope people sense that through this record and want to come to a show, which is a lot of storytelling, a lot of tears, a lot of laughter. They’ll come face to face with a damn lot of humanity. I hope they see themselves in it.”
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