There is a singular pleasure in hearing a backup musician step to the fore — assuming the musician is a good one, of course, and wasn’t being kept back for a reason. We are suddenly paying attention to someone we’d hitherto taken for granted. It’s like finding out that Perfectly Nice Steve, the quietly productive co-worker with the desk next to the copy machine, is talented in ways we never realized. Bob Egan, whose self-titled, self-recorded, self-confident new record arrived last month, will give you that feeling.
If you’re unfamiliar with Egan’s name, odds are nonetheless good that you’ve heard his playing. His recording credits are no small beer: Egan has laid down exquisitely tasteful steel tracks with Freakwater, Wilco, Billy Bragg, The Tragically Hip, Souled American, and most recently Neko Case, in addition to touring with both Wilco and Bragg as well as Ron Sexsmith and Los Lobos.
Somehow, living on and off buses and studio floors during the past two years, Egan found time to write half a record. The rest of the songs on Egan’s self-titled debut, which he is releasing independently in January, grew out of a four-month hiatus in Oxford, Mississippi, where Egan moved last year after spending the better part of two decades in Chicago.
“Making my first solo record was very hard because I’d been a sideman all these years,” Egan said on the phone from Toronto, where he spent November working with Canadian singer-songwriter Oh Susanna. “Nobody knew that I could sing, or write songs, or even play regular guitar. All they’d seen me do was the pedal steel, the lap steel, the National guitar — that’s why I was hired.
“It was a big thing when I laid down that first note, thinking, ‘What would Jeff Tweedy think of this?’ And so I could have gone in and made the record that people expected, which would have been pretty traditional country/rock-type stuff with a lot of pedal steel. I decided, ‘No, I’m putting this record out myself, so I don’t have to answer to anybody.’ And what I wanted to do on it was whatever I wanted, and once I got to that point it was very liberating.”
The album begins with a kind of tease: “Forgiveness” is more the kind of song that those familiar with Egan’s talent might expect from him, a plaintive country/rock heartbreaker with beautiful steel and organ. “Say goodbye,” Egan sings, “and c’est la vie/Loose the chains of these memories,” while a high voice ooohs in the background.
But the twang of the opening track is short-lived. The next song, “You Could Barely Hold Your Life Together”, digs into the distinctive, if heavily allusive, sound that more or less dominates the album from that point on. There are touches of (good) ’70s rock in the mix, plenty of brassy Jeff Lynne-ish walkdowns, and super-tight drums. Steve Earle and Chris Bell are present in spirit. The songs have plenty of negative space, highlighting Egan’s knack for building tension around his choruses.
When asked what other bands he hears on the record, Egan demurred: “Songwriting influences? I really don’t know. I’ve never thought about that. I never listen to [my music] in that respect. I know what other people say, but I don’t really hear it. John Rice, who plays on the record, said it’s got George Harrison all over it.
“When I got ready to record my record,” he continues, “I went through my record collection and made notes from about twenty records that I really like. Records like Beggars Banquet, World Party’s Goodbye Jumbo. The key thing is, once I got in the studio, I forgot all that. I did that as homework, and once I got in the studio, I went on intuition.
“The songwriting was a totally separate thing. I was listening to these records to see, sonically, what I liked. Probably the biggest influence was just watching how Wilco recorded. To go for the feel of the song, versus perfection — which is quite appealing. You say, ‘OK, I have control over about 50 percent,’ but these things take on a life of their own.”
Egan’s decision to put out the record on his own was prompted, oddly enough, by advice from friends at various labels — people who otherwise might have signed him and distributed the album themselves. “I went to studios that helped me out, because they believed in the record,” he begins. “And I talked to a lot of labels, and a lot of people; that’s one of the benefits of playing with Wilco for a year and a half. A lot of people in the business knew who I was and would talk to me, and I had a lot of doors open. The more we talked, the consensus was, ‘You should do it yourself. You’ll create a lot of value and you’ll learn hugely about this business.’”
As for his efforts to promote the record, Egan says he plans to “focus a lot on Canada, because they have a very rabid fan base for this kind of music. In general, if they like you in Canada, they’ll go the distance for you.” He also expects to do some regional U.S. touring in the spring, with what he calls the “sensible approach, taking it out as a troubadour — probably the New Orleans to Minneapolis route, along the Mississippi, and maybe the West Coast.”
Egan taught himself to play guitar about 30 years ago, when he was “a wee lad” in Northern Minnesota, close to the Canadian border. “After I’d been playing a few years,” he said, “my dad brought home a bottleneck. He wanted me to play Hawaiian. But that was about the same time I started hearing Duane Allman and Johnny Winters on slide, so I played that style instead of Hawaiian.
“And then, strangely, the same year my father died is the year I started playing pedal steel, which is what he wanted me to play in the first place. The pedal steel was my gateway instrument; it’s what got me my gigs with Freakwater and Wilco and allowed me to do this record in the first place.”
Egan’s three-year stint with Freakwater ended in 1996 when he joined Wilco in what was, in essence, a band-member “trade,” with multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston moving from Wilco to Freakwater. Egan left the Wilco fold at the beginning of 1998, relocating to Oxford in February and spending much of the summer on the road with Billy Bragg. (He had played on Mermaid Avenue, the Bragg/Wilco collaborative album of Woody Guthrie lyrics set to newly composed music.)
Long before joining Freakwater, Egan picked up some early credits on the Chicago scene with pioneering underground band Souled American; he played on the group’s late ’80s albums Fe and Flubber. Around the same time, he opened his own guitar shop, Bob’s Guitar Service, and established himself as one of the city’s finest guitar repairmen. (He sold the business when he left Chicago and now fixes guitars part-time at Django’s, a guitar shop just off the town square in Oxford.)
Egan’s debut disc is an impressive beginning to whatever solo career he opts to pursue. In many respects, it doesn’t sound like a first record; a veteran’s sophistication is evident throughout. Its occasional lapses are mainly in the lyrics: At their best, they’re winsomely sad, with real emotional resonance, but they sometimes turn into strings of rhyming clichés without any narrative drive to anchor the song. Egan’s singing is raw in places, but honestly so, and for the most part nicely balances the record’s more polished instrumentation.
The record’s most successful song is the closing “Satellite”, a beautiful little lullaby-like hymn to the bittersweetness of a long-distance love chat:
Alone in so many ways
Pretend I got the answers to it all
These roads always look the same
Begin to feel a little small
I’m sending you my love
Bouncing off a satellite
Spinning off in space
It’s all I got tonight
I asked Egan how satisfied he is with his own efforts, after having contributed to so many other musicians’ records. “My focus was on the singing and the songwriting,” he replied, “and if people walk away saying, ‘Boy, not bad for a first record,’ then I win. And I’m quite happy with it for a first record. I can’t wait to make another one.”