If you go back in the history of roots music, you’ll find that genres that are harshly separated today were not so clearly distinct in an earlier time. Up to the ’50s and ’60s, country and folk were closely tied to blues, and the word often appeared in the title of country songs. In the late ’60s and ’70s, there was a distinct overlap between country and the burgeoning genre of soul music, centered on Memphis and Muscle Shoals, Alabama. (For a fascinating, book-length study of this, see Charles Hughes’ excellent Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South.)
Eli “Paperboy” Reed has dedicated his career to vintage soul sounds, but as he showed in his performance at The Hamilton Live recently, he’s a fan of old-school country, too.
Reed has an interesting background for someone with such a passion for vintage soul music. He’s a native of Brookline, a suburb of Boston, which is pretty far from the region where that music was born. His father was a music critic, though, so he grew up exposed to a wide variety of sounds and styles. After graduating high school he went to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and became part of the local music scene, picking up the “Paperboy” nickname. At his parents behest, he went back up north and became, to my knowledge, the only soul singer to attend the University of Chicago, an institution better known for its connection to libertarian economics.
After breaking with his 2008 album, Roll With You, Eli had a pair of major label releases, Come and Get It and Nights Like This. He’s since returned to the indies, and he maintains a dedicated following. One of the songs he shared early in the set on May 6, “Your Sins Will Find You Out,” was featured on the TV adaptation of the classic Garth Ennis comic series Preacher.
Stream “Your Sins Will Find You Out” by Eli “Paperboy” Reed on YouTube:
Eli and his band opened their set with a cover of OV Wright’s “I’d Rather Be.” They played several songs from their back catalog: “Cut Ya Down,” “Name Calling,” and “Well Alright Now,” before moving on the most recent material. He recently released Down Every Road, a collection of Merle Haggard covers down in soul style. Explaining the project, Eli told the audience about visiting the Grand Ole Opry as a child, and how he had a sincere love for this kind of music in addition to his passion for blues and soul, and he invited us to think about whether it made sense.
Both on the album and in his concert, Eli went right to beginning with “Mama Tried.” I was reminded of Steve Earle’s comment, on doing the material of Townes Van Zandt, that when he was in prison, that you go up to the biggest guy in the yard and kick hiss ass to prove a point. Eli tackled the big dog — both here and on the album — and he proved his point.
This project really proves just how limber these Merle Haggard songs are. There aren’t a lot of tired tropes in Merle’s writing. You don’t get a lot of cowboys. Not a lot of horses. You don’t hear Merle using a lot of the tired, uninteresting images and metaphors. In the Merle songs that followed — “I’m Bringing Home Good News,” “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can,” “Somewhere Between,” “It’s Not Love (But It’s Not Bad),” and the title cut of the album (which was written for Merle), you hear a lot of vocabulary and get a lot of imagery that’s markedly different from modern country. Merle isn’t afraid to use the word “tavern” instead of the simpler bar, and he uses vernacular phrases like “raising Cain” as way of describing wild behavior, which allows him to be more concise and to achieve a unique, specific voice.
Stream Merle Haggard’s “I’m Gonna Break Every Heart I Can” by Eli “Paperboy” Reed on YouTube:
When he introduced “Down Every Road,” Eli talked about the resonance of the song’s opening line for him: “Down every road, there’s another city.” It’s a song about the traveling life, especially the traveling life of a musician, and it has a lot of meaning as he’s just getting on the road now, for the first time, after the long layoff forced by the pandemic.
In the last part of the set, Reed went back to his own material, with a series of songs that dealt largely with love and relationships. After he was finished the Merle songs, he went with his attitude filled kiss-off, “Coulda Had This,” followed by “If You Want The Love of A Man.” As he was wrapping up the set, he prefaced the last song, “Take My Love With You,” by saying how, after the last few years, we all know what it’s like “to need someone that couldn’t be by their side.” Amen, to that brother; it’s been a long, hard, couple of years, as hard as any, and it’s tested the bonds between people to their limits.
For his encore, Eli came back to the stage alone, and, at the behest of the audience, he performed the title cut of his previous album, 2019’s 99 Cent Dreams. The gist of the song is that the things mentioned add up to 99 cents. (There’s an old joke from the sitcom Married With Children: Al Bundy comes up with a 99 cent coin, and someone asks, “What about sales tax?”) After that, the band returned to the stage for one final number, and they performed the Haggard classic, “Workingman’s Blues,” ending the concert on a high note.
Eli had invited the audience to contemplate whether his project made any sense; by the end of the show, it was more than clear that what he’s doing not only makes perfect sense, but it sounds great, and it’s incredibly entertaining fun. In the musical ecosystem, he lives in a unique niche, and it’s great to see it.
Here are some photos of Eli “Paperboy” Reed performing at The Hamilton Live in DC on May 6, 2022. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Ari Strauss.