"I think if you have one thing you discover about yourself -- one that may be the only really good deal about you and your life -- you can go a long time without wanting to really risk failing at it," says Emory Joseph, who, as it happens, just released his first album, Labor & Spirits. As he suggests in this quote, taken from a recent e-mail exchange, Joseph waited a long time to see what might happen to his music if he polished it up and let people hear what he knew he could do.
How long, exactly, did he wait? "I am right at the age where you wonder whether it matters or not how old you are," he explains, dancing nimbly around the question. "Personally, I think I have more vitality and sense of purpose than ever. I know I have more stamina, as well as a better ability to stick to things. I'm thirtysomething ... 39, 30-ten, 30-fifteen, what's the difference?"
If you're old enough, and you've lived in St. Louis long enough, you may have run into Joseph. He grew up here, left as a teenager, came back in his early twenties and left again for good later that decade. He worked in a restaurant in the Central West End in the late '70s and early '80s. He played in the band Arsenal Street, which had a fair profile for a little while around that same time. In the first year or so of KDHX FM-88's history, under the alias Lester the Nightfly, Joseph had a radio show on Sunday mornings from 3-6 a.m.
Outside St. Louis, Joseph moved around the country, stopping in Boulder, Colorado; Berkeley, California; Boston; New York City; Houston. "I remember Sunday blues jams with people like the Holmes Brothers, eating chili and talking songs with Doc Pomus, sharing the stage with Albert Collins, sitting in backrooms with Clint Black," Joseph says. He also played in a band with Rosanne Cash's current husband and producer, John Leventhal, but he supported himself by working in restaurants and stables.
"I always considered myself a musician," Joseph says, "no matter where I was or what else I was doing at the time. I always said I was gonna make records, too, ever since I was a little kid."
All those years wandering the country and absorbing disparate musical influences led to something of an identity problem for Joseph the songwriter. Then he got advice from a notable producer, Eric "ET" Thorngren, who had worked with Bob Marley and Robert Palmer. "He told me, 'I know you're gonna have to decide on as focused a sound as you can, sit in one place, do your work and give people a way to discover you,'" Joseph recalls.
In the end, Joseph returned to his roots in Southern rock, folk and blues, genres that blend neatly in his current music. Labor & Spirits is, at heart, an Americana album. "Funky country music is really what I think I do," he says.
Because Joseph has met so many people over the years, he was able to recruit some familiar names to play with him in the studio. Ubiquitous session player T-Bone Wolk plays bass, and several players from Mary Chapin Carpenter's band also make appearances. Manning the drum kit are three of the greatest players in rock history; Levon Helm (of the Band), Dave Mattacks (of Fairport Convention) and Kenny Aronoff (of John Mellencamp's band).
These celebrity guests may have opened doors with press and radio, but the album is dominated by Joseph's unique musical voice. Joseph sets his engagingly simple melodies in arrangements that seem to float from the speakers. Take, for instance, "The Same," a quiet gem that basically repeats the elegant melody line over and over again. The song is about returning to what was once thought abandoned, the discovery that becomes possible when you revisit what was previously believed to be fully known. The repetition of the short melodic pattern in almost every line could easily become tiresome, but Joseph's vocal inflections bend the tune to the service of the words, and the instrumental backing rises and falls each time.
The album's opening track, "Carolina Princess," sounds like a cross-country trip going the opposite direction of Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans." The band lays down a chugging R&B-inflected country groove, complete with horn charts that evoke the work of the Band themselves. (Notably, this track features Aronoff, not Helm, on drums). Joseph pushes, pulls, twists and prods the rhythm of the melody, describing not the country that Goodman saw but the oddballs riding the train itself.
"I'd like to say it's another great example of the craft at work," Joseph admits, "but that song is a pretty true story. The trip was actually from Boston to St. Louis, and I did have to dream a little about the actual lives of the engineer and the porter. I'm just sorry I didn't have room to write about the specially trained hearing dog or the illegal aspects of what went down as we rolled right through the night."
"Early in the Morning" is a delicate song about the morning after the end of a relationship that subverts the usual comparisons to the end of the world with the mundane but not inconsequential lyric "Right now the dog wants out, and the cat wants back in." Explains Joseph: "I always appreciated how little details that unfold using words that suggest the different senses can give the widest range of people the chance to take the ride the song is offering. I think people processing things through their primary sense can make or break a song's interest to them. I know a lot of people who go to see bands rather than hear them. The dog and cat lines sell the moment pretty good, I think."
Once Joseph recorded and released the album, he assembled a group of musicians to play the songs live. His goal was to find players equally grounded in funk and country music. "It wasn't so hard to find people who can play both," he says. "There are great players all over the place. It was more about the difficulty in finding players who can hear both in either, or maybe that didn't have an image of themselves that precludes being available to both emotions."
Labor & Spirits received a four-star review in the latest issue of MOJO, the well-respected English music magazine, and it's picking up some radio play around the country. Joseph isn't sure where he fits in the contemporary scene, but he does seem to have a place. "For how little they resemble modern 'rock' music, the influences I most draw from might as well be called folk these days," he explains, "and yet I like to get a whole buncha loud and funky when the moon is right. I am so a product of Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Al Green, Professor Longhair, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Grandpa Jones, Shecky Greene, Rip Taylor, Jimmie Rodgers, the Carters, the Meters, Moms Mabley, The Incredible Mr. Limpet et al. To me, that's Americana."
Face it: A musician who recognizes the worth of the greatest movie Don Knotts ever made deserves a fair chance.