Over the course of four albums, troubadour Riley Etheridge, Jr. has chronicled the human condition with his heartfelt ballads and haunting, acoustic-based folk songs.
But for his latest, The Straight and Narrow Way, the New Orleans-bred bard dipped his foot in fresh waters, whipping up several new tracks that embrace a blues rock and alt-country side he never knew he had. Conspiring with long-time producer Wendell Tilley ace session guitarist Shane Theriot, Etheridge stepped out of his comfort zone during sessions in The Big Easy, Nashville, and L.A. to cook up a batch of electrified gumbo that’s as soulful—and danceable—as it is sincere.
In addition to Theriot, the introspective (but fun) new album features appearances by guest all-stars Sara Watkins (Nickel Creek), Erica Falls (Joe Sample), Johnny Neel (Allman Brothers), Jim Keltner (Bob Dylan, Traveling Wilburys), and Dan Dugmore (James Taylor).
We could wax philosophic about the musical merits of The Straight and Narrow Way until our proverbial pen runs dry, but we pretty much covered all the bases during a phone interview with Riley himself a couple weeks back. Enjoying some downtime at home in The Big Apple prior to a CD release party at The Turning Point, Etheridge reflected on last year’s writing and recording sessions, discussed the need for change, and enthused over his upcoming support dates with Russell.
The Straight and Narrow Way was issued by Ridge Rock Music, alma mater label for such diverse artists as Sister Hazel and Reel Big Fish. It’s available now on iTunes and Amazon (link below). http://www.amazon.com/Straight-Narrow-Way-Riley-Etheridge/dp/B00HXH5YNG/...
CLEVELAND MUSIC EXAMINER: Hello, Riley! Thanks for taking the time to chat with us about the new album and tour with Leon!
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Thanks for making the time to chat, I appreciate you doing it.
EXAMINER: Can I ask where you’re calling from, just to get a sense of where you’re at?
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Absolutely, yeah. I’m in Long Island. I live in New York City now.
EXAMINER: But you spent a lot of time in Louisiana, no?
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Yeah, I lived in Louisiana for twenty years. I just can’t get lose the accent! But I’ve been in New York now for about seven years.
EXAMINER: I was born on Long Island myself. Hempstead, New York. Sadly, I haven’t been back since. One of these days!
RILEY ETHERIDGE: No kidding?
EXAMINER: Newark Airport’s the closest I’ve been. Ah well. So what’s the weather like in New York? Killer winter here in Ohio, but today’s mild.
RILEY ETHERIDGE: I’d say it’s a beautiful day here today. We’ve had a horrible winter of snow, but it’s like 55 and sunny, so everybody’s acting like it’s summertime!
EXAMINER: So you’re looking to debut the new disc, The Straight and Narrow Way, right there in New York next week.
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Yeah. On Wednesday I’ve got an unplugged show at Rockwood Music Hall here in New York that I’m really looking forward to. Some songs solo, but Erica Falls from Joe Sample’s band is coming up from New Orleans to sing with me. It’s gonna be the first time we’ve played live together. She recorded on the record with me. So we’ll do that this Wednesday, and…I don’t know if you’ve heard of a club in New York called The Turning point—legendary club—we’ll be doing that April 19th. And after that I’ll be heading your way with Leon Russell for ten days.
EXAMINER: Correct! You’re at the Beachland Ballroom with Leon on April 27th.
RILEY ETHERIDGE: My guitar player has played with a band called Mates of State, he says it’s a wonderful venue.
EXAMINER: Is that Shane Theriot, or…?
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Shane was my producer and played guitar on the record. He won’t be touring with me. The guy who played with Mates of State and with me—his name is Kenji Shinagowa. He’ll be doing the Leon tour with me. Shane is a little too busy for me right now; he just got a gig with Hall and Oates.
EXAMINER: Ah! Good for Shane, though!
RILEY ETHERIDGE: He literally just started with them about halfway through my project. They were looking for a music producer for Daryl’s TV show. So they hired Shane as music director for Daryl’s House, as well as their live band now. So I’m happy I got all this work out of him for the record.
EXAMINER: Hall and Oates are being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sometime next week. The ceremony’s in New York. But in may they’re actually coming to Cleveland for a show.
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Oh, are they really? What night is that?
EXAMINER: I want to say May 10th at Cleveland Public Hall.
RILEY ETHERIDGE: No kidding. Well, if you go out to the show, let me know. I’ll introduce you to Shane. He’s a true Louisiana gentleman and a great guitarist. He was in Dr. John’s band, and in the Neville Brothers when he was just a kid. I’m afraid I’m gonna pronounce her name wrong—Madeleine Peyoux—he was in her band. He’s a very funky guitarist. So the Hall and Oates gig is appropriate for him. Their music is danceable and so funky. Shane’s the guy. They made a good choice.
EXAMINER: Straight and Narrow Way is your fourth full-length, yes?
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Yep, fourth record.
EXAMINER: I’m not too familiar with the first three, to be honest—but it’s my understanding that this record’s a bit different for you, in that you kind of came out of your comfort zone to rock things up a little more than usual. You’ve got tandem guitars going on, electrics playing off acoustics. There’s some up-tempo blues rock on here with some killer rhythms. And yet, the balladry you presented and mastered on the first three albums seems intact, too.
RILEY ETHERIDGE: That’s exactly right. I couldn’t have said it better. The two things were different. Shane has played guitar on all four of my records—but this is the first time he’s been in the producer’s role. And I have to say, it was Wendell’s and his idea to do it. I wasn’t smart enough to have thought of bringing him in on the production role. And once I made up my mind that I wanted to make a record that was more two guitars / drums /rock and roll and not as much the singer / songwriter thing, I knew he’d be well-suited for that. The other big difference this time is that typically I write…. I’ll finish a song, I’ll finish the arrangement, and I’ll show up in the studio and present it to everyone. Then we’ll record it. But this time, when Wendell and Shane and I got together, we had nothing finished. We started from scratch, just sitting around on the floor with legal pads and our guitars. So it was a really collaborative thing, much more spontaneous than anything I’ve recorded before. And I’ll have to admit, I was a little skeptical how it would go. Because as a writer myself, I tend to write and discard, write and discard, and hone. I might live with a song for couple years before I’m ready to present it. But that first weekend we actually wrote “Roll Away the Stone”—which is one of my favorites on the new record—and we wrote “What’s a Man to Do.” I’m in Nashville for like, 48 hours, and I’m walking away thinking, “Wow, this could actually work!” And from there it kind of gained a momentum of its own.
EXAMINER: Well, you wouldn’t know from listening the results that you’re new to the rock thing, or that any one song came together easier than any other. They’re all pretty stellar.
RILEY ETHERIDGE: No, that’s exactly right. I appreciate you saying that, because I felt like I’ve always had that in me. It’s just that I guess I never really allowed myself to think about making a record like that. Man, I remember—sometimes that kind of realization gets forced on you—we were playing a show in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I was…it might have been the first time we live debuted one of the songs we made on the record called “Even As We Fall,” and I never thought of that as a song that people would dance to. Not too funky. But fifteen seconds into the song people started coming out of the stands and dancing. And I’m like, “That’s cool!” It’s fun, it’s a great connection. And after the show I was thinking about adding more stuff like that to our repertoire, because I enjoyed it, and obviously people responded to it. So it was a bit of a wake-up call for me.
EXAMINER: Would you mind if I delved into lyrics and themes a bit?
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Yeah, absolutely, yeah!
EXAMINER: There’s a couple cleverly-written ballads on the disc that offer different points of view on guy / girl relations. For example, “Song for Amy” seems like a nostalgic sort of thank-you to an ex-girlfriend, and even though things didn’t work out, both parties gained from the experience and grew up a little. Conversely, on “What’s a Man to Do”—or even “Down to My Last Twenty Dollars”—it’s more about going with the flow in a relationship. Is that off the mark?
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Both very accurate. Amy was my first girl I dated back in high school in Columbia, South Carolina. That was her real name, and I’d never written a song about our relationship. The metaphor I tried to draw on there, the memory I preserved on there, some of my friends can be very optimistic about relationships, while others go in thinking it’s gonna fail from the start. They go in suspicious and skeptical and guarded. And as I reflected on why people—I tend to be in the more optimistic camp, and sometimes I think it’s because of that first experience I had. Amy and I dated for like four years, and we went our separate ways. I moved to Louisiana, and she stayed in the Carolinas. But it was such a positive experience. And I think I knew early on that relationships could be positive, could be constructive. So “Song for Amy,” as you said, was looking back gratefully from that perspective. “What’s a Man to Do” is a fun song about relaxing and going with the flow, and not trying to make something more than it is. Just enjoying the moment.
EXAMINER: Not going in with too many expectations, perhaps? Maybe the people in that one are older, wiser—or at least more experienced—and can just roll with it.
RILEY ETHERIDGE: That’s it, man! And you have that last verse, where I guess you have a choice what you can do with it. But thanks, I appreciate your listening to the lyrics, because it means a lot to me. Because it’s one of those topics I was always afraid to write about. When you write about your first girlfriend, it has the potential to be very cheesy!
EXAMINER: Songwriters write about first loves and girlfriends all the time. But it’s kind of cool to come across something like “Amy,” where the name hasn’t been changed!
RILEY ETHERIDGE: There it is, yeah! We haven’t seen each other in probably thirty years. So I have to admit I’m hopeful she’ll hear it and be touched by it. We’ll see.
EXAMINER: One of the duets you have with Sara Watkins, “Another Time, Another Place” is yet another relationship song, but here the two people seem okay with the fact that it’s not going to work out. And instead of tearing at each other’s throats, they both sense that it’s better maybe to let go. It’s simple, but the music has this majestic quality to it.
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Yeah, exactly. Majestic—that’s exactly the right word. It’s based on a real story I observed, based on some people I’m close to in New York. If you believe in the concept that love is all about wanting the best for someone else, and if you realize it’s not happening in the current domain, then hopefully you both have the strength to give it to the other person. Some people think it’s a sad song. But as you said, I think it shows a sincerity and true concern for the other person. And Sara’s part just captured the emotion of it. What she sang was so different and complex than what I’d heard in my head. When she sang the chorus the first time in the studio, I literally had a smile from ear to ear!
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Watch the official video for “Another Time, Another Place” by Riley Etheridge, Jr. here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=qrrY9jSEo9M
EXAMINER: And that’s her playing fiddle, too?
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Yeah, both. She played fiddle and sang. I was lucky to get her to do both. It was a bit of serendipity. I was in San Diego, where she was living at the time. I wanted a female duet on that, and I didn’t really have a well-thought out plan of who that would be. But when I realized I was going to be in San Diego—I’d played the Cayamo Music Cruise the year before when she and Sean were on it—I reached out, and the next thing you know, we’re in the studio doing it together. It couldn’t have gone any better. And now Nickel Creek’s getting back together, so I get to hear more of her!
EXAMINER: The hook in that song, there’s this neat part where you both sing, “every now and then,” but there’s this deliberate hold on the “now” and a pause before “the end” that builds a cool musical tension-and-release.
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Yeah, thanks, man. It’s funny, because when I first wrote it that way…I find I’m my own worst judge of my songs, and when I wrote it that way, that’s how it first came out with the melody and lyrics. And it bothered me for a while, and I was like, “I don’t know about that.” And Wendell said, “That’s really cool!” Exactly what you said. It builds a little tension and sets it off. But at first, I just wouldn’t commit!
EXAMINER: I suppose the tendency would be for a songwriter to add more words, a couple more syllables to pad out the timing. That’d be the knee-jerk reaction when a songwriter tests something and realizes it doesn’t quite time out quite right. Add more words and inflect to fill the space. But here, you both just hold that “now,” and it pads out nicely!
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Fill up the space, yeah!
EXAMINER: Then we have “The Maze (Of Our Own Creation).” I like what’s going on here, with these metaphorical walls people construct to either lock people out or shut themselves in.
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Bingo, yeah. That’s exactly the idea. I should have given my girlfriend a co-writing credit on that. I was complaining about my travel schedule, and she said, “It’s a maze of your own creation.” At first I was kind of mad at her—then I was like, “Wow, that’s really good! I might use that!” And once I got that imagery, about the walls we build, that was one of those songs where it comes out—all the chords, melody—in like three hours. It’s my favorite song on the record. There are ones like that where they come easy, come from that special place. And that’s the one where, when I listen to the record, I’m thrilled with that one.
EXAMINER: Who’s that playing pedal steel on that one?
RILEY ETHERIDGE: That’s the legendary Dan Dugmore. You should Google Dan; he was in James Taylor’s band, Linda Ronstadt’s band before that. He was huge in the L.A. scene in the ‘70s. Now he’s in Nashville, mainly doing session work. We did get to do one live show together when I was in Nashville, back in 2010. He’s literally like, the first or second call in all of America when it comes to pedal steel. And all that was like, first take. I think we were in his studio for like…five minutes. One take, we were done. Guys like that, you never tell ‘em what to play. It’s like, “Whatever you want!” But it was a first take. I was kind of sad because Dan’s been on all four of my records, and seeing some of the other records were more country and more ballad-y, Dan was on five or six songs. But the steel only felt right on “The Maze” for this record. But I glad we had Dan on one, because he’s a good friend and a super talent.
EXAMINER: And with “Second Chance, Saving Grace” you’re working the metaphor of a relationship on a film set—like a director coaching an actress.
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Film set, yeah. That’s the analogy.
EXAMINER: “Last Twenty Dollars” rocks a bit. Who’s the harmonica player?
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Yeah, it does. That’s Johnny Neel. And Johnny’s a killer B-3 player. Killer pianist. He was in the Allman Brothers, and now he’s in Nashville doing a lot of studio work. Johnny played on the third record. And honestly, I didn’t know he played harmonica. But when we wanted to get some type of keyboard or organ on “Last Twenty Dollars,” he volunteered and said, “I’d rather play harp!” And again, he’s one of those guys you don’t argue with. It’s like, “Whatever you want to do!” And when we heard the track it was like, “Holy smokes!” It just turned out really well. And I tried to avoid the cliché on that song, like you said, of the material girl breaking me. Because I wanted to end with the notion of, hey man, it’s worth every penny. No hesitation. I forgot the last line…”Watch my baby shake and you’ll understand / I supply and she demands.” We’re happy with the transaction.
EXAMINER: How are the guitars divvied? Is that predominantly you on the acoustic?
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Mainly the acoustic. Shane and Wendell play a lot of the leads and a lot of the electric rhythm. It’s funny. We took a different approach with this record. When we had like twelve, fourteen songs, we sat back and cast it like a movie. When we heard the direction the songs were going, we were like, “Jim Keltner would be great on these four or five songs.” And when Jim agreed to do the record, he played [drums] on “Second Chance,” “Saving Grace,” “Roll Away the Stone,” and “Amazed.” So those four were Keltner. And a bass player—who grew up in New Orleans but is now in L.A.—named Calvin Turner. And we had songs that had more of a Memphis feel, more Muscle Shoals, and there was this [bass] player from Memphis named Greg Morrow and [drummer] Michael Rhodes, and we tracked another four—“Song for Amy,” “What’s a Man to Do”—they were on those. And once we got those tunes, we went down to New Orleans. That’s where I normally record, because it’s comfortable there and we know everybody. And we used the New Orleans rhythm section—Doug Belote [drums] and Dave Ellis [bass]—to track the more New Orleans-feeling stuff, like “Even as We Fall,” the title track…that’s all Doug and Dave. So, three different cities, different rooms, three different feels. But I think we cast it right! I think we got the right people for the right songs.
EXAMINER: And you’ve got a horn section, too, on a few numbers: “What’s a Man to Do?” “Even As We Fall,” and “She’s Only in New York.”
RILEY ETHERIDGE: We did those in New Orleans, and used the same horn section on the last three of my records. And Larry Seiberth is a killer horn arranger. Those guys are all super players. I like using the horns when they fit the song.
EXAMINER: I guess that’s the key, knowing what serves each song best.
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Yeah. We’ve learned. Wendell and I have been friends for thirty years. When I lived back in Baton Rouge, I owned a recording studio there for like ten years, and Wendell was one of the first engineers I hired there. We worked on other peoples’ records for a long time, and I think that gives us an advantage. Everybody has different strengths as a player, and if you can be objective enough to realize what a specific song requires, and you have the luxury of time…. Another thing different about this record was, we never thought out, “Hey, I want to finish a record in 2014.” Because I’d just done Arrogance of Youth, and released that in 2012, then went back into writing. I was dubious as to what we could get out of it, but when I realized how well it was going, it was, “Wow! This is fun, so let’s keep going!” But we were never in a rush. We were able to fly out to L.A. and spend some time with Keltner, then go down to New Orleans, and we never felt like we were ever under any time pressure.
EXAMINER: Your publicist, Melissa, is always turning me on to cool new things I’d have missed. So when she mentioned you were coming to town with Leon, I knew the album would be worth checking out. So now we’re looking forward to the gig!
RILEY ETHERIDGE: She’s great, yeah. I’m a big fan of hers. You know, complete luck. The label I’m on—Rock Ridge—has been a great support for me. The promoter put us on this tour together and felt there was some kind of chemistry between our music, and pitched the idea and gave us the offer. And he’s out for a long time; I’m only doing ten of his dates. On one hand, I know he’s doing a lot of dates down South before I catch up with him. He’s playing Baton Rouge, where Wendell and I played a bunch growing up. But on the other hand, it’s gonna be nice because I’ve never played Cleveland or Minneapolis. I’m going to end up doing a lot of markets with him where I’ve never been. And I’m actually getting some airplay with the record in these cities. So it’ll be cool to go new audiences. And I’m a huge fan of Leon Russell. I still vividly remember the year “Lady Blue” came out. I thought, “That could be the sexiest song of all time!”
EXAMINER: You’ve got like, ten dates with Leon, and Cleveland’s right in the middle.
RILEY ETHERIDGE: I think it’s on April 27th. That’s right. I’ve been rehearsing for that tour more than for these first couple full-band dates we’re doing. Because it’s different when you’re playing it solo or as a duo. Doing all these songs in big rooms with just acoustic guitar and Kenji on mandolin is different. But it’s gonna be fun!
EXAMINER: So this’ll be the stripped-down, acoustic-based versions of The Straight and Narrow Way, what with Shane gone.
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Yeah! On the tour with Leon and I, it’s going to be Kenji. I told him, “No pressure—but you’ve got some big shoes to fill!” But he’s a great player, singer, guitar player. We’ve done one rehearsal together, and it’s got a cool vibe. It’s something I’ve always enjoyed, that percussive feel of a mandolin against an acoustic guitar. So I’ll think we’ll pull it off! And yeah, it’s April 27th at Beachland!
EXAMINER: We’ll see you there. Thanks so much for you time, Riley!
RILEY ETHERIDGE: Thanks for taking the time. Look forward to seeing you in April!
Leon Russell, Riley Etheridge Jr. Sunday, April 23, 2014 at 8:00pm (7:00pm doors). Beachland Ballroom (15711 Waterloo Road, Cleveland, Ohio).
Tickets available now: http://www.ticketweb.com/t3/sale/SaleEventDetail?dispatch=loadSelectionD...