Eric Gales: The Problem of Politics and the Redemptive Power of the Blues

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Most great blues albums are born out of hardship and turbulence. Crown, Eric Gales’ best new career record, is no different. In the run-up to his exit, he and his wife and manager, LaDonna, were hospitalized with covid – a terrifying and lonely experience in which they said their final goodbyes, fearing the worst. The blues community rallied, sending spiritual and financial support, and luckily the couple pulled through.

“I never forgot that prayers were sent to us,” says Gales today, who appears healthy – though tired from a day of interviews – as he sits in a room in his packed North Carolina home. of guitars, while his huge, beautiful blue cat stares impassively. “Because it was hard.”

Not everyone was so lucky. The thank you list on his new record speaks of loss, most recently his father, and as Gales chats, a photo of his family — his parents and four brothers — stares back at him. What they see is a survivor. But his grief is clearly still raw.

“Man, I have to tell you, it’s still devastating,” he says. “There were seven of us at the start, and four of them left. But I rest knowing that my father, before he died, he saw me clean and sober. And my dad said to me, ‘Son, I’m proud of you, and never forget that.’ So it’s something that I take with me, that my father didn’t leave here with me being in a bad state.

“I can’t say the same about my mom. My mom saw me in an active addiction. The only way I don’t blame myself is that I tried to do that today. today is a little better than yesterday. And I know my mother is looking down and my two brothers who have passed away. I know they are looking up and smiling, just like they do in these pictures I’m looking at now.

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Born in Memphis, Tennessee, into a family full of musicians – Eric was the youngest of five boys – to a stay-at-home mom and a truck-driving father, a sense of hard work and the right thing was instilled in him. instilled from a young age. He first learned an instrument at the age of six or seven, joining large family gatherings full of aunts, uncles and cousins ​​inevitably leading the whole clan to sing and sing. play together, steeped in the gospel music of their church.

At school, he was a typical kid and threw himself into his role as a drummer in his marching band. But perhaps most relevant, and least tangible, was the influence of Memphis itself.

“There’s a lot of history there,” he says. “Per capita, it’s one of the most popular cities. Surely anyone and everyone has taken a trip through Memphis and left DNA and a fingerprint there. And, you know, I just took in as much as I could.

When he was 11, he even met his hero, blues great Albert King, at the local fish market – a humble setting for such an enlightening time.

“Albert King, his game had so much depth, man,” says Gales, still a fan all these years later. “Meeting him was one of the coolest things ever. I think maybe it was the first famous person I met who really inspired me. And I’ll never forget that. touched my life. He was a big guy. So this big giant stopped. I said, ‘Wow, that’s Albert King.’ It upset me. I don’t remember what I said to him, I just know that I was impressed.”

Portrait of Albert King holding a guitar

Albert King in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1967 (Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

“I was just me,” he says. “Then all of a sudden I noticed that the world was really taking a liking to what was going on. I had no intention of being famous for what I do. It just happened to happen. I don’t regret it, really don’t. The things that have come up in my life and the things that I’ve had the privilege of doing, and the accomplishments and things of that nature, I’m very proud of. at a young age was exhilarating.

Gales has toured the world, worked with heroes such as Stevie Ray Vaughan, and amassed a passionate following. And then, as is well known, the wheels came off in spectacular style. His three-decade struggle with drug addiction — he fell headlong into a relationship with cocaine that led to prison sentences for drugs and guns — has been well documented in this magazine. It was, he says, “a series of bad decisions that led to a succession of bad decisions for about thirty years, and it is miraculous that I survived”.

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Crown is the sound of a man – often hailed by his peers as the greatest guitarist of his generation – reclaiming the legacy of his own troubled past and sweeping the world along the way. The album was produced by his 30-year-old friend Joe Bonamassa, whose own early rise to stardom ran parallel to that of Gales. Work on Crownthe duo spent hours in the studio, crafting new songs, agonizing over distortion pedals and finding the right tone, then headed out to dinner together at the end of the day.

“We’re so different as people, but it gels,” Gales says. “We’re different characters, but when we come together, man, we come together as one.”

Gales hot solo on the track I want my crown testifies to this partnership. Lyrically, he finds him furiously reclaiming those wild years, making up for lost time and claiming his claim as one of the greats of modern blues.

Is there an element in the song where he is jealous of his peers’ success while languishing in prison?

“I was a bit, but it was my fault,” he admits. “No one was holding me back but me. I think [song] was kind of a self-disclosure conversation to myself. ‘You know what? You deserve a crown. You walked through the pain, and you walked through the dark trenches, and now you’re here alive like a phoenix rising above the ashes. You deserve your place at the head of the table. It’s your time, it’s your turn. Joe basically initiated this. He said, ‘Eric, it’s time for you to get your crown, man. You’ve been here, now you need your due.

It’s not just the staff that fuels Crown, corn. The day before Gales and Bonamassa entered the studio for the first day on the job, George Floyd, 46, was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis, sparking outrage and protests around the world and mobilizing the movement Black Likes Matter.

This event has had a profound effect on the deeply disturbed Gales, and there is fury at Crown songs such as too close to the fire, which evokes the racist murders of the Mississippi Burning of 1964, drawing clear parallels with current events. It is searing social commentary, but it is not, according to Gales, a political record.

“In fact, there is nothing about me that is political,” he says. “I don’t like politics at all. Because I think that’s what created a lot of the divide. Every night [at my shows] there is a combination of several races, colors, creeds, ethnicities, sexual preferences, all in one room at the same time without a problem. This happens through pure love of music, enjoyment, inspiration, and the positive exchange of energy.

“If we get rid of all this political shit, maybe we can get together as well. But there are some things I referenced on these songs that I don’t think listeners are aware of. And if it’s enough to make them say, “Hey, he just talked about something I don’t know anything about. It’s real ?”

“If my way of referring to an incident that happened in this world as an injustice to any culture, any race, any creed, any color of any kind of gives them a bit of knowledge about what happened that they didn’t know before, so I think there was a well-proven point.

Likewise, Storm asks the listener to check his own motivations. It was sparked by Fox TV host Laura Ingraham’s “very, very disrespectful” suggestion that LA Lakers basketball player LeBron James should “shut up and dribble” rather than take the knee in peaceful protest. Gales hit out on social media in support of James.

“Someone then told me to shut up and play. And that’s the last thing you want to say to anyone,” he says.Storm fails people. Ask yourself this question: “Do I like what this guy played, but I don’t like him?” This is a real situation. It’s just sad that it’s such a hard cancer to get rid of when there is an easy fix. Give someone a chance to make you hate them before you actually hate them.

“So you might find that you don’t hate it at all. I felt it was time, more than ever, for me to talk about my life experiences, because I want listeners to understand that I’m not preaching to you, and I’m not trying to force this on you. All I’m trying to do is have a conversation with the people who listen to this record, and I hope they will accept it as such.

Fired up and with the album of a lifetime – and a specific moment in time – under his belt, Eric Gales has a busy year ahead of him. As we finish our conversation, he leaves to pack his bags for the first tour of the year. Between the tough times and today’s triumph, there’s only one question left: what’s left for him to prove? Gales beams and laughs deeply, comfortable with his place in the world. “Not a fucking thing.”

Crown is now available through Provogue.

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