Virginia native releases new disc, 'High-Dollar Gospel'
FARMINGTON — While his music is, and probably always will be, rooted in the blues, guitarslinger Eli Cook also incorporates plenty of other styles into his music. That's why the title of his new disc, "High-Dollar Gospel," makes perfect sense to him, even if it's not a gospel album.
"I don't think you can really be drawing from the blues tradition without borrowing from the gospel tradition, as well," Cook said Sept. 27 from his home in Virginia before setting out on a tour that will bring him back to Crash Music at the Aztec Theater this weekend. "The two go hand in hand."
Cook understands that as well as anybody. As a youngster, he honed his old-school blues chops playing church-based social events in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. As a nationally touring professional, he's perfectly capable of rocking the house or wading neck deep into traditional blues, but, given his background, it's only natural that gospel music should make its presence felt in his music to some degree.
"The gospel music tradition is so prevalent, especially in soul and R&B music. Anybody who pulls from that music is pulling from gospel music," he said, citing the influence gospel has had on the work of artists such as Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, among others.
"One thing I do thoroughly appreciate in old-time gospel music is the earnestness of it," he said. "It wasn't being written or performed for commercial purposes. So there's an authenticity to that music that make it very inspiring and worthwhile, no matter where your religious beliefs may fall under."
Cook said the title of his new disc can be taken in any one of a number of ways, although it is meant primarily to invoke the imagery of his native South. He also said it reflects the current political landscape in America and the way in which so many people are being fed lines by those in control.
But Cook is hardly a political animal. He resides in Charlottesville, Va., and was profoundly distressed when a woman was killed there during the Unite the Right rally in August, although he believes participants on both sides were manipulated.
"I don't have much of a positive view in any direction on the people involved," he said. "Very literally, it was political theater being played out, and people got hurt when they didn't need to be."
That event coincided with the release of his new disc, and Cook was busy attending to those details. Unlike his last two releases, both of which came out on indie labels, Cook released "High-Dollar Gospel" himself, taking the production down several notches from that of his hard-rockin' 2014 disc "Primitive Son," which featured plenty of star power through guest appearances by the likes of guitarist Sonny Landreth (Clifton Chenier, John Mayall and John Hiatt), guitarist Pat Travers (the Pat Travers Band) and drummer Artimis Pyle (Lynyrd Skynyrd).
The rootsy "High-Dollar Gospel" is intended to serve as more of a representation of one of Cook's solo acoustic shows, though that's not to say he plays his guitar with any less fervor than he has on any of his other albums. Cook still works the fretboard with an intensity and precision rarely seen these days with the guitar in its descendancy in popular music, and his voice — a less-honeyed version of Keb' Mo's — partners perfectly with his instrumental style.
Cook mixes tempos and themes between the roots rocks of "The Devil Finds Work," and the dark and moody "Mixing My Medicine" before taking his foot off the gas and delivering a tasteful, more restrained reading of the Dylan classic "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight."
It's quite a sonic change from "Primitive Son," but Cook doesn't worry about alienating his fan base with that change in direction. The economics of touring dictate that he perform by himself in most cases, and "High-Dollar Gospel" is a piece of work that presents Cook in perhaps his truest form.
Despite its unmistakably blues tone, "High-Dollar Gospel" relies far more on traditional Appalachian instrumentation — banjo and mandolin — than any of his other work, and Cook hopes that approach opens some doors for him to the Americana market, which he hasn't fully explored before now. He said he has enjoyed the experience of working with record labels in the past, but he didn't deny he bristled when some company executives felt compelled to weigh in on his artistic choices.
"There's the predicament of having too many cooks in the kitchen," he said. "Sometimes people on the corporate end feel like they want to have input on the creative end (because they're) writing the check."
Cook acknowledged the work of marketing and distributing "High-Dollar Gospel" himself has been a burden, but he said the digital age of music technology has made the DIY model of record making more financially attractive than ever, citing Jason Isbell as an example of an artist who has thrived under that approach.
"There are a lot of people making more money that way, and they have more creative control that way," he said.
That's not to say Cook wouldn't pick up the phone if another label came calling with an attractive offer. But he takes a hard-nosed realist's approach to the business side of his craft and keeps his expectations in check.
"In my experience in this industry, there's less and less middle ground," he said. "You're either making money or you're not."
Cook performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Crash Music, 104 N. Main Ave. in Aztec. Tickets are $15 in advance at crashmusicaztec.com or by phone at 505-427-6748 and $18 the day of the show.
Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.