Eldon Huff

Artist / Band / Musician
Rock / Country
Sony/ATV Music Publishing
With its debut release, Hellfires & Heartaches, The Eldon Huff Band makes two definitive statements: First, real rock and roll is alive and well, and as muscular as ever. Second, gifted musicians with southern sensibilities are still forging bedrock elements like blues and soul into fresh, powerful music that speaks to (and for) generations of listeners. You know from the first downbeat that Huff's no rookie. He's a real-deal guitar slinger, "raised up," as they say in Kentucky, in hardscrabble coal-mining country and toughened for the task in bar bands and sideman gigs that began before he reached his teens. He was also – at fourteen – a preacher, until his flock decided that Saturday night bar gigs and Sunday morning prayer meetings just didn't mix. It wouldn't be the last time that Eldon had to choose between two or more very different directions.
Huff headed south to Nashville in 2003, and quickly stirred interest from a major record label. The dream was coming true. Except…
"I don't think what they had in mind would have worked out real well," he says. "They wanted to slide me in there with the Young Country guys. The look, the sound, the whole thing. I think they figured I could bring a little edge to that, which was kind of where the Music Row thing was headed at the time. But, you know, you're thrilled. It's a major label deal, and you can't imagine saying no to any of it. So I signed a deal, and stuck it out, but it sure didn't feel right."
Sticking it out included turning down some plum sideman work (membership in The Outlaws and a gig with British soul singer Joss Stone, for example) while his project "developed." Eldon used the time to establish himself as a session player and songwriter. Eventually, the recorded tracks, initially dubbed "wonderful" by the A&R department, were shelved as the label turned its interest to younger, more mold-able Young Country candidates. It was decision time, round two. And it might have gone another way had Huff not met up with a fellow Kentucky native, bassist Tony Nagy. A longtime Nashville journeyman (and "recovering tuba player") whose resume included gigs with Lee Roy Parnell, Mark Selby, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Joe Bonamassa and countless sessions, Tony had always wanted to be part of a project that had some grit to it, rather than just the session guy or the sideman. With Eldon still itching to make the record that his big-label handlers didn't quite "get," the pair began playing gigs, writing and recording demos to flesh out their shared vision.
"It was obvious right away that we were onto something," Huff recalls. "I had a vehicle to write for, and I was really energized. Tony latched on to everything I did and brought something really special to it. Seemed like it got better every week, every gig. But it really came together when we found Del."
Drummer Del Bennett had been one of Wisconsin's top call drummers for years, logging time with the likes of Daryl Stuermer, David Grissom, Reggie Hamilton, Jeff Lorber and Robben Ford, and had just begun checking out the Nashville scene when he met Huff and Nagy. His playing locked the trio's groove like an iron gate. The sound gained even more personality, and Huff kept writing. The trio kept gigging, and plans were laid to record a full CD. Somehow.
A lot is said today about digital technology making it possible for anyone to make a CD. The truth is that the challenges of recording and releasing a truly top-drawer project are as varied and daunting as ever. Months in the making, Hellfires & Heartaches is the happy result of three determined pros scratching, clawing and willing their concept into sonic reality. The title track crackles with Bennett's urgent groove – and a taste of knife-edged funk, courtesy of Nashville keyboard icon Johnny Neal. Huff's own story is mirrored in the lyrics. "Woman, Is That How You Love Your Man" gets big in a hurry; a smoldering southern power ballad you'd swear was a lost track from one of the genre's vaunted, classic LPs. Eldon's guitar simply sears over the massive bed laid down by Nagy & Co.
Nashville's songwriting community is famously friendly, but its real-world, successful core is a place for big boys and girls with serious talent and finely-honed skills. Huff's validated membership card may well be "She's Been Singing Freebird." A bit of irony, a common story told in a new way, and a big ol' No.2 hook on the end of the line. This is the kind of song that festival audiences sing every word to, and bar bands everywhere will cover.
"Company Ground" is a rarity: A song about life in a coal mining town with no steel guitars or banjos in sight – just an infectious signature guitar line, a big-stage backbeat and Eldon's "been there, lived that" vocal. Things get a little closer to the backwoods with "Keep On Leavin'," though its easy acoustic intro soon gives way to the surge of the band's native sound. More reality bottled in premium-label songcraft. And of course, no southern-inspired album would be complete without a nod to the fabled mystery woman who's tortured men's souls from the hill-country hollows to the murky bayous since country boys began singing their stories. That would be "Rattlesnake Cage," with its greasy groove and cautionary tale (you just know this isn't gonna end well).
A common knock against the way music is recorded and released these days is that it's often presented piecemeal; scattered elements and finished songs tossed into a pile and lumped onto a CD. If you miss the days when an album was an album, a collection of music with a cohesive sound and a connective thread that runs throughout, welcome back. You'll play Hellfires & Heartaches start to finish.

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