Roots artists and songwriters are grappling with the state of the nation and what it means to be American more directly than they have in many years. Austin’s Band of Heathens, searching for the best way to add their voices to the chorus, took the tack of rediscovering and re-imagining a little known classic.
A Message From The People Revisited is a song-for-song cover of a 1972 album by Charles that mingled songs of protest with songs of patriotic pride. Co-founder Ed Jurdi said in a recent interview in Nashville that he and the band admired the album’s balance of the light and the dark.
“That’s the reason a lot of us choose to live in this society and love our country,” Jurdi said. “We can criticize it but we can shower praise on it at the same time. Those things to me were all appealing.”
Keyboardist Trevor Nealon found the Charles album on vinyl and made digital copies to share with the band. When the quintet got unfettered access to a Texas studio owned by a late friend and producer. they started laying down Message songs as an experiment, said co-vocalist Gordy Quist. But how will he and the band know it worked?
“Success would be being able to have civil conversations about these things again,” Quist said. “Because I feel like we’ve lost that as a culture. It’s the left and the right and a bunch of shouting. Everyone’s been so polarized that it’s us against them. And we don’t believe that as a band.”
In the Q&A above, taped before an August debut show at the Ryman Auditorium, Quist and Jurdi talk in detail about the Charles album, their appreciation for Grateful Dead and more:
Quist: “It kind of blew our minds. It was released in 1972, and it’s strange how the message he was delivering back then still seems relevant today. Hearing the record for the first time really floored me.”
On working in the studio of their friend and producer George Reiff, who died of cancer in 2017.
Jurdi: “George was a mentor of ours, a great bass player and producer. He produced a couple of records for us over the years and through collaborating we developed a great friendship. In a community like Austin there’s a close knit musical collaborative. George had seen a lot of things that we hadn’t yet, and he sort of took us under his wing and...he really helped us become a better band.”
On being Band of Heathens for a dozen years:
Jurdi: “(Touring) allows us the privilege to go in and make new music and share it with people and we’ve been fortunate enough that enough people like and support the music so then we can go play shows and make records and keep things going. It sounds over-simplistic but we’ve always sort of looked at things building very slowly. We’ve done that and we’ve been fortunate in that we’re able to still keep doing it.”