Some artists are crafted by outside forces, while others wind upward, vine-like, working their way slowly into the light, supported by the traditions that came before them. Rootsy singer-songwriter Jason Eady chose vine over product after being cured of his musical disillusionment by such artists as Steve Earle, John Prine, and Townes Van Zandt.
Though Eady has only two albums to his credit, they honor his influences. Backed by his band the Wayward Apostles, his new album, Wild-Eyed Serenade, wanders from honky-tonk to swamp soul and alt-country ramble with a crackle and an assurance you’d expect from far more experienced hands. Songs like the smoldering, bluesy snarl “Back to Jackson,” and the bustling, lighthearted twang “Waiting to Shine,” herald a sharp young
Raised near Jackson, Mississippi, Eady has had the musical bug for as long as he can remember. He loved to sing, and first learned the guitar so he could accompany himself. At the time, he was taken with bluegrass, beguiled by the harmonies and phrasing. Though he grew up on traditional country from Hank Sr. through Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, Jackson is well-tilled musical territory according to Eady.
“Everything crosses through that area, whether it was jazz from New Orleans, Southern gospel, bluegrass, or Southern rock. All of that kind of meshed there in the middle in Jackson, and it just kind of soaked in,” says the 30-something Eady, on his way to San Antonio for a show.
Eady showed musical promise from an early age, and figured that’s what he’d do with his life. A farm girl from Starr, Mississippi — just three miles from Eady’s home in Florence — had already made her way to Nashville, and he thought he’d follow in Faith Hill’s footsteps.
After high school he started going up to Nashville every weekend, hanging out with fellow songwriters and insinuating himself into the scene. He was on his way, but something didn’t feel right.
“I got up there, and the closer I got, the more I realized that route wasn’t necessarily what I was looking for,” Eady explains. “Then one day I just woke up going, ‘Whoa, what do I want to do?’ It was a crossroads. Do I go ahead down that road anyway, even though something doesn’t feel quite right about it, or do I do something different, and if I do something different, what do I do? I’d never really done anything else.”
He didn’t understand the manufacturing of pop stars — like hot dogs and legislation, you don’t want to know how they’re made.
“They looked at the packaging part first, like, ‘What do we want to make him?’ ‘How about the young guy who sings about cars? Let’s go out and get a bunch of songs about cars,’” Eady says, ruefully recounting his near-makeover. “It was like the record label had a need and they just went out looking for people to fill that. It didn’t seem as authentic as I had hoped.”
Instead, he did what any confused, disillusioned 20-year-old would do — he enlisted. All right, maybe not any 20-year-old, but certainly one who likes to dive in headlong. Eady talked to the recruiter on Monday, and by Thursday he was in basic training. In fact, I spoke with him exactly 14 years to the day after he joined the Air Force, and still he considers it one of the most fulfilling experiences of his life. Within a year, he was not only a cadet, but married.
Working as a translator, he saw the world and met plenty of characters. His friends spanned cultures, nationalities, and religions. It was an eye-opening experience for a kid who “growing up in Mississippi, `thought` someone that lived far away lived in New Orleans or Dallas.”
He’d reconciled himself to a life without music, and played maybe a couple times a year when friends came over. For Eady, it was one of the best things he could’ve done.
“Because I had gone to Nashville a lot, I was really trying to write the formula,” he says. “I was ingrained in that, and I think it took me getting away from it and completely letting it go away for a while.”
Towards the end of his tour, he discovered Earle and other artists, who showed him another way.
“I started not necessarily writing, but learning all of their songs. And getting accustomed to how they phrased things, and then it just let me — I started writing the next couple years just at home,” Eady recalls.
He took a job in Fort Worth, where he started playing in public, and discovered, to his surprise, the great level of support for original songwriters, not just cover bands. Finally, with 30 on the horizon, he quit his job and went after the dream full-on. “If I just dip my toes in the water, I tend to not get much done. I kind of have to take the safety net away in order for me to commit,” says Eady.
He recorded his more straitlaced debut, From Underneath the Old, in ’05, got himself a band to support it, and followed it with Wild-Eyed Serenade last summer. Despite the wide-ranging sound, it holds together nicely, from the bluegrass-tinged paean to starting over at 29, “Before I Was Dead,” to the album-closing gospel of “Walking to Jerusalem.” Part of its appeal are the live-to-tape aesthetic and seasoned band, which imbue the album with an energy missing from the studio-constructed, session-player-backed debut. After all, Eady’s a guy who who doesn’t care if he’s doing things the hard way, so long as it’s his way. •
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