Eilen Jewell, a musician who’s sometimes country, sometimes blues, and all-times great, credits her livelihood to when she began hitting the streets and playing music for random passers-by. She was influenced to start busking by a college friend, who talked her into moving the songs they were playing from house to street. Since those days of busking in Santa Fe, Venice Beach, and – weather permitting – Boston, Jewell has grown into a roots-rock staple, hyped on the Americana circuit for her take on American roots music. The hype is well-deserved, too. She leads a smoking band with a sultry, smooth voice, a pocket full of originals, and covers picked from the American canon.
“Each time I busked was a new mini-lesson in how to perform. I was terribly afraid of the stage as a kid. I had terrible stage fright,” said Jewell. “I’m not very outgoing by nature. It felt like every time I went on the stage, [it] was like, ‘What am I doing? Why am I up here?’”
That time spent busking acted as the training wheels for the performance bug.
“Busking has no stage, so it’s a perfect transition,” Jewell said. “I didn’t realize I was going to make that transition at the time. I just thought it was exciting and scary to busk. And I knew I loved playing music.”
Gospel, country, blues, or tributes to Loretta Lynn have all found their way onto her records. If she chose to dive into the catalog of The Runaways, chances are she’d pull it off, as she has a stout musical capability to transition between styles.
Backed by a band that provides perfect fills behind her even more perfect-yet-subtle delivery, with husband Jason Beek on drums, Shawn Supra on bass, and Jerry Miller on guitar, Jewell is the female counterpart to Jason Isbell or Sturgill Simpson. She’s part of a handful of fringe-indie artists giving country and roots music the good kick in the ass that it needs. Although, if you’ve paid attention to the indie side of country music, you know she’s been kicking ass all along.
Her 2017 release, “Down Hearted Blues,” explores the raw tunes that laid the foundation for rock ’n’ roll, showcasing her interest in musical history and its exploration is equal to her talent. Any modern musician who knows the worth of Howlin’ Wolf, his musical contributions, who he influenced, and has a recognition and admiration for tunes that weren’t the flavor of the week back in the day, deserves some praise. A champion of the B-side, the “Down Hearted Blues” album turned fans on to decades-old music that, under Jewell’s command, feels as fresh as next week.
“A lot of them I uncovered in my dad’s record collection in the attic of our garage as a teenager. Those tunes were the foundation of my love of music. Like, Howlin’ Wolf was in that collection, and as soon as I saw that cover, I knew that this was going to be great. I could tell by the face, the name – I mean anyone named Howlin’,” said Jewell. “So, that’s where I’m coming from with that album. I want to turn people on to stuff they might not know about. The B-sides of some of them, from the more well-known artists like Howlin’ Wolf or Little Walter, but the tracks you haven’t necessarily heard a million times already. I like the underground, the B-sides, the hidden gems.”
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. email@example.com.