Artist To Watch: Riley Etheridge, Jr.
Riley Etheridge, Jr. may call New York City his home now, but his music sounds like he’s still living down South. A South Carolina native, Etheridge spent many years living – and playing music – in Louisiana, and listening to his sophomore effort, “Powder Keg,” it’s as if he has never left.
“Powder Keg” ignites with the fiery Southern-style, blues-rocking title track that opens the disc, and Etheridge keeps a Louisiana groove going on songs like the funky “Scene of the Crime,” the lively, Zydeco-flavored “She’s Ready Already” and the soulful rocker “Look At The State We’re In” (a heartfelt commentary on his beloved state where “levee come down and water rushes in.”). Etheridge’s musical journeys on this 10-song set also take listeners to Texas on his cover of Willis Alan Ramsey’s “Northeast Texas Women,” while the generational ode “54 Cadillac” (penned by Etheridge’s producer and longtime collaborator Wendell Tilley) reflects “a very real thing for men in the South not to share their feelings,” confides Etheridge. This idea of exploring the emotions that we keep right below the surface is one that Etheridge explores on “Powder Keg.” In the poignant, Zevon-esque “Nothing To Hide,” he examines how male bravado and vulnerability can affect relationships.
Throughout this disc, Etheridge also deftly blends together rock, country, blues, soul, and folk into a rich Americana sound – a term that he is quite comfortable associating with his music: “When I look on the Americana charts, I see John Mellencamp, Lyle Lovett, Steve Earle…guys I like, whose musicianship and influence make them hard to pigeonhole.”
While his sound is rooted in the South, his songs arose after his move to New York City three years ago. “There’s so much creative energy in New York City,” states Etheridge, and that sparked a highly productive period of songwriting as well as prompting him to perform live again. One of his first gigs came about when a bartender saw him carrying a guitar on the street and asked him to sit in with him. He started doing small acoustic shows around the city. “I realized that I had a body of songs that I wanted to record and it just started to snowball,” he recalls.
“Things I Used To Know,” Etheridge’s solo debut after many years as a working musician, came out last year. He recorded it in New Orleans with some old musician buddies: guitarist Shane Theriot (Neville Brothers, Boz Scaggs), Baton Rouge-based bassist David Ellis, New Orleans jazz pianist Larry Seiberth, drummer Doug Belote (Sonny Landreth, Jerry Douglas) and producer/guitarist Tilley. Rube Ambler, writing on the website Atlanta’s A-List, compared Etheridge to Radney Foster, Billy Joe Shaver and Uncle Tupelo while proclaiming him “much better than most of the country music I’ve heard recently.”
The album got Etheridge back on the road, touring America, including a stop at Baton Rouge’s Varsity Theatre. Etheridge went to LSU in Baton Rouge and wound up getting a musical education playing in the popular local group, River City Good Time Band. A drummer since he was a kid, Etheridge switched over to guitar and keyboards in this band, which provided him with a strong roots music background.
While on the road, Etheridge also kept busy by writing songs. Almost every “Powder Keg” tune was written in the past year. The title track, for example, reflects his return to Louisiana after being away for many years. This touring influenced his approach to the new album too. “This record is more uptempo and groove-oriented than the first one,” he reveals. “I wrote songs thinking about how they would come out live versus just performing them on an acoustic guitar. It was a new way to approach writing.” On his first album, Etheridge says that he wouldn’t have thought about including a New Orleans-style second line groove like that on “Scene Of The Crime” or a four-piece horn section as heard on “Look At The State We’re In.”
Etheridge got to road-test every “Powder Keg” tune, and it’s easy to hear the collaborative, live rock ‘n’ roll vibe on the album. The band shifts smoothly between lively tunes like the foot-stomping “She’s Ready Already” and the Byrds-ian “Travesty of Love,” to the quieter tracks like “Pilgrim’s Dream” and “Nobody’s Hero.” Etheridge likens the disc’s flow to a live set, stating that, “I would be very comfortable playing the whole album start to finish as is.”
“Powder Keg” again features the “Things I Used To Know” core musicians – Tilley, Theriot, Ellis, Sieberth and Belote – who often accompany Etheridge on stage too. These are guys he has known for years, which brings a real sense of camaraderie and collaboration to the music. The disc also boasts newer friends, like mandolinist/violinist Jonathan Yudkin (Rascal Flatts, Shelby Lynne), pedal/lap steel player Dan Dugmore (Linda Ronstadt, Randy Travis) and harmonica player Mickey Raphael (Willie Nelson) – all Nashville session aces who lent their expert touches to the songs.
Many of the musicians that Etheridge admires – Lowell George, Lyle Lovett and Buddy Miller, to name but three – are artists who combined memorable songwriting with the ability to draw upon a range of musical styles. “I would hope that my body of work and diversity over time would be a fraction of [those performers].”
With “Powder Keg,” Etheridge has impressively added to his own, ever-growing repertoire. He’s always working on new songs and already has a handful earmarked for album number three. “I’m more interested in what I am doing now than anything in the past,” Etheridge asserts, and, as the disc vibrantly illustrates, he has the right to be proud.