Honesty, confidence, and respect permeate Eilen Jewell’s music, dating back to her self-released Boundary County album in 2006. Since then, the Boise native has recorded five studio albums for Signature Sounds with her road-tested touring band, and two more as a member of the Boston-based gospel-charged Sacred Shakers (also on Signature Sounds), which includes that well-oiled band at its core. Her latest, Sundown Over Ghost Town, is a masterful culmination of Jewell’s work to date, and rolls out May 26.
As hard as it is to categorize Jewell’s music—terms like alt-country, roots-rock, country-noir, and Americana get used a lot—it’s even harder not to become thoroughly enraptured by the singer/songwriter’s powerful versatility, musical stories, and images. And that gorgeous voice makes you feel like she’s singing just for you, out on the breezy back porch or by a crackling campfire. She does so much, so well.
A few examples: Butcher Holler, Jewell’s acclaimed 2010 tribute to Loretta Lynn, underscores her love for tough traditional country music, coal miner’s daughter style, while her electrifying cover of “Shakin’ All Over,” originally a 1960 chart-topping British hit for Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, was one of the surprise highlights of 2009’s Sea of Tears. Propelled by Jerry Miller’s shimmering guitar dazzle, the song remains a live showstopper where hints of ’60s surf instrumentals and “Paint It, Black” are deftly thrown in for good measure. On 2011’s Queen of the Minor Key, featuring guest appearances from the likes of Big Sandy and Zoe Muth, Jewell penned all the songs. One of its radio favorites is “Warning Signs,” with references to a black widow, a rattlesnake, and a beady-eyed raven. Jewell calls the song “creepy.” The Boston Globe called Minor Key, “emotionally raw and riveting,” and an NPR commentator declared, “She’s got a sweet and clear voice with a killer instinct lurking beneath the shiny surface.”
Four years after the release of Minor Key, Jewell and her tighter-than-ever band—which besides guitarist Miller is filled out by the longstanding ace rhythm section of drummer Jason Beek (Jewell’s husband, who sports the glow of a young Levon Helm) and upright bassist Johnny Sciascia—make their eagerly awaited return with Sundown Over Ghost Town. Rich with cinematic visions, elegant sweet and smoky vocals, and hauntingly autobiographical songs, Sundown is bursting with stellar performances and is likely her most personal, fully realized album yet. And that’s saying a lot! The record, with all its songs penned by Jewell, is a poignant, ever-so-flavorful reflection of her return to Boise after nearly a decade in the Northeast.
The singer explains, “My core band and I recorded together in a live style. We were our own producers, and we brought in a few guests to lend some extra layers. The main difference is that everything was done in Idaho, and our guests were all local to this area. We tried not to let the long break influence anything. I wanted this album to stand on its own.”
And stand on its own, it does. Magnificently.
Sundown Over Ghost Town kicks off with “Worried Mind,” a bittersweet song of searching and redemption. Propelled by guest artist Jake Hoffman’s wistful pedal steel and the opening lyrics, Been all around this world, just to come back to you. Oh my love, my sweet love. It’s a long and lonesome highway, it’s a bitter shade of blue. Oh my love, my sweet love, Jewell begins her magic act of transporting listeners to some mystical far-away places.
“Hallelujah Band” is next and tells a couple of true stories. “The first is about an experience I had as a teenager with my best friend,” relates the artist. “Her boyfriend somehow knew of an unmarked, underground cave in the middle of the desert. We climbed down there with flashlights in our teeth and hiked around for hours. There was water down below and freight trains up above. It was a religious experience for me that has stuck with me to do this day. Something poignant like that happens and you realize what a big life it is, what a glorious world. I may not be worthy but I’m going to join in anyway. And the second story in that song is about how, when I was a little girl I had a secret land that I would go visit. It was just a little indentation in the ground, and I’d sit on the pine needles with my doll. But it carried a lot of importance for me and still does. I would never be able to find that spot now. It’s crucial that I remember to look for it though, at least symbolically. The goal is to stay available, to be ready to be that instrument for God, or Goddess, or whatever you want to call it, should you be chosen to join the band.” Like so many of Jewell’s songs, she packs much heart and soul into a catchy, three-minute song.
Another Sundown highlight is the rollicking “Rio Grande,” which, with its trumpet intro and breaks by guest Jack Gardner, interwoven with Miller’s guitar, sounds a little like a great lost Mavericks song. “I wrote this in a little shack in the mountains on the family land, in the dead of winter,” Jewell recalls. “I started writing what became the last verse first: The pines have lost their green, now they stare without a sound; the wind’s too cold to sing, snow is heavy on the ground. I was writing about what I saw around me, but it soon morphed into a song about the Southwest and how, every time I go there, something falls apart for me. I realized that despite my love for that place, it always seems to spit me out, which is why I left after my college years.”
Melancholy and longing and more delicious pedal steel immediately immerse you into “Half-Broke Horse,” another of Jewell’s catchy but deeply textured compositions. “This song is based on Pyro, my dad’s mustang,” she explains. “He was born wild somewhere in southern Idaho, caught in a mustang round-up, and sold. He’s not really wild anymore, but he’s not really tame either. Other horses think he’s strange and most people have no use for him because he can’t be ridden and won’t be put to work. So he’s stuck in his own weird in-between world. I’ve known a lot of people around here who are very similar to Pyro in that respect. I think, to some extent, I’m one of them.”
And then there’s the lilting “My Hometown,” both nostalgic and full of compassion. If sweetness had a sound, it would sound like my hometown… But as with most Jewell songs, there’s more beneath the surface. “When I heard about the horrific shooting in Newtown, CT a few years ago, I went into mourning about it,” Jewell quietly reflects. “I couldn’t stop thinking about all of those innocent children and the great loss their families were suffering, all on account of one young man’s senseless act of violence. At the same time I was realizing how happy I was to be home, how much kindness surrounded me here. I wanted to send a peaceful message out to the world, and I wished I could bottle up the happiness and comfort I was experiencing here to send it to Newtown, or to anyone who was hurting or grieving.”
Like many of Sundown’s songs, “Needle & Thread” has a strong autobiographical bent. And more sumptuous pedal steel. “This song describes the town where my dad lives, where our family land is located,” explains the songwriter. “On one of the maps I have, it’s listed as a ghost town, but there are more than 400 residents of Idaho City. The town has changed very little since I was a kid. The family land has changed even less. But I see it all with new eyes after having lived in Boston for nine years.”
Moving back to Boise certainly invigorated Jewell’s songwriting and informs much of Sundown Over Ghost Town’s spirit and majesty. But there’s another huge, yet tiny, force playing a pivotal role in making the album so astonishingly good. Her name is Mavis (yes, as in Mavis Staples), and she was born to Eilen and Jason about halfway through the recording of Sundown. The album’s closer, “Songbird,” is one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs ever written about the miraculous joy and impact of a new family member. And as always, Jewell holds nothing back in her writing and storytelling. Listen closely and you’ll hear little Mavis’s voice, cooing sweetly in the background.
“‘Songbird’ is my ode to Mavis, whose name means ‘songbird.’ I think it’s the most honest song I’ve ever written,” Jewell confides. “Every word is true, no pretense, no fictitious characters to tell a story. There is no story, only emotion. I wanted to convey how much I love her and how vulnerable that makes me. My whole world rests on those tiny wings, but you don’t seem to mind the weight.”
In concert, don’t be surprised to see Jewell perform this alone, with just her guitar and harmonica, as an encore. And don’t be surprised if there aren’t many dry eyes in the house.
Reflecting on the making of Sundown Over Ghost Town and the album’s spirited sound, Jewell concludes, “When I moved back to Boise in 2012, I was confronted by a lot of memories, mostly from childhood. Certain places conjured some ghosts for me: a pasture near my house, a stretch of desert outside of town, the street where I grew up, the family land in the mountains not far from here... Each small place within the bigger setting of southern Idaho contains its own hugely important memory for me. I feel like the album is an attempt to describe this place, as well as what it has meant to me all my life, the place it holds in my heart. A lot of my favorite spots from childhood are largely unchanged, but then I’ve changed so much that my relationship to them is completely different nowadays. And then, of course, the city is much bigger than the one I left behind, and that has presented pros and cons. I hate seeing that pastureland disappear into subdivisions, yet I enjoy how alive the downtown area has become.
“I grapple with this loss of innocence—the land’s as well as my own—in several songs. I used the phrase ‘ghost town’ in the title, not simply because it’s so uniquely western but also as a way of capturing how haunted a lot of these places are for me, full of memories. I think it evokes a sense of loss, but an inherently beautiful one.”