Paul Jeff Riales still has that warm Southern drawl 20 years after he moved to Rochester from Memphis, Tennessee. It complements his strawberry blonde hair like beer complements fried chicken.
His Southern roots run deep in his music and his life. There’s a beguiling gentility about him. He cherishes his friends with a familial loyalty that extends to his values. He’s hardworking, patriotic, prolific, polite, good-humored and flawed.
How does he write so many great songs? Admittedly, this is not usually considered a flaw. But to some frustrated second-rate songwriter [like myself] it can be very intimidating. I can appreciate his talent and believe in it, but I am a bit jealous of his effortless capacity to document his world in song. That hasn’t stopped me from gleefully championing him to all my friends and handing out his CDs like they were candy to anyone who will listen.
His young son’s death took a toll on his soul and his first marriage, sending him packing and deserting his home ground for the North. His music seemed to stay in Memphis. He remarried and spent the next 15 years doing exacting post-fire reconstructions and trim carpentry. He may have suppressed outside evidence of his past, but he still kept listening and penning the occasional song in private, sharing them with no one.
Finally, fate decided enough was enough and placed Jed Curran and Willie Arrowsmith in his path. Curran was guitar player, singer and a budding songwriter himself with some connections around town and an easy manner that gelled well with Riales. Arrowsmith also sang and played very decent harmonica and brought a welcome dose of levity to the equation. Armed with three 90 minute cassettes full of rough demos, Riales (and the newly christened trio, BACKWATER) began to retrace his steps back to the music that had been set aside for so long. He was determined to follow through this time, and rededicated his journey to his son’s memory. First he had to endure the costly break-up of his second marriage and loss of a house laden with the effort he had dearly invested in restoring. But as his spirit emerged from storage in his newfound musical collaboration, his luck began to change. A new mature loving relationship matched his new determination and surprised him with unfettered support for his music.
Backwater rehearsed Riales’ songs (and a few of Curran’s) and soon started making the rounds at open mikes and coffeehouses. Response was always favorable, and Riales’ tunes soon became the talk and envy of the local songwriting community. Before you knew it, they were installed at Dynamic Studios in Rochester recording Backwater’s debut CD, “Load Full of Memories”. Featuring Riales, Curran and Arrowsmith with sympathetic support from a slew of local guest stars, LFOM was evenly split between Riales and Curran song-wise.
The ten songs by Riales dominate “Load Full of Memories” 16 tracks, even by Curran’s reckoning.
The lead off track, “Daddy’s Train Whistle” sets the prevailing spirit of the CD in motion, waxing nostalgic for the trains of yesterday and a father doomed to die, riding the Southern rails. The image of young brothers straining to hear the promised whistle reflects Riales’ yearning for his personal past, gone but not forgotten.
“The Things You Left at Home” delves deep into the country side of Riales, and though it passes through time worn paths trod by almost every other country songwriter worth his salt, it still manages to transcend cliché. Riales’ effortless lyrics walk through an empty house and create a harrowing snapshot of a devastated man, seeking answers in the ruins of love.
Drinking and cheating get their due by Riales (with help from his wife, Doreen) in “Whiskey Lies”, a classic barroom sing-a-long. You can imagine hearing quarter after quarter drop into a thousand jukeboxes from Biloxi to Lubbock.
Perhaps the most poignant of Riales’ songs on the CD, “Goodbye House” documents the aftermath of a marriage or any other relationship at an end.
“Black Cat Blues” is more fun than a blues should be and a perfect example of how Riales can transcend a cliché with the finesse of a master. There’s even a cameo by his two cats of the moment.
“Front Porch” was the first sign of how good it would get. This seemed like a lost John Prine song to me the first time I heard it and was the first song Riales handed to me to produce and mix. It would set the tone for the CD and give Jeff a launching pad for all of his ideas and a reassurance, I hope, that he was on the right track. This is a classic.
‘A Load Full of Memories’ takes its title from this loving look back into his own family. “Granddaddy’s Dirty Black Pickup” includes vocals from Jeff's sister Judy, who shares the memories and feelings Jeff captures so well in this song. It reappears released intact on Riales latest CD, ‘The Ticket’.
I never asked him, but I suspect “Keep the Back Door Open” comes from Jeff’s earlier output down in Memphis. I may be wrong, but there are subtle hints of his other life here.
“The Riverboat” stood out on the original cassettes Jeff entrusted with me. I remember riding with my musical partner, Don Christiano, on a fairly long road trip to a gig and this being one of the standouts on the two tapes, along with “The Avalanche” and “Front Porch”.
On both the Backwater CD and on his second CD Jeff ended the projects with small half songs, designed to keep you hoping for more. “Small Love Thing” accomplishes just that, whetting the appetite for what’s yet to come.
The band continued for a time, but slowly the priority of each individual’s commitments became apparent. Jeff was obviously the most driven, constantly and impossibly writing new song after new song while Jed basked in the glow of such talent and began awakening his own muse. With so much creativity happening so close, how could he not be inspired? Willie had the most outside distractions and was the least attached to the musician’s life and soon began to slip away, missing practices, gigs and finally recording sessions. Though he appears on 7 of the next 18 released tracks, Jeff had already begun to replace his harp playing with his own in the studio and obtained a neck rack for live excursions also.
The next project was already underway and it wasn’t stuck in the ‘Backwater’ anymore; it was to be a full blown Jeff Riales solo CD. Jeff had amassed 50+ tracks already sketched out in homespun demos constructed in fevered late night solo sessions on his multi-track cassette deck. Some of these ended up on the Backwater CD, joined by a slew of the new ones popping up like weeds along the highway. The new CD entitled ‘Right Rear Wheel’ [try saying THAT real fast five times] showcased new tunes Boss 302, Vicksburg Hill, When Senorita Played, Sugarman, Things, Hello Mr. Johnson, Hijacked By Love, Memphis Line, Finger and a Toe, Luther and Cornbread. There was even a cover of Townes VanZandt’s Blaze’s Blues culled from his earliest connection with Duncan Walls, a beer-fueled listening session with discs from his insane CD collection. .
Jeff reassembled most of the same backing crew: Curran playing right hand man again, Chris Brazener doing the engineering and Duncan Walls repeating his collaboration with Jeff on the production and soundscapes. There were some new faces plugging in here and there: Bob Halperin lent some greasy slide guitar on Sugarman and Sherri Resse dueting on When Senorita Played and Maria Gillard joining Sherri doing backup vocals on Vicksburg Hill. There was a noticeable leap forward in the sound of this CD, with some radical sound treatments designed to spice up the listening experience on selected cuts. Among the highlights are:
“Silvertone Express” has this weird mix of Rockabilly, Country and an African High-Life feel to it, reminiscent of the best of Paul Simon’s Graceland period and not inappropriate for a man who once cleaned out Elvis Presley’s private plane and still has a piece of gum that once was chewed by…
“Sweet Lila Jane” sounds like a lost Carter Family song, stuffed away in an old trunk in some holler somewhere just waiting for Jeff to find it and whack his pen on the strings to make it come alive again.
What seems like filler to Jeff is better than hits by some big leaguers. “Goddess of the Highway” stands strong in Jeff’s catalog.
Sweet and country-styled, “Nothing Learned” seems like one that didn’t make it to the Backwater CD but still captures the feel.
“Boss 302” was a confident and concerted effort to mix a new textural sonic element into the musical palette of ‘Right Rear Wheel’. It succeeds on many levels as a great story song [one of Jeff’s best], an intriguing contrast to what could be considered Jeff’s ‘signature sound’ and an experiment in mood lighting.
“The Touch” is Jeff’s declaration of love for his woman, but also a lighthearted indictment of ‘Northern Urban East Coast’ loving as practiced by men in opposition to the ‘Southern’ way. Its languid bluesy slow but steady relentless pursuit of this woman’s affection has struck a chord with many, many listeners over the years and remains one of Riles most requested numbers live.
Jeff’s effortless ability to dig into American history is clearly apparent in “Vicksburg Hill”, one of his strongest message songs that never once panders unnecessarily to trite emotion. There aren’t many Southern songwriters that will give such an even handed view of the Civil War in their songs. This is a rare exception.
“Finger and a Toe” contains the memorable line, “…I lost a finger and a toe to a chain saw and a hoe”. What kind of mind is at work behind lyrics like these?
Jeff chose to share the lead vocals with Sherri Reese, [at the beginning of what has become a successful career for her as part of Americana duo] giving “When Senorita Played” a feeling unlike any other Riales song.
Here’s a story song that can stand up against tracks by the best of the best, not only in the Country field, but in Blues as well. “Sugarman” packs an emotional wallop, strong as lightning skittering down a fishing pole and the double slide guitars of Riales and buddy Bob Halperin give just the right flavor to that Sunday lunch bucket banquet.
When was the last time you heard somebody playing their shins and thighs? “Cornbread” revives the lost art of Hambone percussion and strips the meat right off the bone and dips it in the sauce.
“Luther” tells the tale of a life reconsidered inside a well. By the time this song is done, you’ll feel Luther’s heart pounding against the stone walls as he attempts to drag his broken body back up to the light.
“Memphis Line” closes the CD at the riverside drying off after the baptism.
Now Jeff was making people sit up and listen. He looked out the window of his home one morning in 2003 and saw the U.S. flag flying in front of the elementary school across the street and penned “I Am Old Glory”. Dynamic Studio owner Dave Kasperson flipped over the song and arranged a session immediately and also funded a ‘rock’ remix session and the CD single was offered in local stores and online. The song made it to former President George H.W. Bush, Sr.’s desk and Jeff became the proud recipient of a personal letter back from H.W. soon thereafter. He was becoming a regular fixture at area Open Mikes and began headlining his own gigs more often at the best acoustic venues and festivals around town. He even ventured out of town to a songwriters’ festival in Florida, making new friends and gaining access to the main stage almost TOO easily. Everyone who heard his songs came away a believer.
With a brand new digital recording studio installed in his home, he began to knock off high end demos that have to be considered finished product these days, though he has taken some into larger studios for sweetening.
In 2005 there was a limited private release circulated among friends and used for getting gigs called ‘Long Way To Buffalo’, consisting of 13 songs Jeff fired off on his new toy, essentially playing everything, save for the occasional drum tracks laid down by his neighbor, Joe____. The subtitle, ‘Homespun #5’ refers to his previous four full length collections of demos which started out on tape and now reside in CD form, closely guarded and rarely shared except in redone new versions. Kind of a goldmine for Jeff.
Jeff and Jed had also embedded themselves in The Flipside Grill with a regular Thursday night Open Mike of their own, backed by an ever changing roster of local high caliber Americana veterans who gladly showed up, plugged in and added to the beauty of each moment. This small bar became the destination point for most serious singer-songwriters in town and soon enough caught the ear and eye of the local Public TV station, WXXI. One of their in-house producers was looking for local acts to feature in a state-funded music series. Jeff became the first act filmed, recorded and presented in the ON STAGE series, which has been promoted across the country to other PBS markets. A DVD release of the hour long concert and interview is imminent.
Spring 2008 also saw the release of Jeff’s official second solo CD, The Ticket, chock full of 18 songs, an embarrassment of riches once again. Topping off the list is Jeff’s strongest story song to date [at least that he is willing to share with us NOW] the title song, a tale of the lottery of one sad sack’s life explained by his ex-wife’s convenient choice of numbers. This song has wowed audiences since Jeff premiered it and has to become his “Ticket” to the big time if there is any justice in the world,
This CD was almost completely a homegrown affair, save for a re-release of “Granddaddy’s Dirty Black Pickup” from the out-of-print Backwater debut, ‘Load Full of Memories” the title track and Jeff’s tribute to Johnny Cash, “Tall Man in Black.”. Jeff tops himself on several tracks, most notably his second Civil War song, “100 Rings of Life”, which has the hallmark of a Smithsonian Institute collectible, bound for the Library of Congress’s shelves. This features the guitar work of my buddy Frank Selitto (whose photos appear in earlier posts in this blog), who fretwork also appears with special guest vocalists Dave Donnelly and Connie Demming on “North Mississippi Mojo Queen”, a steamy Swamp Pop character study of one of Jeff’s old friends from down South. “No More Whiskey’ and “I’m Taking the Fifth” are natural candidates for the country hit parade, with strong hooks and a keen sense of humor. One could see any number of high profile acts covering Jeff’s songs without a question; let’s say Willie Nelson or Hank Williams, Jr. When was the last time either of these singers had songs as strong as these?
Jeff continues to grow as a performer and artist. This writer knows for a fact he’s got songs he’s been sitting on for years that are every bit as good as the ones he’s released so far. If you see him ask him about "Daddy Was A Rebel". It's my particular favorite and as far as I know he hasn't even demoed it yet. It’s only a matter of time before Jeff Riales is discovered by the greater Americana & Country community for the incredible writer that he is; once he gets some notice, you’ll be able to count the days to complete acceptance across the board for this talent.
Let's see if we can get a few of the best songs posted here. Please be patient. This is new to me. Just give me a little room. Once I get this, I'll never stop, believe me!