Talking to Eden Brent for a few minutes is guaranteed to cure whatever might ail you.
Brent is affable, enthusiastic and just so full of life that you can’t help but feel a lot better after a conversation with her. And as for her laugh … well, it’s way beyond infectious.
To sum it up, without sounding too colloquial or too down-home, talking to Eden Brent is a real ‘hoot.’
In addition to those afore-mentioned qualities, Brent is also an exceptionally-gifted pianist and vocalist and has turned into a force to be reckoned with in blues and roots-related music the past decade or so.
She’s also as Mississippi as the day is long and is fiercely proud of her hometown stomping grounds of Greenville, nestled right beside the Mississippi River. And while you may be able to take Brent out of Mississippi (for awhile, anyway), you’ll never be able to take Mississippi out of Brent.
“I love it here. I feel like a part of this place and I feel like this place is a part of me; it’s where I belong. As far as performing, I can go anywhere in the world and perform from right here,” she said. “I like the pace in Mississippi and the people are really friendly and they take the time to talk to each other. Mississippi is not the place someone should move to if they tend to be in a big hurry. If you go into a bank down here to do your banking business, you’re going to have to wait until the people in front of you finish their conversation with the teller. I like that about this place. I’m 150 miles south of Memphis on the Mississippi River, and around here we say it’s so flat that you can stand on a coffee can and see Memphis, Tennessee. I just love living here.”
Blues music and good groceries have always gone hand-in-hand – especially in the Deep South – and as of late, Brent has been exploring the wonderful waters of the culinary arts as time allows her to.
“I’ve been sticking real close to home (lately) and just enjoying Mississippi. I’ve been traveling a little bit here and there, but not too much. I’ve had some time, so I’m learning to cook. The only thing that people enjoy as much as music is food, so I am becoming quite a pro at the breakfast meal,” she said. “The reason that I wanted to conquer that one first is because breakfast is the only meal that I’m aware of that you can serve 24 hours a day. Nobody wants sushi at breakfast time, but on the other hand, it’s fine to eat breakfast at supper time.”
Just because she’s been giving Rachel Ray a run for her money in the kitchen lately, that doesn’t mean that Brent has moth-balled her piano; she’s also been heating up the bandstand like a 450-degree oven, as well.
“I (recently) got back from the Suncoast Blues Festival in Sarasota (Florida) and that was just so much fun. Bobby Rush was on the bill – who I’ve enjoyed for so many years – he lives in Jackson, Mississippi, and Mr. Sipp played and Zac Harmon played and Smokin’ Joe Kubek and Bnois King played, so it was like old-home week,” she said. “And Vasti Jackson was there … we were heavy into the Mississippi thing. Shoot, I hadn’t seen that many people from Mississippi since I was up in Chicago, and I live in Mississippi!”
Brent did more than just play a well-received solo set; she also kicked back and enjoyed the rest of her fellow Mississippians delivering the blues under the bright Florida sun. In addition to that, she also may have started the groundwork for a possible second career while at the inaugural Suncoast Blues Fest.
“Well, I was trying to be a Bobby Rush ‘Rushette’ there for a minute,” she laughed. “I might have to rehearse a little bit more, because I don’t think I had all the moves down. But it sure was fun pretending.”
As much as we are all products of – and ultimately will reflect – our environments on a personal level, Brent’s surroundings sure seem to have colored her past couple of studio albums. Her previous release – 2010’s Ain’t Got No Troubles (Yellow Dog Records) was recorded in New Orleans, and at times, the Crescent City influence can be heard and felt on that album. Her latest platter, Jigsaw Heart, was birthed in Nashville, and at times, bears the country-and-western underpinnings that city is well known for.
“No, that was intentional. Here I am in the Mississippi Delta, surrounded by these musical centers – like Memphis, where I’ve recorded before and which is home to Sun Records and Stax Records – and then there’s that unmistakable New Orleans’ sound south of here. Then you have Nashville, and I think all three of those towns have the threads of Mississippi music woven all through them,” she said. “So I feel a real kinship with all that music – and it’s all American music to me. I like to explore those sounds and learn and grow and express myself in new ways, because there’s just so much good music surrounding me and I feel lucky enough to kind of be right in the middle of it.”
The way that Brent’s music flows so seamlessly – just like the Old Man River – from style to style, often within the same song, makes it a bit of a daunting task to slap just one label on it. Sure, it’s bluesy, roots-based music, but that’s not the be-all, end-all of the ‘Eden Brent’ sound.
So how does Brent describe her signature sound?
“Great,” she laughed. “But really, I don’t know; it’s hard to say. I don’t know and I don’t know if I want to know. Really and truly, I think the only reason to put a label on a musician is just so the people that don’t them yet will have some sort of an idea when they open up the package. I don’t know that any of us can live up to the labels that have been given to us by the critics and so forth, shoot, or even live them down. To say that I’m an American music song-writer would be about as specific as you can get. It’s just heart-felt music.”
Her interests in music have long stretched way beyond the boundaries of simply just the blues.
“I love jazz and I love country music, too. My dad is a big Hank Williams fan and years ago, Jerry Lee Lewis got in trouble with the I.R.S. and they were auctioning off a bunch of his prized possessions that they had confiscated. So my dad went to the auction and bought his stereo,” Brent said. “So there I was, as a very young teenager – before I could even drive – listening to Jerry Lee Lewis on his stereo. And my mother was a big band singer, so I loved listening to Nat King Cole and my parents were Charlie Rich fans and my daddy loved Big Bill Broonzy, so my musical heritage was really rich from the start, just because my parents were music lovers.”
Brent once again found her name listed among the nominees at the recent 36th annual Blues Music Awards; Jigsaw Heart was up for Acoustic Album of the Year, and she was also among those vying for the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player of the Year award.
“Just to be mentioned among so many of the people that I’ve admired for so long is just such a treat. I vote every year and so often it’s difficult and the voting process is so hard for me, because the categories are usually full of people that I adore so much,” she said. “How do you choose whether you like this guitar player or that piano player better? But it’s really just such a treat to be invited to the party. It really means a lot to me to know that I’m still part of the family.”
While Brent readily acknowledges the fact that she relishes finding her name side-by-side with her musical contemporaries, she has no desire to engage into any kind of battle for a spot at the top of the heap.
“It’s not a competitive thing for me … there was a time for me, particularly at the International Blues Challenge (IBC) – which is a bona-fide competition – when it was, but awards ceremonies where voting, like in a political campaign is concerned, there can be a winner and a loser, but I don’t look at it that way,” she said. “Music has never been terribly competitive for me. There’s just so much music that I like that it’s hard for me to say I like this (artist) one better than that one; with all the folks that I’ve come to know and love (in the blues), I just don’t feel a competitive spirit in that sense. As much as I’d love to have another trophy to dust off every spring when I clean, it’s all-righty with me whichever way it goes. I mean, I’ve been nominated for 11 Blues Music Awards and have won three, so I’m not sad when I don’t win. I’ve won some, lost some and either way, I’ve had a good time at the end of the day.”
Brent’s full-fledged coming out party basically took place in Memphis almost 10 years ago, and you can bet that she’s not forgotten that for one hot second.
“The Blues Foundation and all the blues fans welcomed me with such open arms when I won the IBC in 2006, and I tell you, I’m still getting that same warm reception these days,” she said. “You would have thought the ‘new’ would have tarnished by now, but the ‘new’ hasn’t worn off. As a matter of fact, it seems that the blues fans are even more receptive to me now that they have gotten a chance to know me.”
The Bluff City has always held a very special and unique charm for most blues fans, with the city of Memphis rightfully viewed as Mecca for blues and roots-related music. In Brent’s case, however, Memphis has also been long viewed as something else – something more basic – thanks to her close proximity to the town.
“You know, I’m just two-and-a-half hours south of Memphis, so it feels like my backyard. As a kid, if we were really going to go shopping, we went to Memphis. That was the big town,” she laughed. “It wasn’t that Greenville didn’t have shops – we did then and we still do – but if it was a really special occasion, we went to Memphis. So I’ve always kind of considered Memphis as the capitol of Mississippi.”
Greenville – while not quite the size or scope of Memphis – is by no means just a small and dusty wide spot in the road. It’s a thriving and sprawling community in its own right. Still, as one particular blues fan found out, it’s really not hard to locate Brent in Greenville, if that indeed is your mission.
“I was downtown at happy hour, having a cocktail and hanging out with my dad, and there was this blues fan that came in and said, “Hey, I heard Eden Brent was over here.’ I said, ‘Yep. I am.’ This fellow was from Austria and he couldn’t believe it. He said, “Oh my God, it really is you,’” laughed Brent. “It’s so nice to be able to be available and close, so when people come through town, we can have a personal visit. That means a lot.”
With the way that Greenville and the mighty Mississippi River are such important and essential elements in Brent’s life, it’s a small wonder that she didn’t end up traveling up and down the waterway, earning her keep by working on the river, as so very many in that area – including some in her family – have done for decades.
“Well, I would have loved to have been a riverboat captain. The thing is, I was born kind of right before the women’s movement got that far. In my formative years, there weren’t any females commanding a riverboat. And now, there’s still very few,” she said. “It’s a male-dominated field, but now there are programs and some forward-thinking companies that are changing that. But I don’t think my daddy would have allowed that because it’s a bit of a tough life on the river and there’s not a lot of entertainment out there. The way they used to entertain themselves was by playing practical jokes on each other and I think my father knew just how cruel that could be, especially to maybe the one and only female on the boat. But it is a beautiful life out there and it’s a really vital part of our economy. I guess I’ll just have to sing about the river, instead.”
Brent has carved out quite a career ‘singing about the river’ and tickling the ivories with the best of them. It may come as bit of a surprise from someone that possesses the virtuosic abilities on the piano that she does, but Brent really doesn’t spend a whole lot of time practicing her instrument.
“I love to play, but I really don’t enjoy practicing very much. You can ask any band member who’s ever worked with me. I’ll say, ‘Hey, ya’ll learn it at home and then we’ll get together and play it,’” she laughed. “That’s what I do. I’ll practice enough to learn the song, but I don’t want to practice so much that I ruin it with perfection. I like my music to stay a little bit funky.”
Her music has managed to touch the lives of a whole host of people – from all across the globe – and when all is said and done, that seems to mean more to Brent than a whole mantle full of trophies or any other kind of critical merit that she may garner along the way.
“The best kinds of critical reviews that I get are from the people that may be driving down the road listening to the radio – and have never heard of me before – and one of my songs comes up and it moves them to want to write me a note to say, ‘Hey, this song meant something to me.’ That’s happened to me many times throughout my career,” she said. “That’s the real special moments. The reason that’s so precious to me is that there is so much music that has done that very same thing for me. There are times that you’re experiencing such great joy that the only way to express it is to put on a great record that you love and dance to it. Or, maybe you’re experiencing great loss or sorrow or bereavement and you find some other music that might help pull you through that. It’s powerful.”
From the time that she was a young 7-year-old girl in the chorus at a local production of The Sound of Music, Eden Brent had an inkling that music might someday become a very important part of her life.
She just wasn’t sure how important, or how big a role, it would take on a couple of decades down the road.
“I think I always wanted to be a musician, but I wasn’t sure where it would take me. I wasn’t sure if I would be performing at a lounge or café on a weekly basis, or if I’d be on a cruise ship. I didn’t know where I’d wind up and I still don’t. I do not know where I’m going to be when I finally grow up,” she laughed. “It’s just so much fun to be able to do this and to eek out a living doing it. I don’t aspire for great wealth or material things; I’ve already bought a really nice piano – a Grand – not a Baby Grand, but a Grand Piano – that’s 6 feet-10 inches and is plenty of instrument for me. I’ve worked long enough to pay for my house, so everything is going good.”