Riley Etheridge turns to his musical roots on latest CD

Written By By Tricia Despres For Sun-Times Media Posted: 04/28/2014, 05:30pm
Array Riley Etheridge Jr. opens for Leon Russell for two shows at Mayne Stage. | HANDOUT PHOTO

There was a time when Southern-bred and now New York-based singer/songwriter Riley Etheridge Jr. cringed at the twang in his voice. Yet on his new “more up-tempo, fun, danceable” album, it seems as if he might have found a way to embrace his Southern roots after all.

“I would say that I have learned to embrace my authentic voice,” says Etheridge, who spent a good portion of his life living in Louisiana. “My first few records were very country-leaning, which bugged me because I didn’t want my music to sound like that and also because I don’t identify with contemporary commercial country music at all. But I do like me some fiddle, so on this album, I think I have found a good combination of all of my influences.”

Recorded in Los Angeles, New Orleans and Nashville, Etheridge’s latest album “The Straight and Narrow Way” indeed features a clash of musical influences, legends and genres.

“After all these years, it’s not about caring where my music fits,” he says, chuckling. “It’s always about being true to the song and focusing in on the mood and lyrical content of the song. It’s not about super-imposing a certain genre on them. Some may think some songs come out too twangy or too rock or too pop, but it is what it is.”

“Another Time, Another Place” is a lyrical masterpiece and tells the story of a couple wondering aloud of what might have been. “It was not a song I slaved over,” recalls Etheridge, who worked with longtime producer Wendell Tilley on the album and alongside Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins’ stunning vocals on the song. “It’s really about two people who not only care enough to be honest with one another, but also trust each other enough to take risks.”

In fact, it was a song that Etheridge himself took a risk on.

“I first envisioned it as a song with a real simple approach and minimal acoustic guitar,” he recalls. “But the first day in the studio, my bass player and drummer came up with this Beatles-like bass part that I realized was brilliant. Now I can’t imagine it any other way. I’m always surprised of that constant process of discovery and experimentation in the studio.”

At his acoustic duo sets at Mayne Stage on Tuesday and Wednesday, Etheridge says he looks forward to performing “stripped-down” versions of the songs on the new album, fitting quite nicely on cuts such as the aforementioned “Another Time” and “The Maze.”

“ ‘Down to My Last Twenty Dollars’ is going to be a bit tougher to pull off,” says Etheridge. “But, yes, I’ll be playing the songs the way they were originally written. We have come up with this really acoustic version of ‘Roll Away the Stone’ that I really like.”

And opening for musical icon Leon Russell, Etheridge says that chances are good he might be changing things up for his set list in Chicago.

“I’m a big fan of calling audibles from the stage,” he says. “The band hates me for that, but this time, I only have one guy to make mad. It’s about feeding off the energy of the crowd and giving people what they need. And if they want me to collaborate with Leon, we might need to do it. [Laughs] I’m bringing my drumsticks just in case.”

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