The latest release by GRAMMY winning artist Eric Tingstad is a superb contemporary example of the classic “concept album.” I’ve always had a fondness for concept albums, dating back to the late 60’s with artists such as The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues, Jethro Tull and more. A concept album as defined by Wikipedia is “a studio album where all musical or lyrical ideas contribute to a single overall theme or unified story. In contrast, typical studio albums consist of a number of unconnected songs (lyrically and otherwise) performed by the artist.” I’m particularly happy to see this tradition continued in the context of today’s rapidly changing music industry where the trend towards the downloading of single tracks is leading to the demise of the idea of an album as a body of work.
However, its no surprise to me, or anyone who knows him, that such a mature conceptual work would come from Eric Tingstad. If there was ever a musical jack -of-all-trades it is Eric, who is a multi-genre record producer, musician, and songwriter/ composer. Although he is best known for his impeccable acoustic fingerstyle guitar work, Eric has also performed, produced, and recorded country, blues, Americana, rock, smooth jazz and new age music. Going back to the1970’s, Eric not only played in a rock band, he also took lessons in the style of Spanish classical guitarist Andrés Segovia. Jumping ahead to 1982, Eric released his first solo album in the embryonic era of the new age music genre. Three years later, he began a long-standingcollaboration with woodwinds player Nancy Rumbel, and their debut album, The Gift, went on to sell 10,000 copies in the first ten weeks, and eventually sold more than a half million copies. He was later signed to Narada Productions where he recorded 14 albums over the next 7 years including a collaboration with pianist David Lanz. Many awards followed including a GRAMMY Award for Best New Age Album in 2003 as artist, engineer, and producer of Tingstad and Rumbel’s, Acoustic Garden. Although the list goes on, there is not room here to mention all the accolades of his illustrious career.
Although he resides far from there in Seattle, what Eric has created with Mississippi is a heartfelt tribute to what he calls “the cradle of American music.” Here he shares an early life experience that sparked his fascination with this area and it’s unique sound: “The first time I came to Mississippi I was 12 years old and it was 1970. My nose was pressed to the window of a converted school bus on a family trip as I took in the landscape and the richness of the culture in the South. At that time, I didn’t so much hear the music as much as I felt it. Deep and soulful, it rang in my gut as much as in my ears. And ever since then I have been unable to shake off the lure and charm, yet sultry mood of Mississippi. The quality of light in the South, the weather, and the tragic and triumphant history of the people have conspired to create an art form that has shaped the entire world of popular music.” Expanding on this idea, he goes on to say: “This music of mine is not just confined to the state, or the river or the delta. It’s also about the greater concept of Americana roots music formed in the headwaters of Muhlenburg County in western Kentucky and flowing through Nashville, Rosedale and all the way to mouth of the river in Louisiana.”
So what is this sound and how has Eric re-interpreted it through the filters of his own musical experience? I was intrigued by the title of the opening track “Long Boats,” and how it related to the music, so I looked it up. The term as used here refers to the large steam powered riverboats that played a major role in the 19th century development of the Mississippi River by carrying passengers and freight up and down the river. The driving rhythm that propels the song recalls the sound of a powerful engine chugging along, pushing these massive boats through the muddy waters. It was hard not to think of John Fogerty or Tina Turner singing: “Big wheel keep on turnin’, Proud Mary keep on burnin’. Rollin’… on the river.” The flavors of Americana are also heard here and throughout the album, as Eric plays an assortment of stringed instruments including guitars, banjo, pedal steel, and resonator guitar. The recording also features half a dozen top-notch musicians who do a masterful job of accompanying Eric on drums, percussion, bass, organ, and whirly (a flexible plastic tube that is swung in a circle to produce musical notes.)
The propulsive groove continues on “Shakin’ in the Cradle,” a foot-stomping back porch hoe down that was difficult to sit still to while listening. The pace slows down a bit on the album’s title track, which reminded me a bit of “The Chain” by Fleetwood Mac, with its easy loping rhythm, heavy kick drum on the one beat, and finger picked guitar – although, like all the songs on this recording, it is instrumental. I particularly liked the funky jam that the song developed into as it evolved. While a number of the compositions on the album have an upbeat ambience, any retrospective of the South and it’s music would be incomplete without focusing on some of its darker days, which is exactly what the bluesy “Trail of Tears” does. A track called “Swamped” is a mid-tempo roots rocker that winds its way through some interesting changes, including a brief “Born On The Bayou”-like interlude midway through.
While just about all the songs on Mississippi are originals, the album includes one cover tune – a unique country-flavored version of “Danny Boy,” complete with weepy pedal steel guitar licks that gave this wistful Irish ballad a bit of Nashville mojo. A bouncy shuffle called “Skamania” is a real showcase for Eric’s diverse guitar skills, from folky acoustic finger picking to Telecaster twang, everything he does is both tasteful and authentic – although not surprising with over 50 years of experience under his belt. Some more fancy fretwork is featured on a track entitled “Chester,” that brings the album to an upbeat foot-tapping, head-nodding conclusion.
Mississippi is one of the most unique musical experiences I’ve had in a while. Its’ blend of Americana, blues, country, folk, and more, portray the heart and soul of an area that is a melting pot of cultures and traditions, and a breeding ground for new music forms that followed. Eric Tingstad is truly a sultan of stringed instruments who has his fingers not only on his guitar frets, but also on the pulse of music of the past, with an ear for contemporary interpretations of it. He has shown excellent taste by surrounding himself with an assortment of fine musical accomplices to bring his vision to fruition. Every song is a treasure and distinctive in its own right. A fitting way to bring this article to a close is with a quote found on the album from Buffalo Joe, who said: “The song of the river ends not at her banks, but in the hearts of those who have loved her.”