On the eve of a monumental snowstorm in late January, Indianapolis singer-songwriter Jethro Easyfields and I are sitting at Red Key Tavern, talking for over two hours about his new album and where a guy like him finds success. A knit cap atop his unshaven face and wearing a black Rolling Stones T-shirt and winter coat, he looks like a guy who would have a PBR in front of him. Instead, he's drinking a Heineken.
Easyfields is a man brimming with ideas, full of stories and naturally inquisitive. He muses about the expanded opportunities (via the Web) and reduced possibilities (with an economic recession and consolidated record industry) for a musician at this historical moment.
Easyfields' new album Elixir
is a full-on, full-band, hard-strumming acoustic guitar-led piece of Americana music that was recorded in five sessions over six months with his backing band, the Arrowheads. It rings of influences ranging from The Band to Tom Petty to Steve Miller. And it's a bit of an odd record, due mostly to the uniqueness that is Jethro Easyfields. There's a decided looseness to the album, and he says that's the way he wanted it.
"I always go in with sounds in my head," Easyfields says. "I wanted the recording to be live and be real. Tell me if I am singing off key. Maybe I can fix it later, or maybe I don't want to fix it.
"If there's a few mistakes on it, or it's a little wobbly here, we're not perfect people," he says of the cuts that made the new record. "It's not overly produced. We made it in my living room, with Pro tools and a big-ass mixer. Scott Kern, who plays guitar on the album, is the co-pilot and the guy who has the ears. He had headphones on saying, 'Keep going. You got it.'"
In prison for no damn reason
Easyfields' teetering voice sings of Indianapolis and Indiana on a number of songs from Elixir
. In his late 30s, Easyfields is a Northern Indiana country boy living in the city, with experiences garnered through years spent banging his guitar around streets and in clubs. Before Indianapolis, it was Fort Wayne, New Orleans and Phoenix.
"My interest grew with music and I had played and done what I thought I could in Fort Wayne. So I was like, 'Where do I go? Memphis? New Orleans?' So I went directly to New Orleans. I talked to someone who said, 'You gotta go down there - you have the fever or something,'" he remembers. "I was there for six or seven years, really just going down to make sure the blues I knew was real. I mean, you have to go through some stuff - your dog has to die, you have to get robbed."
In New Orleans, he did manage to have an "Alice's Restaurant" moment.
"I was put in prison for a couple days for obstructing a sidewalk for no damn reason," he recalls. "I was not even with my guitar. I was trying to help a friend ... and we were up against a wall. And we were arrested. Put in a chain gang with murderers. For obstructing a sidewalk. Had to go to court, pay $120 or stay seven days.
"That kind of changed my mind for a second. 'Should I be here?' It made the skin a little thicker," he admits. "I was there for a reason."
Po Boy Chronicles
Easyfields' two Web-only albums, Po Boy Chronicles
, are archived at http://www.musicalfamilytree.org/band/jethro_easyfields (which offers unlimited, free mp3 storage to musicians currently or historically based in Indiana). Some of the 51 tunes on those two albums eventually ended up on the new CD. He recorded Po Boy
, the longer of the two albums, after returning from a visit to New Orleans (which he made after he had moved to Indianapolis).
"After I went to New Orleans again, I came back after Katrina, and wrote 30 songs. And I can't really put out a 30-song album. Who's gonna buy that? So I put it up on the Web site, and gave it away for free because there is some topical stuff there. Some people may think it is interesting, come to a show and now I have a new album - boom!" he says, talking about how to reach new audiences. "The more you do, the more people will hear it. You gotta get your name out there."
But there was a time when Easyfields wasn't comfortable with putting everything out there.
"I'm trying to explain the trials and tribulations of everything around. Sometimes, it gets personal. You just try to find someone to appreciate it," Easyfields says. "I sang all these songs about my life and then I'd go home and cry. I didn't care if there were five or 150 people there. I would think I gave out too much information. It is kind of like therapy in reverse."
Snowy open mic night
It's another Wednesday night, and Easyfields is going to play his music for a tribe of friends at the open mic night he hosts at the Northside bar and music venue Locals Only. This tribe of mostly local musicians has been gathering just about every week for nearly five years. Despite the rotten weather following that once-impending snowstorm (I went to see Easyfields a few days after we chatted at the Red Key), the crowd continues to straggle in. By the time 8:45 p.m. comes around, a crew of 20 or so has filtered into the bar, and the number will expand to not quite twice that figure over the next couple of hours.
"I don't go to church anymore," Easyfields admits. "But everyone needs their own church. Sometimes that stage is like an altar. Performers have to get up there to breathe and muscle through what they believe in."
With a long-sleeved orange shirt covered by a vest that would make Petty proud, and another knit cap, Easyfields carries his guitar case to the stage to get the music rolling. He's a one-man gang tonight, turning on stage lights, running sound, making sure the visiting musicians can find electricity for their amps and moving vocal mics to the right place.
But before he plays roadie and MC to other hopefuls, Easyfields is going to play a few songs himself. Taking his spot on a tan padded stool, he wastes little time getting to his music. Spending the first 30 minutes of the evening on stage, he runs through six songs, including "Rabbit Foot," one of the songs on the new record. He also does "Cult Status," his ode to B movies, and "Man on the Moon," a song among the 30 recorded and put online following one of his trips to New Orleans.
After six songs, Easyfields is done, and for the next several hours, performers, both solo and band, take the stage. None is able to match the confidence, the songwriting or the passion that Jethro Easyfields showed.