JOHN EDDIE: FROM JUNGLE BOY TO DAD HUMOR & DIRTY OL’ BANDLEADER

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, September 13 2018

We’ve said it before in this space, but if there ever was such a thing as a Mount Rushmore of Honorary Shorecats… those “veteran rockers whose wall-of-sound work ethic has allowed them to make themselves entirely at home among the stars and bars of the Jersey Shore, despite being rooted in other states/ other scenes”…then surely the chiseled features of Mr. John Eddie would be right up there alongside the likes of Pittsburgh pirate Joe Grushecky, New England patriot John Cafferty, and New York giant Willie Nile.

Of course, the singer, songwriter, bandleader, ace live entertainer and self-described apostle of “Dad humor” is much too humble to be “taken for granite” as some sort of living-legend local monument — but when John Eddie returns once more with his Dirty Ol’ Band to the stage of the Wonder Bar this Friday, September 14, he’ll be coming up the coast in direct and defiant competition with a front of potentially wild weather; the unspoken challenge being who can best blow the roof off the joint.

“I commute just about every weekend to Jersey, and I’ve got the routine pretty much down,” says the native Virginian who’s made his home base in Nashville for much of the new century — and whose ownership of a house in Highlands keeps him keenly aware of the more delicate points of life on the coastal frontline.

“I have very rarely missed a gig; maybe once or twice with a snowstorm…I pride myself in making sure the show goes on, but when you come up against the power of nature, everything else takes a back seat!”

To say that the Grand Ole Opry-to-Garden State route is a well-trodden one is hardly an exaggeration for the “Front Street Runner” who emerged out of South Jersey in the early 80s; quickly staking a claim to fervent fanbases up and down the NJ Turnpike corridor — and getting himself signed to Bruce Springsteen’s record label in the process. While the 1986 John Eddie album (and its Gary Glitter-ish stomper of a single, “Jungle Boy”) won him some decent airplay, MTV exposure, and prime opening spots for Bob Seger and The Bangles, the follow-up Columbia LP saw a set of potentially strong songs thwarted by 80s-era production values — and a move to Elektra Records yielded little more than an unreleased third album and a lot of litigation; a fate that might have dispatched a less focused musician to a bitter post-stardom career as that “mean old cop in the Burger King lot.”

“The Elektra debacle just hit me at a time that knocked me for a loop,” says Eddie of what would become a prolonged absence from the recording studio — an interval during which the graduate of the music-biz mangler machine hunkered down and honed his room-rocking craft to a diamond-stylus point inside the working-dude clubs, casino lounges, and blues-brews-BBQs bars of an ever-expanding territory.

“I figured out pretty early on…and this was way before things like GoFundMe and Kickstarter…that my entire career could be fan-funded,” he explains. “I found people, fans, musicians who believed in me, and who really gave me the confidence to keep it going.”

One of those people was the late T-Bone Wolk, the session bass ace (and core component of the hitmaking Hall and Oates band of the 1980s, as well as the SNL house band) who expressed an interest in working with the young veteran after catching his crowd-pleasing live act several times. As Eddie recalls, “T-Bone really reinforced the idea that I was a decent writer…he brought my songs up to the level where I felt confident enough to make a new album again.”

Following a live album, an EP, and a full-length release on his Lost American Thrill Show imprint, Eddie forged another crucial connection to music history when he enlisted Jim Dickinson — the late Memphis-based session sorcerer and producer whose long career saw him work with everyone from Sun Records’ Sam Phillips, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, to Alex Chilton, Mojo Nixon, The Replacements and The Cramps — as producer of what would become his critically acclaimed “comeback” album, Who the Hell Is John Eddie? Issued by the major-distributed Lost Highway label, the 2003 effort showcased a maturing Jungle Boy whose perspectives on mid-life (“Forty”), gig life (“Play Some Skynyrd,” “Shithole Bar”) and “Low Life” were delivered with a wry humor that ran counter to the hard knocks lurking behind the lines.

“Working with Jim was such a cool experience…it was the most enjoyable big-budget project I ever did,” says Eddie. “He had some weird voodoo that just gave me such a boost of confidence…we did ‘Low Life’ in one take, and with ‘Jesus Is Coming’ the words just came pouring out.”

Having relocated to Nashville by that time, Eddie and his new calling-card album also began to capture the attention of his fellow recording artists; helping to place his songs with Sammy Hagar (“Loud”), Brantley Gilbert (the Top Ten country hit “More Than Miles”) — and number-one-customer Kid Rock, whose own take on “Low Life” led to encore Eddie explorations “Forty” and “Happy New Year” (as well as some much-appreciated checks in Mr. Eddie’s mailbox).

“I’ve been writing a lot for other people, and my last album (the 2012 contemporary country-rock set Same Old Brand New Me) was made up of things that I wanted to shop around to record labels and recording artists,” he explains. “But I’m looking to do a new record…I’ve got hundreds of songs lying around, and I’m trying to figure out which of those songs best represent where I’m at right now.”

“Who knows, I might wind up doing two new records,” he adds. “Maybe one with band favorites that people like…songs that I’ve done live for years but never recorded, because to me they’re ‘old’ songs.”

“My old guitar player Joe Sweeney has been coming out to join us at a lot of recent shows, and we’ve been revisiting songs from the first two records for the first time in years,” he adds. “I haven’t done ‘Jungle Boy’…haven’t done it SERIOUSLY…in a long time.”

Those live gigs with the Dirty Ol’ Band — a relatively recent rebranding of a combo whose core includes longtime colleagues PK Lavengood (with Eddie since 1989) and Kenny Aaronson (since 1995) — have also racked up many miles with drummer Dave Halpern and pedal steel player Ted Russell, both of whom came aboard around the time of Same Old Brand New Me. Eddie and company are just now coming off a busy summer whose New Jersey activities included a high visibility in such Long Beach Island locales as Ship Bottom and Surf City (where there are “two girls for every creepy ol’ man”), and a run of beach-bar sets at the new Hard Rock in AC, where Eddie’s first roadie now serves as the entertainment booker (and where, on September 23, John and the band will be performing as part of a special Springsteen birthday edition of Tom Cunningham’s Bruce Brunch radio show).

Then there’s the rather unlikely rock and roll crossroads of the Volume Live Café in Turnersville, NJ — a stripmall storefront located behind an Arby’s, where John has played a series of intimate  “Flying Solo” engagements in a room that he describes as “state of the art, with a great stage and great sound.”

And of course there’s Asbury Park, a frequent-flyer destination to which each return trip brings “something new and exciting; new restaurants and places for music” — and Lance and Debbie’s circuit landmark Wonder Bar, a home-away-from-home that Eddie praises for its “open, beachy vibe and that great Yappy Hour patio.”

“Honestly, my favorite gigs have always been the larger theater-size shows, where they’ve got 1,500 seats…and I actually love the earlier start times,” says the eternally youthful 59 year old. “But I’ve been lucky to keep working consistently, even when we’re playing to ten people…our home is a smaller, sweaty space, and that’s all right by me.”