Eilen Jewell Caps Off Another Strong Year ‘Behind The Wheel’
One might imagine that after 17 years singing country music and releasing ten albums, an artist would have shared all of her secrets with her audience, but Eilen Jewell says only in the aftermath of 2020 and a bunch of disruptive change and loss well beyond the reach of the pandemic, that she was ready to get real in ways she never had before.
“It's the most personal album I've ever made,” she says in Episode 284 of The String about her album Get Behind The Wheel. “Before I did this album, I always kind of wanted to tell other people's stories, but kind of sneak in little details about myself. I didn't want anyone to pay any attention to the woman behind the curtain, you know? But with this one, I just felt like anytime I wrote anything, it was about what was immediately going on for me.”
And there was a lot to write about. After a decade getting established as one of Boston’s premiere artists, Jewell and her husband and drummer Jason Beek moved to her home town of Boise, ID and had a daughter. Then things got tougher. “When the pandemic hit, our marriage fell apart. I moved out and then moved a couple more times,” she says. “It was just this time of terrible upheaval. There was an earthquake in Boise. You know, it just kind of felt like everything was ending. And it was really hard. We suffered a few losses in the family - family and friends. Not COVID related. But it was just a time of deep grief and upheaval and suffering.”
She touches on her journey throughout the new album, which was her first produced in Nashville by guitar maestro Will Kimbrough. I feel the struggle acutely in “Bitter End” and these final words on the record: “From the ashes, from the dirt/From the wound, from the hurt/
Oh, you gotta break before you can bend/You have to start at the bitter end.” But the album’s no downer. Its first line is “Fill up my glass/I want more” on the stately song “Alive.” And thus begins a journey that’s so well played and sung, so guileless and sincere, that it could only be country music. Jewell has been at this for a while now, but she tells me that at least in terms of radio airplay and chart response, this is the best-received album of her career.
Boise, ID of Jewell’s growing up years, was a pretty prim and straight-laced place with its large Mormon population. But she found early inspiration from records her father had let sit in the attic. “When I was a teenager, I discovered that record collection. And I think if it had been forced on me or out in the open, it wouldn't have been so interesting,” she tells me. “But it felt like buried treasure. You know, what is this thing that dad's trying to keep under wraps? It was boxes full of like, Mississippi John Hurt and Howlin’ Wolf. Oh, yeah. That was a major moment for me when I first heard him.”
Eilen (pronounced EE-len by the way) took her love of the blues to her college years in Santa Fe, NM and then on to Los Angeles where she spent some time busking in Venice. But it was moving to Boston that put Jewell on the map. She connected with Beek and guitar player Jerry Miller, a veteran of Nashville studios who’s lent all of Jewell’s music a virtuoso twang. The savvy indie label Signature Sounds picked her up and have now released nine albums with this hard core troubadour. The catalog includes her fan favorite Sea Of Tears from 2009, a magical Loretta Lynn tribute of 2010 and one I love especially, an effortlessly soulful covers collection called Down Hearted Blues. There she has the courage to interpret the work of Alberta Hunter and Willie Dixon, without sounding forced or inconsiderate of the legacy she’s mining.
Happily, Jewell renewed her professional relationship with Beek, so he was in the band when I saw her perform at AmericanaFest. It was an excellent set with her poise rooted in experience and her especially tuneful and easy-flowing songs. The next day we got together to have this conversation, and I was especially glad to get a snapshot of one of roots country’s most interesting artists before she headed back home to Boise.