Riley Etheridge Jr. Comes in on the Straight and Narrow
There’s something deep into the core of New York City singer-songwriter Riley Etheridge Jr.’s new release, The Straight and Narrow Way, that carries with it a deeply Stax/Muscle Shoals realized sonic bloodline. It’s this sense of the music from these sessions that celebrates, travels, dances, thinks, feels, dreams and, at times bleeds, that links it to the finest soul music of the last several decades. It’s a roadhouse romp and big city blues jam fused with South Louisiana dance halls, New Orleans jazz and Austin honky-tonks. It’s also a fevered gospel night cry for repentance and confession through the valleys of lyric-driven songs that engages more than just our feet. When this mixture is stirred into the vocal and songwriting talent of Etheridge the result is at times exhilarating, at times emotional and always danceable.Straight & Narrow represents the accumulation of a four album odyssey of creative energy, from folk-country and ragged rock to deep southern gospel informed blues. This album balances R&B dance tunes with confessional, often personal lyrics into a blend of blue-eyed soul music that feels more like an outgrowth of Muscle Shoals and Memphis than his New York City home turf.
Since his debut, 2009’s Things I Used To Know, Etheridge has grown with each album to this latest effort which is his most joyous so far. His life travels have seen him through his childhood in South Carolina, then paying his musical dues in South Louisiana. It was there he says he was introduced Texas singer-songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. “They introduced me to a whole new way of writing lyrics.” He says. “My time in Louisiana was the Urban Cowboy era. I met bands who were into real hard-core country and combined that with the poetry and storytelling of the Texas troubadours.”
The natural question is where did the soul influence come from that has appeared on this outing? Part of it, he explains, was the diversity of the music culture he was born into in South Carolina. “It was a melting pot. I heard Credence Clearwater, dance music and country.” He says. “But, I always had it in me….The Isley Brothers were a huge influence. I just never allowed myself to go there.” But, it seems Muscle Shoals found him.
It happened in a unique way. Etheridge continues. “This was the first time I went to the studio without having songs already written. It became a collaboration with Wendell (Tilley) and Shane (Theriot).” Tilley has become Etheridge’s regular producer. Theriot is an extraordinary r&b guitar play who has supported the Neville Brothers and Dr. John. The result is what Etheridge describes as “Steely Dan got lost over a long weekend in New Orleans.” The bottom line for this artist is his love of seeing people dance to his music. And with all that can be said about this richly textured album, what Ethridge was hoping for was its dance-ability. That it is. And he got it right. But he also has given us much more with songs that we return to when they hit just the right emotional lyrical and thematic chord like,”Roll Away The Stone,” and “Amy.”
With the support of players like Jim Keltner, who has done sessions with The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys and the pedal steel of Dan Dugmore who has gigged with Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, the album retains a raw spontaneity and skilled craftsmanship in terms of production. The trio of friends aimed high and succeeded.
Nowhere is the Memphis roots more telling than on a song like “Second Chance, Saving Grace.” With a gospel texture and key signature organ, the song tells of the second chances we all look for in life. “That one’s personal,” he says. “I was married for 23 years. We divorced. I’ve been with a wonderful woman for six years now who is also divorced. We always say, this is our second chance to get it right” He says. “Initially, I didn’t want to record it, but Wendall and Shane talked me into it.”
Two guest vocalists, Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek and Erica Falls on “Another Time, Another Place,” and “Even As We Fall,” respectively, sweeten the pot. Watkins’ turn on “Another Time,” adds just the right color to the Cajun like ballad. Erica Falls finds the gospel-fevered-sweet spot on “Even As We Fall,” a song about finding the good times in even the hardest places of relationships.
The remainder of The Straight and Narrow Way reflects a consistent blend of the best songwriting talent of Steve Earle with the stylistic blend of country, rhythm and blues and soul music mined earlier 2o years ago by Lyle Lovett and his Large Band. But Etheridge is an artist who presents us with a singular journey that remains open and growing. The Straight and Narrow Way is among the best albums to come along in 2014 as we approach the half way mark.
Riley Ethridge Jr. is currently on tour with Leon Russell. For upcoming dates go to his website.