Eilen Jewell is starting a new chapter with Sundown Over Ghost Town, a new album arriving May 26. For the project the evocative singer-songwriter draws on her experiences of welcoming her first child, Mavis, and moving from Boston back to Idaho, where she’s from.
“It’s a very autobiographical album. It tells more true stories than any of my other records before,” she tells CMT Edge. “To me, it feels like an old soul, like it’s been around for a long time. And yet it has a youthfulness to it as well, in that it contains quite a few surprises. It seems to me like we were experimenting and yet bringing it full circle at the same time.”
Check out the CMT Edge premiere of “Rio Grande,” then read a Q&A with Jewell below the player.
CMT Edge: What was on your mind when the idea for “Rio Grande” struck you?
Jewell: I thought of the concept for “Rio Grande” as I was getting dressed one morning in Santa Fe. I was putting on my boots and thinking about how, nearly every time I visit that place, something goes intensely haywire for me. I love Santa Fe dearly, and it has been an important place for me musically, but it has a way of spitting me out, without fail. I thought of “My bad luck boots and my hard luck hand.”
I didn’t write that line down, but I carried it around with me in my thoughts for about a year or so, until I did some writing up in the mountains of Idaho where my dad lives. It was the middle of winter and very dreary there. That’s when the other lines came to me, describing the winter scene: “The pines have lost their green/ They stare without a sound/ The wind’s too cold to sing/ Snow is heavy on the ground.” And I thought of that earlier line and realized that’s where those words wanted to go. They wanted to describe the desert in the winter and that particular kind of bad luck that happens to me there.
What was the vibe in the studio on the day you recorded it? And is that your guitarist Jerry Miller playing on here? If so, he is killing it.
That is Jerry Miller on guitar. I love what he does with this song, and every song. We had a lot of fun putting this tune together. At first it had more of a straight beat but it wasn’t really coming together. We messed around with it for a while and eventually decided to give it a spaghetti-western/surf/rhumba feel.
I worried that the new rhythm created too much space between the words. It’s not how I usually go about approaching a song, so it made it somewhat challenging vocally. But I quickly realized it worked that way. The guys convinced me. We have a very collaborative creative process in the studio. It’s really the only time I get to create with other people because I do all my writing by myself, so I love our studio time. We all look forward to it and manage to share tons of ideas with no drama. It’s a pretty rare chemistry.
At what point did you know you wanted to start the track with trumpets? Seems just right for a song called “Rio Grande.”
As soon as we nailed down the spaghetti-western feel we realized it had to feature a trumpet. We originally thought of getting a mariachi band, but we had a hard time getting in contact with one. Then the engineer, Steve Fulton, made some phone calls and we recruited Jack Gardner. He was incredible. We didn’t have the part written out for him, since we don’t really sight-read music, but he was able to roll with it. I sang the part I had in mind to him and he managed to get the exact vibe we were going for. I love working with other musicians in that context, watching them do their magic. I always come away from the studio having learned something new.