With his new album, The Both, Seattle roots musician Eli West explores a compelling duality that existed within his own ancestral line. His two grandfathers, in spite of very different backgrounds, are now forever linked, not only by family but by West's unique musical concept, which forms a cohesive whole out of two halves that would otherwise seem diametrically opposed to one another.
Of West's two grandfathers, one was a decorated WWII prisoner of war, the other a Brethren preacher and peace advocate (who founded the organization Heifer International). Although the songs are not specifically inspired by either of his ancestors, throughout The Both, West paints a musical portrait that is steeped in their history and tradition but at the same time is also refreshingly modern.
West presents the first half of the album in a more traditional setting, spare instrumentation with harmony vocals contributed by Appalachian singer-songwriter Dori Freeman, who also contributed an original song, "If I Could Make You My Own," to the LP. The second half of the record is built on instrumental variations of the songs, with most of those tracks featuring another notable Seattle musician, jazz guitar great Bill Frisell.
The LP opens with West and Freeman singing the Carter Family's plaintive "Give Me Your Love and I'll Give You Mine" (listen below), and the second half of the record showcases West and Frisell (above), who recorded in Seattle's Sage Studios, as they intertwine their respective folk and jazz traditions to create a uniquely musical conversation on that same song.
"'Give Me Your Love and I'll Give You Mine' is a Carter Family staple," West tells Rolling Stone Country. "I was thrilled to record it first a cappella with Dori Freeman. There was then a comfortable space in the original take for Bill Frisell to occupy a third part with guitar, at times the space of a third voice. Playing with Frisell is so intuitive. An electric guitar duet sounds pretty odd initially, but I tuned down to a baritone drop B to make more space and create contrast. We then had a simple conversation, playing off any interruptions as a pivot for something new."
Another highlight of the album is a pair of covers of the classic 1973 Waylon Jennings-Billy Joe Shaver tune, "You Ask Me To," the instrumental version of which is given a zippy guitar-and-fiddle-tune treatment. Ultimately, The Both is a tribute to the paradox of his two very different grandfathers, both of whom, in their own way, shaped the person – and musician – West has become.
"Both were pursuing their own version of a good life," he says. "And both succeeded."
West, who often performs in a duo with singer and multi-instrumentalist Cahalen Morrison, will soon join the acclaimed Sarah Jarosz trio on tour. The Both is available now. More information on the LP can be found here.