“This project really started when my daughter turned 18 and asked if I would take her on a road trip through the South,” says Mike Eldred about the genesis of Baptist Town [Great Western], an album that draws its inspiration from of a small Mississippi burg where time has essentially stood still since the days when blues shouters entertained local sharecroppers in ramshackle juke joints. “We traveled down to Tupelo, Mississippi, and then I took her to where Robert Johnson is buried. There are two gravesites, but when I studied it more, the one in Greenwood made more sense, because, in 1938, if you’re a blues musician and you get killed, they’re not going to drive three hours with your body to Fairview. So I started researching more about Greenwood, and where he was murdered was actually a place nearby called Baptist Town, where this juke joint was. When we finally got to Baptist Town and went over the railroad tracks, everything changed. It was like stepping back in time. It looked like a movie set with all these shotgun-shack houses—about four blocks of just real bad poverty. Four cop cars rolled up and looked at us, and one of them pointed at me to get out. But I wanted to see this place, so I drove down the street and turned around before coming back out.
“We left and went up to Clarksdale and stayed at the Riverside Hotel, which is where Bessie Smith died. It had been a hospital for black people at the time, and then they turned it into a boarding house. Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Ike Turner lived there for a while. I was just soaking in all that stuff, and from that point on it just sort of haunted me—especially Baptist Town. I knew I needed to go back there, and I’ve been back four times already. Before the trip, I had talked to Matt Ross (the studio manager and recording engineer at Sun Studios) about recording my next record there, but I didn’t have any songs written and didn’t know what the record was going to be about. Once I started writing, though, all this stuff just started pouring out and that’s where it all came from.”
All of the songs on Baptist Town were written by Eldred with the exception of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” the Beatles’ classic that he interprets in a manner that fits right in with the tales of poverty and racism, and, as Eldred puts it, “the dichotomy between love and hate, rich and poor, sin and salvation, and black and white” that are the focus of this album. Not content with just making a record, however, Eldred has chosen to turn Baptist Town into a film. “We’ve shot a lot of stuff with cinematographer Alan Ginzing, who is producing the movie section of it,” says Eldred. The overall theme is that we have this beautiful living museum called the South, and a lot of it is taken for granted. Many people outside of the U.S. understand it, and that’s why blues is so big in Europe, but my focus is to get people here to really see this rich culture and music that we have. So we’re going to put it all together and start submitting it to film festivals and see what happens. We’ve already had some interest from the Smithsonian, and hopefully they or PBS or NPR will pick it up. The goal is to get it on some type of stage, because there’s something that’s really cool down there and we all need to look at it as Americans and embrace it.”
A number of artists, including John Mayer, Robert Cray, David Hidalgo, and James Pennebaker lent their talents to this album. How did you get them involved?
“When we did the last record, Elvis Unleaded, we had Gene Taylor playing piano and we had the JOBS Quartet singing all the Jordinaires’ parts on those tunes. On 61/49, the record before that, I had Scotty Moore, Ike Turner, and Cesar Rosas. They’re all friends so it was easy to say, “Hey, would you want to do this?” It’s kind of like hosting a party, where you invite someone because you know they’re going to augment another person, and if you get them both in the same room some really cool stuff can happen. So even though we’re a trio, we like to bring in people to add something weird. Like on 61/49, Cesar Rosas played nylon-string guitar on “This Old Train,” which is kind of a Sam Cook-sounding song, but when you put the nylon-string Spanish guitar on it, now it’s got a whole different twist. And so for Baptist Town I wanted David Hidalgo to come in and sing background and play accordion on “Bess.” In the reviews I’m seeing, they’re saying it’s this weird Tex-Mex sendup of Bessie Smith, but it’s only because of the accordion, because it’s definitely not a Tex-Mex song! Also, the title track is so dark and sad, and in keeping with the theme of dichotomy and opposites, I thought it would be cool to put something on it that was brighter sounding for the solo instrument. I asked Robert Cray if he would play on it because his guitar is so pure and beautiful sounding. I was going up to Ventura to record his part, and I happened to be out to dinner with John Mayer the night before. I told him about the album project and he said, “I want to be on it too.” I had to figure out what to put him on, so I sent him “Roadside Shrine,” which I’d originally thought would be just me on acoustic guitar. So John invited me to come to his house in Montana and record at his studio there, and what was supposed to be two days turned out to be four days of just having fun.
Did Mayer also play the steel guitar part on “Roadside Shrine?”
Yeah, he asked if he could play lap-steel on it and I thought that was a good call, so he went through and did that as a separate track. I was shocked because he sat down with this little lap-steel and the way he approached it was to play it very muted with the tone knob rolled off, and it sounded like a pedal-steel. It’s typical of John—you hand him something like that and in a matter of minutes he knows what to do with it. He did that part and then he went back and did the guitar solo on it too.
What was your main guitar for the sessions?
I wanted this raw and dark sounding guitar so all the rhythm parts and solos were done on a Harmony Espanada.
I had one when I played with Lee Rocker, and we used on that song “Till It Hurts,” and on different things for backups. Lee would always call it the tuba guitar because it was so fat sounding. I ended up selling that guitar and I always regretted it. About 20 years later I found a guy in Florida that had one and I bought it. He called me three months later and said he had another one with aluminum binding, so I got that one too. In the meantime, Richard Purcell from Sheryl Crow’s band found one in Indiana and sent it to me. The top had collapsed so I couldn’t use it, but I own three of them now. It’s a great guitar because there’s not a lot of twang in it. It’s really dark.
Do you have a favorite recording amp?
Alexander Dumble had this Vibro Champ of mine that I’d given him because it wasn’t working, and one day I was driving out there with [Fender Custom Shop builder] Chris Fleming to pick it up. I looked at him and said, “I’m not going to get that amp today am I?” He goes, “No, I don’t think so.” So I played a bunch of amps at Alex’s house, including the Vibro Champ, and when I got done he said, “Can I keep your amp a little longer?” So what he does is watch how you play, and then he’ll go back and revoice the amp based on how you play. It’s such a cool thing. I used that Dumble-ized Vibro Champ for the majority of the guitar sounds, and I also used a Fender Excelsior with a single 15 for a few things.
Did you get that badass grungy electric tone on “Black Annie” with the Vibro Champ or the Excelsior, and did you have any pedals in the signal chain? Also, what kind of resonator guitar did you play for the solo intro?
I have this Gretsch Alligator resonator guitar that I used on the beginning, and then when the band comes in it’s the Espanada through the Excelsior and the Vibro Champ. I used a Royer 121 ribbon mic on them, and then I had a tube vocal mic in the room back about six feet. I also had this pedal from Tone Hungry Effects called the Hunger Bender that was adding just a little bit of gain to everything. But a lot of that sound—and you can also hear it on “Can’t Buy Me Love”—is the Espanada, which is just a spongy, fat-sounding guitar. You can plug it into anything and it just gives that woofy kind of sound.
Is that the same setup you used on “Hoodoo Man?”
Yes, but I had the Espanada tuned to open G. I used more of the Vibro Champ on that one.
That raging tone you got “Kill My Woman” sounds like you also had a fuzzbox on.
That’s actually just the Excelsior and the Espanada with its tone rolled off. The Excelsior wants to distort from 1, and I had the Volume at about one o’ clock. So it’s basicall a 13-watt amp at full distortion, and then when you add the Espanada it just takes over everything. I remember this Packard Bell console stereo that my parents had when I was a kid. It had a 15 on each side and it was tube powered. I remember putting Deep Purple records on it and when I cranked it up the tubes would get real squishy and the cabinet would vibrate. When I started doing demos for this record the tones I was getting from the Excelsior reminded me of that.
When you need to use a delay, what is your pedal of choice?
Man, I have so many delay pedals. I even have an Eventide Time Factor, which I got because John Mayer had one and he really loves it. But to be honest, I have a hard time programming something like that. I know it’s not that hard to do, but my brain just doesn’t work like that. I need it to be very simple, and so the one I’m using now is made by a company in Japan called Music Level. It’s called a Noah’s Ark and it also says “White” down by the footswitch. It works so well and can do really long delay times.
You were friends with Scotty Moore and you also recorded with him on several occasions. Were there things about the way he worked in the studio that have affected how you make records?
I recorded the first Big Blue record with Scotty at Kiva in Memphis. He showed up with his guitar and the Ray Butts amp, and we had already been tracking a little bit, so we were all set up in the studio with our own headphones and “more me” boxes so we could make our own mixes. I showed everything to Scotty and told him where he could put his amp and he goes, “I don’t want to use headphones, and I want my amp right next to me.” It was completely different from how we were recording, but we did it like that and it was great. The next recording I did with Scotty was on my album 61/49. I sent the tracks to him and he recorded a bunch of different parts, but you could tell that it was all ambient sound. And then when I recorded with him at his house we were all in one room and nobody had headphones. That ambient bleed is part of the band’s sound, and when we recorded Baptist Town at Sun there were no isolation walls—it was all open with minimal mics, and it was all live. That’s really healthy, I think.
What would say most impressed you about his guitar style?
When I was playing with Lee Rocker, they wanted us to do an Elvis Tribute record, so we picked a couple of songs that we wanted to do note-for-note. I sat down with all of Scotty’s stuff, and the biggest thing that struck me was how delicate it was. When you go back and watch those songs and see how he played that stuff it’s very subtle. It’s not bombastic and it’s not pushed. The solos are really simple too. When I did the Elvis Unleaded record, the whole premise was to take Elvis tunes and jack ’em up and add some octane to the thing. But there was one song called “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” and Scotty’s solo on it was so right that I wanted to do it exactly like he did it, and it was so crazy. It’s not like the guy from Gene Vincent’s band—it wasn’t so jazzy—and to me it sounded very obscure, almost like Coltrane. And then the second solo in “Hound Dog” sounds like he knocked his guitar over. It’s like, “Who was playing like that in 1954?”