Michael Eck’s two solo albums reside in a pretty upscale neighborhood in my collection. There’s Steve Earle next door on the left, Joe Ely not much more than a Dave Edmunds and Mark Eitzel away on the right, with Bob Dylan and Alejandro Escovedo around opposite corners. “Let’s say I aspire to belong there someday,” is the 33-year-old singer/songwriter/guitarist/published poet/theater critic’s perspective on his faux-wood, good-company digs.
For a while, Eck was heading in about every direction, a victim of the restlessness bug with 16 different addresses in three years. “I wasn’t robbing banks — I’m not Pretty Boy Floyd,” he clarifies. “I was flying around though, but on purpose. It’s a very American thing, this Jack Kerouac disease, and I had a wicked case.”
The need to get the hell out of Dodge — in his case, Albany, NY — led to a nine-month stay in Austin, a few lean months baby-sitting an apartment complex in New Orleans, some road adventures with his buddy Hamell on Trial, and a solid debut called Cowboy Black. The first couple of lines from the title track tip the cards on Eck’s wanderlust: “You and I, we had it all/A full tank of gas and a highway call/Smashed the rearview, didn’t care about the past/Set to cut the future open with the broken glass.”
Supporting these road tales and postcard confessions is self-described “maximum solo acoustic” music, equal parts acoustic soul and singer-songwriter near-folk, with nods to everyone from D. Boon and Ted Hawkins to Loudon Wainwright and Townes Van Zandt. When things threaten to get a little smooth or a bit too coffeehouse comfortable, Eck is able to call on a phrase, a power strum, or a wail that’s as cutting as any piece of that broken rearview mirror glass.
“We all need a little danger in our lives,” begins “A Little Danger”, a song on Cowboy Black. But the concluding stanza of that same song counters with “We all need a little safety in our lives,” and Eck’s recently released second album, Resonator, is a product of more time spent in the right-hand lane. Eck has settled in one place, at least for a while — a very conscious and constant suppressing of the highway urge, in order to start a family (in double time, as it turns out, as the father of twins).
Evidence of these changes is hard to miss. There’s a pure and pretty love song called “Whiskey For My Coffee”, and the album-capping “Black Shoes” is a nonsaccharine valentine to a child (“A short sharp shock, a kiss on the cheek/Big brown eyes, dancing feet”). Like most of Cowboy Black, those two songs are rooted in Eck’s life, but on the rest of Resonator, he’s more willing to be an actor, playing characters such as the bar-stool astronomer of “Comet’s Return”, awaiting the return of a lover years gone. And “The Weight of the World,” an ode to the unlikely trio of Jesus, James Dean and Kurt Cobain, is his most ambitious composition to date.
Perhaps the biggest change is the long guest list. Dobro player Kevin Maul (from Robin and Linda Williams’ band), vocalists Lonesome Val and ex-Wild Seed Kris McKay, fiddler Mindy Jostyn, and mandolinist Chris Leske make Resonator a “maximum combo acoustic” effort, as well as an album with a fair share of country accents.
Eck is no stranger to country music. Actually as a veteran of close to a dozen Albany-area groups — including punkers The Plague, the R&B-influenced Stomplistics, and a traditional male chorus — he’s not really a stranger to any kind of music. A mid-’80s combo called the Chefs of the Future (“We were ND when ND wasn’t cool,” he quips) was known to follow a Hüsker Dü cover with a Hank Williams song. “We used to joke about it in the Chefs, how we were borrowing our parents’ stuff. Something is definitely wrong: we’re supposed to be rebelling against them, not listening to their records.”
Eck’s take on the latest roots resurgence is that the music is “a product of everything we’ve heard — although I suspect some went right from Richard Hell to Ray Price, but that’s not a bad thing either. I was remembering the other day how my brother and I would be in the back seat of the car with his battery-operated tape recorder listening to the singles of the day, the Clash or the Sex Pistols. Meanwhile my mother was in the front seat listening to country music, and the two would blend. Is that where it came from?”