Phil Cook Discovers His Southern Soul
I was bringing my wife, Elizabeth, her morning coffee as I always do, just as we spend the first few moments of every morning – she quietly browsing the headlines while I write a little. This morning, however, when I entered the room I heard an instantly captivating and soulful voice singing the lyrics, “miles away / I was miles away…” and I immediately asked, “who’s that?”
“This guy,” Liz answered, and on her laptop showed me a photo of the cover of Phil Cook’s new album, People Are My Drug.
She was on our local NPR station’s website, WUNC.org. Frank Stasio, host of that station’s daily program, The State of Things conducted an interview with Cook about his new album. I learned that Cook moved from Wisconsin to North Carolina a decade ago and settled in the town where I was born, Durham. I learned he played keys for Hiss Golden Messenger, who’s also based out of Durham. I learned Amelia Meath of Sylvan Esso fame is the co-lead vocalist and his co-writer on that “Miles Away” song. Then, I listened to the album as I went about my day.
Having recently become immersed in The Prodigal Son, the new album from Ry Cooder, I was immediately drawn into People Are My Drug’s opening track, “Steampowered Blues.” It has the same feel as the best of Cooder’s work. Cook’s approach to instrumentation, vocal phrasing, and arranging are right in my wheelhouse. It’s that perfect blend of gospel, blues, folk, country, soul, and rock and roll that needs no label to market it. It’s just the real deal.
Cook has said he was drawn to Southern music from his home in the Midwest. It seems to be a well-worn tale that it takes someone from the outside to remind the natives of the value of their own roots. The Stones reintroduced America to their own blues legends. The Band brought stories and observations of the American South with them from Canada. John Fogerty lived out his fantasies of the bayou from his home in California. In each of these situations, it was the love of the music and possibly the mystical power of the region itself that inspired these artists to create some of the greatest music of the era.
Whether it’s conscious or not, Phil Cook follows in their footsteps with People Are My Drug. There is a considerable amount of soul-stirring gospel on this album. Undoubtedly inspired by the likes of Mavis Staples and the Blind Boys of Alabama – both of whom Cook has shared stages – tracks like “Tide of Life,” “Deeper Kind,” and “He Gives Us All His Love” helped reawaken this backsliding Baptist’s soul with memories of Sunday dinners on the ground, swaying choirs, and testifying to the Lord on a hot summer Sunday.
The album also offers up a cover of Ted Lucas’s “Now That I Know.” Lucas was a Detroit musician that sat in on a variety of Motown sessions in the ‘60s and ‘70s and released a sole solo album in 1975 which included this track. Cook’s fine version strips away the psychedelic aspect of the original, exposing the song’s soulful underpinning.
One of the standout tracks is “Another Mother’s Son,” inspired by the murder of Philando Castille by a Minneapolis Police Officer. Co-written with Ken Smego and featuring a choir recorded at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, NC on MLK day, it’s a powerful statement of the need for empathy, love, and understanding. Although the song’s initial inspiration was pulled from the headlines (or newsfeed, in today’s parlance), the message is both timely and timeless.
Along with Ry Cooder’s The Prodigal Son and Tupelo child Paul Thorn’s Don’t Let the Devil Ride, People Are My Drug is a breath of fresh air this year, filled with the hope of gospel, the rawness of the blues, the grit of soul, and consciousness of folk that’s needed in these polarizing times. While listening to Phil Cook’s latest, I was reminded of how inside two small studios in Memphis – Sun in the ‘50s and Stax in the ‘60s – differences were set aside, and nothing mattered but making the world a better place through music. While People Are My Drug is on, you feel that same happiness and hope, which is what the best music is all about.