Eilen Jewell: Multigenre Master

Those who heard Idaho-born Eilen Jewell’s 2005 debut album Boundary Country, may have thought of her as merely the latest in a long line of Americana/country singer/songwriters. Clearly talented, she displayed a fine voice and incisive approach to songwriting. That recording is best characterized as subtle, laid back and relatively unassuming. But Jewell’s 2007’s follow-up, Letters to Sinners & Strangers, showcases a looser, more self-assured artist. It features a dozen tunes that are more varied while leaning more upon a honky-tonk aesthetic. The unassuming character remains, but it’s placed into a wider context. And the arrangements are more satisfying as well.

Those two releases were only the beginning; Jewell has been on a creative upswing ever since. The jangly “Rain Roll In” opens 2009’s Sea of Tears, and it conjured warm memories of The Byrds and Jackie DeShannon. Jewell’s version of the oft-covered “Shakin’ All Over” feels a bit like the manner in which Chris Isaak might approach it. Jewell manages the trick of exploring various genres without once sounding less than fully immersed and sincere; she wears that variety like a set of comfortable clothes.

Queen of the Minor Key, (2011) pushes things even farther as Jewell brings listeners her take on rhythm and blues, surf rock and more. Yet she keeps one foot firmly planted in country traditions: “Reckless” is cast in a pure classic country mold.

In 2015 Jewell released a 2CD live set. Live at the Narrows is varied yet cohesive, and offers the energy of a concert with the eclecticism of a musical travelogue. The band approaches “Shakin’ All Over” at breakneck speed, drawing subtly from bluegrass and punk approaches.

Nearly simultaneous with Live at the Narrows‘ release was the comparatively subdued studio set, Sundown Over Ghost Town. A decade into her recording career, Jewell sounds even more self-assured, with nothing to prove but plenty to offer.

Even against the varied backdrop of her previous body of work, Down Hearted Blues came as a bit of a surprise. Though she’s an accomplished songwriter, here Jewell digs into obscure blues tune by well-known artists, giving them a slow-burn reading that brings them beyond the boundaries of the blues idiom.

Jewell’s most recent release, Gypsy, debuted in August. Described in advance press as “personal and sometimes political.” The first single “79 Cents (The Meow Song)” is twangy and musically playful in a singalong way, but its lyrics are sharp as a dagger as they make a sly yet pointed reference to the current occupant of the White House (“he’s grabbin’ us right in the meow”). Come for the music, stay for the lyrics; either way, Jewell’s best work seems yet to come.

This essay appeared previously in NewCity.