13 tracks / 58:18
Mike Eldred is no stranger to the guitar, as he ran Fender’s Custom Shop for many years, but he is also a masterful musician and songwriter. He has joined up with John Bazz and Jerry Angel of the Southern California’s best band that should have hit the big time, The Blasters, to form the eclectic Mike Eldred Trio. The band has released their fourth album, Baptist Town, and it a refreshing blend of Americana and blues music.
Eldred drew inspiration for this project from Baptist Town, a neighborhood in Greenwood, Mississippi that was home to many blues greats, including Robert Johnson, Honeyboy Edwards, Hubert Sumlin, Hound Dog Taylor, and many more. The poverty of Baptist Town is a stark contrast with the affluent neighborhoods of Greenwood, and this inequality has not changed much for the better since Johnson passed on in 1938.
For Baptist Town, Mike acted as producer, wrote twelve of the thirteen tracks, and provided the much of the vocals and guitars. Bazz laid down the bass parts and Jerry Angel took care of the drums, while a nifty crew of artists contributed their unique skills throughout the album. Many of the sessions took place at the birthplace of rock and roll, the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee (about 125 miles north of Greenwood).
Baptist Town is not exactly the Delta nor is it Memphis, and likewise this is not a rock or a Delta blues album but rather an amalgamation of American styles, set to lyrics that speak to the social issues that are relevant to the neighborhood. There is a lot going on here, as evidenced by the opening track, “Hunder Dollar Bill,” a story of drunken misanthropy set to a driving vintage rock sound with muffled vocals and a wickedly distorted harmonica solo courtesy of Phoenix’s awesome John “Big Nick” Samora.
Three Grammy-winning guest artists each bring their own flavor to this disc, too. David Hidalgo of Los Lobos contributes his distinctive vocals and accordion to “Bess,” and the result is a thumping slice of Louisiana sttle. John Mayer provides the lap steel and electric guitar parts for “Roadside Shrine,” a very pretty country blues song with restrained vocals from Eldred. Yet another big name was drawn to this project, as Robert Cray brings his guitar to the title track, and his smooth leads mesh well with a slick undercurrent of riffs in this laid-back soul tune.
The songs that connect best to the community of Baptist Town are the ones that feature the Emmanuel Church Inspirational Choir and a local fellow, Jarvis Jernigan, on vocals. “Somebody Been Runnin’” is onlya few minutes long, but this a capella gospel tune is powerful with wonderful back and forth between Jarvis and Mike, and the vocal harmonies are beautiful. As an added bonus, it seems to be inspired by the fate of Robert Johnson! “You’re Always There” closes out the set, and after a raucous introduction, it settles down to a funky gospel vibe with a healthy serving of Hammond organ courtesy of Papa John DeFrancesco, a true American treasure.
The lone cover is an odd duck that does not exactly fit it with the rest of the material, and there has never been a version of the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” that is anything like this. This is a timeless story of love with no strings attached, but its heavy tone and six-plus minute running time highlights that there is not much value or variety to the words (sorry, John and Paul). My guess is that Eldred is seeking to contrast lighthearted pop music with the harsh reality of a downtrodden people, but it is a stretch to connect this material with the community or the overall theme of the disc.
Aside from this one tune, the rest of Baptist Town is a sweet set of uniquely American music that draws inspiration from the blues, and the Mike Eldred Trio has shone a light on a community that does not get much attention. Be sure to head over to their website as there is cool media to support this album, including the lyrics, a gallery of quality images from the neighborhood, and videos that show the production process, including an explanation of how it came to be and documentation of how a few of the tracks were recorded.