Eli 'Paperboy' Reed pays homage to country legend Merle Haggard by putting a soulful spin on some classic tunes. On Down Every Road Reed taps into all the heartache of Haggard's iconic catalog and channels it into explosive, high-octane performances.
“Country and soul music have always been two parts of the same stream,” says Eli Paperboy Reed. “The influence flows in both directions.”
Take a listen to Reed’s exceptional new album, Down Every Road, and you’ll hear exactly what he means. Recorded in Brooklyn with longtime collaborator Vince Chiarito (Black Pumas, Charles Bradley), the record finds Reed reimagining a host of vintage Haggard tunes as classic soul rave-ups, tapping into all the hurt and heartache of the country legend’s iconic catalog and channeling it into explosive, high-octane performances fueled by punchy horns and ecstatic vocals. Reed’s guitar playing here is more Pops Staples than Roy Nichols, and the production more FAME than Bakersfield, but there’s an obvious reverence underlying the whole project, a deep well of respect and knowledge that allows Reed to inhabit the songs and make them his own without sacrificing an ounce of honesty or integrity. He changes little in the way of melody and architecture on the album, instead recasting the arrangements to present Haggard’s tunes in an entirely new context, one that blurs the lines of genre, geography, and race to reveal the common, distinctly American threads tying them all together.
“I really don’t think you can say enough about the intersection of country and soul music in American culture,” says Reed. “In the '60s and '70s in particular, you had covers going both directions and becoming big hits with both black and white audiences, and that was because underneath all the labeling and the marketing, you had songs that spoke to something fundamentally human in all of us.”
It was that fundamental humanity that drew Reed to country music in the first place. Growing up in Massachusetts, he was introduced to Haggard by his father, whose extensive record collection contained a wide array of both old-school and contemporary country songwriters. Though Reed found much to love in George Jones and Waylon Jennings, there was something about Merle that stood out from all the rest, something that captured his imagination in a way that few other singers and songwriters ever have.
“His music was more adult, more aggressively honest and edgy,” reflects Reed. “He could get to the heart of these extraordinarily complicated emotional sentiments in two-and-a-half minutes, and that was something that really stuck with me as I began to find my own path as a songwriter.”
Reed’s path would eventually take him to Clarksdale, MS, where he immersed himself in the juke joint culture of the Delta as a teenager, and the south side of Chicago, where he played piano and organ in the church of famed gospel singer Mitty Collier in his twenties. In 2008, Reed returned to the Boston area and began turning heads with a series of studio albums that earned widespread critical acclaim, with NPR hailing his music as “inspired, raw and powerful” and Uncut lauding its “urgent, electric energy.” The records landed Reed multiple major label deals, scores of song placements in film and television, and festival dates around the world as he established himself as one of the most compelling and consistent soul men of his time. Along the way, he often toyed with the idea of paying tribute to Haggard, recording a tune here or working up an arrangement there, but the relentless pace of his schedule ensured that the project remained little more than a daydream until the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 brought much of the music industry to a grinding halt.
“With touring off the table for an entire year, it felt like the perfect time to tackle my wishlist,” says Reed, “and this album was at the top of it.”
Teaming up with Chiarito and frequent bandmates Mike Montgomery (bass) and Noah Rubin (drums), Reed cut the core of the album live on the floor at Hive Mind Recording in Bushwick, capturing raw and intuitive performances that offered little opportunity to overthink or second guess things.
“I purposely didn’t send the guys the originals,” explains Reed. “I wasn’t interested in having them recreate anything. I wanted them to just interpret what I was bringing to the table with my guitar and vocals in the moment and play what felt right.”
It’s that balance of respect and reinvention that propels the record beyond the realm of tribute and elevates it into something wholly original and unique. Album opener “Mama Tried” sets the stage, with Reed fearlessly tackling the collection’s most well-known Haggard tune right out of the gate. Memphis organ and Stax horns replace Haggard’s twangy guitars and shuffling rhythm here, as Reed’s blistering vocals burst from the speakers and transform the laidback melancholy of the original into a fierce and defiant desperation.
“Merle was never a screamer,” explains Reed. “He kept everything simmering just below the surface. But I wanted to see what kind of catharsis could happen if you cut loose and finally unleashed all of that raw emotion.”
The effect is intoxicating.