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Early James Negotiates Strange Times With Strange Songs

Early James

In performance, there’s a coiled ferocity about the way Early James addresses the microphone, as if he’s charging the wires himself with 100 years of southern toil and trouble and language. He clenches and squints as he incants semi-surreal lines with a gravel tuned voice that evokes Charley Patton and Malcolm Holcomb. In conversation, he’s more an Alabama mild man than wild man, and the contrast is by design.

“A lot of people say I don't sing like I talk, and I know that's a matter of fact,” says James in Episode 220 of The String. “But I just hated hearing my talking voice. Like when I was younger, I call it my church voice. And I wanted to sound like Howlin Wolf. So I just started trying to transform my voice until I couldn't recognize it anymore. I guess it is like a different persona or something.”

The name is a construct as well. Frederick James Mullis Jr. grew up in Troy, AL, initially on a chicken farm. (He says the family lost it, without elaborating.) He counts his mother, grandmother and sister as the most influential people in his young life. He started writing songs after receiving a guitar for a Christmas gift at age 15 and he’d go on to play that guitar in his school jazz band while he studied the great fingerstyle players, because he kept dropping picks. Then he moved to Birmingham where he met bass player Adrian Marmolejo who still tours with him. They were the heart of Early James and the Latest, playing all manner of noisy, disrespectful bars and joints before getting some traction on the regional roots scene.

A video of Early James playing an opening set for songwriter Katie Pruitt made its way to Nashville rock star and rock star producer Dan Auerbach, who pounced on the chance to sign him to his acclaimed label Easy Eye Sound. They worked together to write and record the James debut Singing For My Supper, which had the distinction of being released on Friday, March 13, 2020, the very weekend that the pandemic took down the music business. But it was well received and Auerbach brought James back for a second album, something he’s only done with new country soul star Yola. “His writing is so idiosyncratic; there’s not one song that feels like anything you’ve heard before” Auerbach says in promo material for the new Strange Time To Be Alive. “But then there’s also something in his sound that feels carved out of stone, like it’s from another time—it’s a very strange mix.”

Indeed, while Auerbach co-wrote some of the material on these records, as has been his method with Yola, the Gibson Brothers and others, Early’s exotic poet’s voice took the projects into the deeply personal and peculiar. Consider this passage from the opening song “Racing To A Red Light.”

"Lordy what a time to be alive
Ain't no honey in a hornet hive
Well we shot for the moon first
Tesla cars on Mars or bust
Elon built a hearse in hindsight
Kinda like he was racing to a red light"

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On the album we encounter a feckless Grim Reaper, a couple sharing a straightjacket “crammed in a stitched up kangaroo,” and hell as a smoking room in a hotel. James wrestles with religion, depression and the audacity of performing for a living. This stuff can’t really be written by committee.

“You know, we’ll often get the meat of a song (at the studio), and I have to go home and I have to change them. I don't like for things to read plainly,” James says. “And often I'll write something that doesn't even make sense to me. But I really like how it sings. And then I have to find out what I meant by that…I don't recognize it unless I made it personal. I don't want to sing it if it's not personal, really.”

There’s a lot more in this fascinating conversation, which we recorded in the same room at Easy Eye where he made his two albums. He also says he’s been prolific lately with a couple more albums’ worth of material in hand. Early has a busy fall of touring, including a showcase at AmericanaFest and an appearance at the Austin City Limits Festival.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.