Premier guitarist Mike Eldred talks about Baptist Town, Elvis, Jimmie Vaughan, Scotty Moore & his Triumph

"Blues is all about the struggle between what I want to do, and what I end up doing. Good and evil, right and wrong, happiness and pain."

Mike Eldred: Americana Blues Roots

Mike Eldred started playing guitar when he was 14 and has not looked back. Playing in bars, weddings, high schools, and everything in-between, he got a call one day from Brian Setzer's guitar tech who had passed Eldred's 4 tracks demo to Lee Rocker. It was that encounter that began his professional career recording two CD's with Lee and finally stepping out with his own band. Red-hot Americana roots music from one of L.A.'s premier guitarists backed by the Blasters rhythm section of John Bazz & Jerry Angel. These boys are no strangers to the roots music scene in Hollywood. Eldred was last seen and heard as a founder/writer/guitarist with former Stray Cat Lee Rocker, in Lee Rocker's Big Blue, while Angel and Bazz have been the faithful "keepers of the backbeat" for the critically acclaimed Blasters. All three mugs have favorably graced the pages of Guitar Player, Guitar World and other respected musician magazines, as well as rave reviews from the LA Times.     Photo by Rick Scuteri, 2015

Eldred has been called "The best unknown guitarist in America" by more than one reviewer, and continues to amaze with the bands CD "61 and 49" (2011) features 13 original songs and special guest appearances by Ike Turner, Scotty Moore, Kid Ramos, and Cesar Rosas from Los Lobos. Mike's influences are varied and extreme. From Scotty Moore to Hendrix, there are no barriers to his musical taste. The band's release "Elvis Unledead" (2012) featuring 20 versions of some of Elvis greatest hits. The trio’s 4th album “Baptist Town” (Worldwide Release - May 6th 2016) is a monumental achievement in roots and blues storytelling, and will undoubtedly grow the trio’s already large fan base that includes artists like ZZ Top’s Billy F. Gibbons. The Mike Eldred Trio makes the rounds through a blues-wrapped offering that is certain to satisfy. Rock it!”

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the Blues & Roll and how has changed your life?

There was a family that lived across the street from me when I was a kid, and they were all older guys. They would have me listen to Coltrane, Zappa, T-Bone, everything…very eclectic not just one type of music. They took me to my first blues concert which was Lightnin’ Hopkins at a club called The Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach, CA. I think I was 16 years old. It blew my mind. My parents had a wicked record collection as well. Ruth Brown, Ray Charles, Elvis.

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues and what does the blues mean to you? 

It’s all about the struggle between what I want to do, and what I end up doing. Good and evil, right and wrong, happiness and pain.

How do you describe and what characterize your songbook and lyrics?                             (Mike Eldred in Sun studio, Photo by Matt York, 2016) 

It varies from record to record, but I think we strive to tell stories that people can relate to and identify with. I personally like to write about things that are sometimes harder for people to talk about. My goal is to continue that, because I think that certain things, feelings, emotions, etc., should be talked about and shared.

"Chuck Berry is blues, but so is Hendrix to me anyway. Just as much as Elmore James, or Buddy Miller."

What experiences in life make a good BLUESMAN and songwriter?

I think any experience as long as you can talk about it. The biggest challenge is being able to tell somebody what you have (or, are) going through. Being able to tell a story that’s compelling. Also, you should try to tell a story that people can relate to.

Are there any memories from studio sessions of “Baptist Town” at Sun Studio which you’d like to share with us?

Jerry, John, and I were so focused before we even got to Sun because we knew we had a limited amount of time there. They do tours through the studio all day, so you can’t work until 6pm, and when you’re done, you have to pack it all up and hide it so they can do tours the next day, and then set it all up again after 6pm. Matt Ross-Spang (2016 Grammy award winner) who was the engineer is amazing. He is so much like Sam Phillips. He asks, “How does it FEEL” instead of how it sounds. There is a BIG difference. Recording “Roadside Shrine” with John Mayer at his house was very special too. John is such a great person, and we spent 4 days at his house with his engineer Chad Franscoviak recording and mostly just hanging out playing and listening to music. I am so grateful for John’s friendship and he is always very supportive of anything I’m doing. It was very difficult to sing in front of him though!

What touched (emotionally) you from the Southern music and folklore?

The soul and spirit of the people down there. No matter where you go, or what circumstances people are living under down there, they are always respectful, loving, and friendly. Baptist Town is a tough little neighborhood, and when I first went down there I was a little apprehensive. The second time I went there, I was welcomed in as a family member practically! I always stay at The Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, Mississippi too. It used to be a hospital and that’s where Bessie Smith died. Zee runs it now, but her father Frank “Rat” Ratcliff ran it before her, and he was alive when I stayed there the first time. Zee and her mom Joyce are like family to me and mine. But, there is always this decisiveness down there. Everywhere you go there is an element that does not support the black community and the history. It’s sad and my prayer is that it changes, but IT is also part of the culture in the South.

"We need more people like what Alan Lomax did to lead that charge. I am hopeful that recordings like ours will help to spur that on, but there needs to be more people who are willing to step up and point out the beautiful history and culture of the South." (Photo by Brad Olson, 2015)

What do you learn about yourself from the American Roots music and culture?

That it is a vital part of every American’s legacy and history. We are responsible to preserve it, acknowledge it, and represent it to the world. It’s easy (especially today) to shy away from it and pacify others and ourselves with watered-down pop as more of a means to make money instead of using music to inspire people.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past?

The “feel” I think. It is so contrived now, but the great thing is that more people are recognizing that, and it will change. It has to. People are going back to vinyl, understanding more and more that they are getting bullshit shoved down their throats in the form of some type of “formula” that just keeps getting watered-down every time it repeats the cycle. Go back to “Exile On Main Street,” or “Physical Graffiti.” The feel of those records, the sound, the tones. That isn’t what you’re hearing today. People expect an artist to produce one genre, style, etc., so that it fits perfectly in that box. When you listen to a Rolling Stones record, there could be a song like “Brown Sugar,” and then a country tune right after it. It’s very hard to find a band that does that anymore.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of music?

My hopes are that musicians will continue to experiment and reach, my fear is that they won’t.

How do you describe Mike’s sound and what characterize your music philosophy?                                               Photo by Tony Ziemba

I feel like I get “told” what to write. It may sound weird to some people, but it’s hard to explain. '61/49' felt like it was handed to me. The songs all kind of built up, and then erupted out. Physically, it was hard to keep up. I remember sitting on my kitchen floor with a guitar and all these songs written out on notepaper, and showing them to Chris Falson (executive producer) and we were both just sorting this record out, and I was freaking out because the songs were just non-stop. I think (for me anyway) I have to be patient and listen for that time to let it go. I was in that period with “Elvis Unleaded” album. We record at Sun Studio in June, and I just started “writing the songs last week, but they’ve been in my head (and heart) for years, its just time for them to come out now. I don’t know. It’s weird. It blows me away. My wife came out to the studio a couple days ago and I played bass and hummed a line from the melody, and the next day, there’s a completed song done. I know I’m not that talented, so somebody is telling me what to do! The whole concept, artwork, recording process, sounds, everything. I see it so clearly like it’s done. “61/49” was the same way, and so was “Elvis Unleaded”. The artwork for the cover, the sunglasses. Weird.

Tell something about your previous album “Elvis Unleaded”? What are you miss most nowadays from Elvis music?

I’m blessed to be good friends with Scotty (Moore) and D.J. (Fontana) so they have told me (and taught me) a lot about being spontaneous. Raw. Not too polished. Keep it real. Keep it loose. Not too many takes. Jerry, John and I did the basic tracks…22 total, in one night. It was the first time we had played ANY of those songs together. Most of the songs we have not played since. One take, and on to the next. We play a few live now so we have played those songs more than just the one time!

Why did you think that Elvis music continued to generate such a devoted following?

The way they played them on the records, the way he sang them for sure. I think that it also reminds us of a time in our lives when rock n’ roll was being introduced. Exciting and intense, and watching this guy or group of guys kind of creating something that we knew was going to “free us” from Pat Boone and Perry Como.

"The soul and spirit of the people down there. No matter where you go, or what circumstances people are living under down there, they are always respectful, loving, and friendly. Baptist Town is a tough little neighborhood, and when I first went down there I was a little apprehensive."

What are your best memories from recording time and touring with the band?

All of it. We are more like brothers than we are a band. Everybody gets along great; we all have the same kind of mindset that we aren’t a “band” per se, but more of an art piece or a conduit. When we play now, it’s like it’s our last time every time. There is no holding back or “I’m tired”, it’s just really intense for that time that we are up there.

I think the one thing that does stand out was the way we got together. We were backing people up all around Southern California, and sometimes it was Jerry and John, sometimes it was me and John, sometimes it would be all three of us as the back up band. Those nights were ALWAYS different. I was quitting Lee Rocker, and frustrated that I wasn’t playing that much, and frustrated with some of the people we were backing up… and Jerry said, “Why don’t you just start your own band?” and that was it. Jerry found a studio, and we went in and made a CD, and Virgin France put it out.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences for you?

So many it’s hard to list in an answer to a question. For this project, it has been hard because I wanted to make sure it landed someplace and in a manner that a large audience would hear and see it. That’s WHY we filmed everything. That’s WHY we started a blog about it before anything was even written. All that being said, there has been a small group of people who have walked through this process with us, and those people are everything. People who are not “famous” and some who are like Robert Cray, David Hidalgo, and John Mayer. All are very close friends, and have helped unfold this project and it’s this group of people that I am not only grateful for, but also impressed with as human beings for their ability to share a vision, and support it without looking for a reward. That is the essence of grace in my opinion.

"It’s (Blues) all about the struggle between what I want to do, and what I end up doing. Good and evil, right and wrong, happiness and pain." (Photo: Mike Eldred and Jimmie Vaughan, 2012)

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues? What is the best advice ever given you?

I think less is more. That’s Jimmie Vaughan, and Buddy Guy, and BB King, all the greats live by that. Ike Turner was a HUGE influence. I loved him so much. My kids loved him. He treated me like a king. He came down to the Blue Café (in Long Beach CA) one night… I think it was a Wednesday or some week night, and I was playing there and he got up and played six songs with us. I told his manager about it, and he told me Ike NEVER sat in with people. That meant so much. And when he played on “61/49” it was just amazing. I still miss him everyday. Best advice probably came from Lee Rocker. He told me that when the Stray Cats were touring with the Stones, Jagger told them, “use the WHOLE stage.” I guess that came from Mick instead of Lee, I just got it second hand!!!!

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Best: Playing and recording with Scotty Moore and Ike Turner. Worst: Having Jimmie Vaughan come up to me after our first night on tour opening for him and saying to me, “Wow! You’re quite the entertainer!”  I knew we would not be on the tour much longer.

Are there any memories from Scotty Moore, Billy Gibbons and Lee Rocker which you’d like to share with us?

Recording with Scotty was a treat. No headphones, no overdubs, no bullshit. Billy Gibbons - He continues to be a mentor to me, and we have spent many evenings in constant pursuit of Coronado’s Chrystal Sombrero! Without Lee Rocker, I would still be playing bars…wait…I STILL am playing bars! Never mind. No, Lee and I are great friends and I love that guy and his family. I have the upmost respect for a guy who played some HUGE festivals, and then got in a van with me and traveled across the USA many times to play some crappy places, AND some great places. We played a club called the Tip-Top Café in Huntsville, Alabama, and we walked in to the place, and it looked like a hillbilly bar. Whiskey barrels and plywood for a “bar” with a cash register on it. The dressing room was in the kitchen. We set up, and went to the kitchen and got drunk. I came out to use the bathroom, and the place was PACKED!!!! Couldn’t move. One of the BEST shows on that tour.

"It varies from record to record, but I think we strive to tell stories that people can relate to and identify with. I personally like to write about things that are sometimes harder for people to talk about. My goal is to continue that, because I think that certain things, feelings, emotions, etc., should be talked about and shared." (Photo: Mike Eldred and Elvis' guitarist Scotty Moore)

Which memory from Kid Ramos, George Thorogood, and Jimmie Vaughan makes you smile?

We went on a little tour with Kid Ramos, and it was so much fun. Playing together with him is a blast, but the driving part was hilarious!!! He was complaining about something one time, and would not shut up, so I pulled over at this little stand on the side of the road that was selling pottery and blankets. Indian blankets. So I bought him a statue of Jesus and a blanket and told him to shut up, and we all got back in the van and drove off laughing. I still ask him about that statue! George Thorogood let us open for him at the House Of Blues and we just went nuts. The crowd was freaking out and we were playing really well, and his tour manger saw what was going on, and they stopped our show early. We sold 55 CD’s that night. Jimmie Vaughan is just the best guy to be around. So subtle and his tone is just amazing. Lou Ann Barton is one of my favorite singers, and I had her sign my Tele one night, and she asked, “Why do you want ME to sign it?” and I said, “Because I love you!!!” such a fun tour.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had? Are there any fanny memories?

We opened for Kenny Wayne Shepard one time and it was very much like the Thorogood show. I think we closed with a Backstreet Boys song, just a punk version of it. People went crazy. That was fun. Having people sit in with us is always cool. Kid Ramos, Brophy Dale, Coco Montoya, Juke Logan, Dave Gonzalez, etc., lots of friends.

From the musical point of view what are the difference and similarity between Blues, Americana & Rock n’ Roll?

Feel. If it’s deep in you and you can get it out, the type of music is irrelevant I think. Chuck Berry is blues, but so is Hendrix to me anyway. Just as much as Elmore James, or Buddy Miller. Buddy Miller sings some blues, it’s just coming out of a different speaker.

"My hopes are that musicians will continue to experiment and reach, my fear is that they won’t." (Mike Eldred Trio from Kid Ramos benefit at the Rhythm Room, Arizona 2012. Photo by Matt York)

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is?

It’s soul music. Not like Stax soul, but spiritual soul. It’s the lifeblood of us. I just went on a Soul Cleanse to the South, and I was telling Robert Cray that I was going back down there and taking my daughter with me. Robert said, “It’s the soul of America.” That is it in a nutshell. I feel so alive when I go to Mississippi. Tonight, I was looking at the sky, and I said to myself, “I wonder what the sky looks like in Mississippi tonight?” It haunts me daily. I can’t wait to go back. You and any of your readers can check it the site: southernsoulcleanse and everybody should do that trip at least once if you like “soul” music!

When we talk about Blues n’ Roll, we usually refer to moments of the past. What happens todays?

It’s still going on, just maybe harder to find. Lots of great bands out there playing to nobody. I have seen some amazing bands and guitar players and they are still not widely known or can’t get over to Europe because promoters won’t risk it. We’ve only been over to Europe one time! I wish it were more like the early days when promoters would take more risks and bring American bands over. They are the “filter” for what happens in Europe as far as live performances.

What is the line that connects the legacy of Elvis with Stray Cats, Blasters, Mike Eldred and beyond?

Blues. Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House, Muddy Waters, all those guys. Their music shows up in all four of the artists mentioned.

"(Blues) It’s soul music. Not like Stax soul, but spiritual soul. It’s the lifeblood of us. I just went on a Soul Cleanse to the South, and I was telling Robert Cray that I was going back down there and taking my daughter with me." (Photo: Mike on stage, Chandler Blues & Jazz Festival, 2012)

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?

Do what YOU think is best. Don’t EVER let somebody tell you how it should sound, what you should wear, how the songs should be in order, what the artwork should look like, or what music to play. Do what YOU think is best. Listen to the earliest artists you can. I STILL do that. Right now I’m listening to Alan Lomax’ Sounds Of The South. Buy that box set. Buy Deep Blues by Robert Palmer and read it every year. Play for anybody who’ll listen.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Record companies would be more artistic, and not so profit driven. The term, “A&R” (artist and repertoire) is all but gone I believe. And when it does show up, there is very little guidance or development for the artist. It’s more, “how do we get this product to make money for us quickly” focused. Maybe I’m wrong, but I believe most artists already know what they want to do; they just need some guidance and support to execute that vision. The state of the industry makes it VERY difficult for companies to be more focused on the art, and less on the return. So, a record company won’t support your vision unless it’s successful, and if it were already successful, you wouldn’t need a record company to help support your vision! If you’re trying to put something out today, you better be prepared for a long line of companies who are waiting to tell you “no.”

Which incident of your life you‘d like to be captured and illustrated in a painting?

Probably when I wrecked on my Triumph motorcycle. I went down going about 60 mph and broke my nose (John Bazz says I sing better), tore up my knee and had several gashes in my face. I got a concussion and I was in the trauma center in Scottsdale, AZ for about four days. We have my bloody leather jacket framed in my front room. The painting would look nice next to it, and I think others would enjoy seeing me crashing.

"That it is a vital part of every American’s legacy and history. We are responsible to preserve it, acknowledge it, and represent it to the world. It’s easy (especially today) to shy away from it and pacify others and ourselves with watered-down pop as more of a means to make money instead of using music to inspire people." (Photo by Matt York, 2013)

What is the impact of Southern Folk and Roots music and culture to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

It needs preservation. We need more people like what Alan Lomax did to lead that charge. I am hopeful that recordings like ours will help to spur that on, but there needs to be more people who are willing to step up and point out the beautiful history and culture of the South. It is a living museum in the middle of the United States, and it seems to be more important to Europeans than it is to Americans in my opinion. Hopefully, things will change and areas like Baptist Town will get support from the surrounding cities like Greenwood. There is a difference between supporting a community, and taking a community over like what gentrification does. The people in these communities don’t need that, they need people to support and PRESERVE. There are shotgun houses in Baptist Town that are 100 years old and need work. Instead of preserving these pieces of history, the city of Greenwood comes in and tears them down and puts up (donated) FEMA trailers that are made to look like shotgun houses, and then they sell these (donated) trailers to the people in Baptist Town. That is just wrong.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I think probably to Baptist Town on August 12th in 1938. It would have been a Friday night and probably the night before Robert Johnson was poisoned. It would be great to tell him the impact he was going to have on so many musicians, music, and music lovers forever. It would be great to play guitar with him, sing songs with him, drink with him (out of my bottle by the way!), and just to meet him. I met Johnny Shines once a long time ago, and I’m sure Robert would be as gracious as Johnny was… or anybody else you meet in Baptist Town.

Mike Eldred Trio - Official website

Mike Eldred Trio / Photo by Matt York, Los Angeles, CA

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