It’s a freezing winter afternoon in the Southeast, but Anderson East is burning up.
“This whole tour has been ‘the tour of sick,'” he says during a layover in North Carolina, several hours before the Alabama native is scheduled to open up another sold-out show for Sturgill Simpson. “It’s nasty. Us rednecks aren’t used to the cold, so everyone’s been coming down with stomach bugs and the flu. We’re still trying to give ’em hell, though.”
Nearly every night for the past month and a half, East has been hitting the stage one hour before Simpson’s band. He’s playing alone, relying on a semi-hollow body guitar and a raw, raspy croon to cut through the din of several hundred drunk country fans who’ve shown up to see the headliner. It’s a tough job, but there’s perhaps no better place for a roots musician to be than on the road with Sturgill Simpson in early 2015, even if Anderson’s own music skirts closer to Stax soul, Bible Belt gospel and Muscle Shoals-influenced R&B than outlaw country.
Maybe it’s an Alabama tradition. Over the past four years, Cottonwood State bands like the Alabama Shakes and St. Paul and the Broken Bones have forged new music out of old influences, refocusing the spotlight on a music scene that once drew everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones to its muddy banks and world-famous studios. East mines that history on his upcoming debut, Delilah, where he hollers and howls over horns, upright piano, Wurlitzer organ and plenty of electric guitar. Producer Dave Cobb, whose vintage microphones lend a warm, analog-friendly glow to the sessions, will release the album this July on his own Elektra imprint, Low Country Sound.
The record’s only cover song is “Find ‘Em, Fool ‘Em and Forget ‘Em,” a relatively unknown song written in the Seventies by George Jackson and FAME Studios owner Rick Hall. East discovered the tune last year, while visiting FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals.
“My manager and I went down there on a whim,” he remembers. “We had one more recording session coming up, and we wanted to see what we could dig up at FAME. We thought we might be able to find some songs Wilson Pickett didn’t record, or maybe some songs Jimmy Hughes didn’t record. Rick Hall’s son, Rodney, pretty much runs the place these days; he’s keeping the FAME heartbreak pumping. He went through all the back catalogs with us, playing stuff only a handful of people have ever heard, and he played one of his dad’s songs almost as a joke. But we thought it was incredible. It was so groovy.”
“Find ‘Em, Fool ‘Em and Forget ‘Em” made the cut. After recording song in his adopted hometown of Nashville, East made another trip to FAME, this time taking an entire band with him. There, backed by a lineup that included Steelism’s guitarist, Jamey Johnson’s drummer and Sugarland’s bassist, he cut live videos of five songs, singing his vocals in the same spot where Wilson Pickett once recorded. (Watch the performance of “Find ‘Em, Fool ‘Em and Forget ‘Em” above.)
“There’s ghosts in that place,” East says of FAME Studios. “There’s still that spirit there. It’s intangible. You don’t really know what it is, but it’s sacred ground. The place hasn’t changed since the Seventies. It kinda smells weird, and they’ve got that wood siding — that wallpaper wood-type shit. Maybe it’s something in my head, but there’s something super special about it, and I think that’s why it’s so intriguing. You don’t really know why, but you just feel like you’re supposed to be there.”