Rheta Grimsley Johnson -- The Atlanta Journal Constitution 3/18/2001


Along U.S.61, Mississippi

The echo was stupendous. Inside the cavernous red barn on the Stovall Farms, where Muddy Waters spent a big, worried hunk of his life, Eddie Thomas sang the "Country Blues." He sang it the best he could, Muddy in mind.

"Anything you want to say to Muddy, Eddie?" Frank Thomas asked his brother when the song was done.

Eddie knew what Frank meant. Muddy Waters might have been there, singing from the gut, scaring sparrows from the loft.

And that echo.

"It was like being in Notre Dame, or some other cathedral," Eddie says.

All along historic Highway 61, from Memphis to New Orleans, Eddie is singing and his brother Frank recording. When they are done, there will be an album of 61 blues and jazz songs, recorded in places somehow appropriate to the music.

They are like older Hardy Boys, solving musical mysteries in their own back yard. Used to working together, the Thomases can finish one another's sentences or step back politely in fraternal deference as the other speaks. There is mutual respect.

The Mississippi blues brothers, day by day, have set up their rudimentary "studio" on a Beale Street corner, in a Memphis city trolley, on stage at the Orpheum Theater. They have recorded at the spot where the Mississippi River levee broke during the Great Flood of 1927, in pecan groves, on top of abandoned railroad beds, in deserted depots, in silent cotton gins.

Forty songs down, 21 to go.

The Thomas brothers are determined to finish by summer a CD that will give something extra to all blues fans everywhere:

“They've heard the music, now we want them to hear the land ..."

They are calling it "Angels on the Backroads." Its the kind of project that needs a deadline. Otherwise, well, you could keep trucking Highway 61 forever, forgetting about the pressures peculiar to this century. In a sense, Highway 61 is a road to the past. Or at least the part of the past worth keeping.

Anywhere they find musical roots, the Thomases dig in and record. They have done their homework, mostly at the University of Mississippi's extensive blues archives -selecting the songs, learning their histories, delving into musical minutia such as exactly how each original artist tuned his guitar.

Every Tuesday for five years Eddie, 54, and Frank. 48, faithfully drove down to Ole Miss at Oxford from their home in the red-brick Hundley Hotel in luka. All towns need a substantial structure like the Hundley.

Up in that old hotel --lovingly restored by the brothers -- is the Thomas studio, complete with egg-crate insulation and a mixing closet shared with a hot-water heater. Whenever a train rumbles by, the recording business stops.  But that's all right; every sentence needs a period.

If you think about it, nearly every small Southern town has a family like this one. Tremendously talented, slightly eccentric, infinitely interesting. And nothing rouses small-town curiosity like exceptional talent and the rare ability to eschew a 9- to-5 job.

So when the Thomases recently announced a preview of their work-in-progress to be held at noon in the local library , the house was full. The crowd, to its everlasting credit, was appreciative.

Iuka, the Thomases' home, is in hardscrabble Hill Country, never to be confused with the rich Deltaland. Yet the blues paved a less-traveled road between regions, running like a deep, abiding river between towns and topography. The Thomas brothers rode it.

Frank -- writer, photographer , independent filmmaker -- once won a gold medal at the Houston Film Festival for a movie he made, with Eddie's help, starring their effervescent mother, Billie.

Eddie, a trained pharmacist, can play any instrument you put before him and has composed numerous songs for Frank's films and other projects. Eddie got stage experience as a young guitarist, performing as half a folk duo during half a dozen summers at a Maine resort hotel.

"We were Eddie and Harold, the laundry boy and the lifeguard, performing in the lounge," Eddie says. By the time the resort summers were over, Eddie had quite a repertoire. With no formal training but high school band, Eddie has that uncommon thing: a natural ability.

Together, a few years back, the brothers made and marketed an audio guide for travelers along the nearby Natchez Trace, a federal park that follows the old trade route.

This time the spotlighted byway is Highway 61, a. strip of asphalt exalted to almost mystical status by blues fans everywhere.

"A blues revival comes along about every 10 years," Frank figures, "and we hope 'Angels on the Backroads' will coincide with this one."

To that end, the two men headed west, toward Memphis and the Mississippi Delta. They were a curious sight.  Eddie singing Frank Stokes' "Downtown Blues" onboard car number 194 of the Main Street Trolley, riding two loops of the city for 50 cents. Eddie blowing the opening trumpet refrain of W.C. Handy's "Boogie Woogie on St. Louis Blues" atop the roof of the Fall Building. Eddie and Frank in the darkened Orpheum Theater, Eddie singing Alberta Hunter's "Downhearted Blues."

On down into the Delta, into the countryside, where a crop- duster almost drowned out Gus Cannon's "Poor Boy a Long Way From Home" sung by Eddie on a depot foundation in Tutwiler.

Eddie played Charlie Patton's "Peavine Blues" inside a cotton gin on Dockery Farms. "You can record in a cotton gin only when it's not running; if it's running, you can't even record in the town," Eddie laughs.

Curious onlookers have driven their John Deeres close enough to watch the recording sessions, and on the Memphis trolley a woman offered Eddie a Sunday singing job.

"I told her we already had a Sunday gig, singing in the Methodist choir."
On the demo album, Eddie gives a little of the history of each song and describes the performance site. The narratives are purposely brief.

"It's the music, stupid!" a sign in the studio reminds them.
"They definitely put in the hours and a lot of hard work at the library," Ole Miss blues archivist Ed Komara says. "The Thomas brothers are tailoring
their project for general audiences, and it'll be a good introduction for those interested in the blues but who are not necessarily aficionados."

The land, the brothers say, is inseparable from the music. The land is as rich and deep and colorful as the songs first sung here. The land is responsible, in a sense.

"I don't consider myself a blues singer," Eddie readily admits.
He and Frank are more like missionaries, sharing the word about the place, the people and the past.

"We grew up in the garden," Eddie says. Now it's harvest time.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson's commentaries are distributed by King Features Syndicate.

M. Scott Morris - Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal -- 3/9/2001

Singing Down Hwy. 61
Iuka brothers taking Mississippi blues tour

A pair of Iuka brothers decided I to let music guide them, and that's made for quite a journey.

Frank and Eddie Thomas are compiling a collection of 61 songs with connections to places along Highway 61; from Memphis to New Orleans.

"Our whole idea was to tie the music to the land," 54-year-old Eddie Thomas said. "We wanted to make that connection."

The brothers have taken their equipment on the road to record Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe's "When the
Levee Breaks" at the foot of the levee northwest of Walls and "61 Highway Blues" by Fred McDowell in a pecan grove on the side of Old Highway 61. "We wanted to record these things on location," he said.

"We wanted to get a feeling for being there. We wanted to breathe the same air these musicians breathed years ago."

High life

Frank Thomas, 48, handles the recording and studio work while his brother performs the music.

"When at all possible, we record it on location," Frank Thomas said. "We bring it back to the studio and dub harmonies and voices."

In the case of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues," the final product only includes a few notes from the field, while the rest was added at the brothers' Pearl Street Studio in Iuka.

On a September evening in 1914, Handy and his band debuted "St Louis Blues" on the Alaskan Roof Garden atop the Falls Building in Memphis.

"There's nothing on top of the building now. We got permission to go on the roof and record the first phrase from the song on a trumpet, " Eddie Thomas said. "The view is the same.  The Mississippi River was right there in front of us.  It was amazing to be at the same place where these notes first rang out."

Tracing the roots

Before hauling microphones around Memphis and small Delta towns, the brothers buried themselves in research to find the people, places and stories behind the blues.

The brothers certainly don't fear research, which they proved by producing "Natchez Trace: A Road Through the Wilderness," a six audio tape tour of the historic road.

"I read a zillion books on the blues," Eddie Thomas said. "I didn't really think there were going to be so many people who were significant to the story."

They learned about people like Son House, a Robinsonville bluesman who influenced the likes of Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson.

In "Land Where the Blues Began," Alan Lomax describes "an aging grocery store that smelt of licorice and dill pickles and snuff' where House and his buddies stripped to their waists and played music.

The Thomas brothers found the place, Clack's Store, and recorded House's "Shetland Pony Blues."

“The first take we did a mockingbird was singing.  In every other take, the bird didn't sing," Frank Thomas said. "We ended up using the take with the bird. There was just something special about it "

Miles to go

Many of the 40 recordings completed so far include the sounds of trolley cars or honey bees behind Eddie Thomas's guitar and vocals.

"It's a lot of fun, but it's pretty exhausting, too," he said. "We're setting up the equipment and taking it down and adjusting to whatever happens. That's part of it. If the wind blows, the wind blows."

When spring arrives, the brothers plan to hit the road again, following the music down to New Orleans for the last 21 recordings.

Frank Thomas, who is writing the liner notes for each recording and location, joked that the completion date for the three-CD project was three years ago.

The deadline may be off, but there's little chance the project will go unfinished. The music has a pretty strong hold on the guys.

"Some of these people wrote their songs 100 years ago and we're still influenced by them," Frank Thomas said. "Think of the power of that.  Did they know what they were doing or were they just living their lives?"

His brother is pretty sure those old musicians were just living everyday lives that ended up having extraordinary impacts on music and the world.

"It's a real inspiration to me," Eddie Thomas said. "You do feel these folks. I would like to think of them saying, 'I appreciate you doing this."'

Highway 61 Visited

Route 66 may have its partisans but the cognoscenti know that Highway 61 is the most important interstate in American music. As it winds its way north from New Orleans through the Mississippi Delta up to Memphis and on to Chicago, Highway 61 connects the birthplaces of blues and jazz, and it became the main route those styles followed before they spread out to the rest of America. No wonder Bob Dylan chose the highway's name as the title of one of his greatest recordings.

In 1994, two brothers from , luka, Mississippi, decided to honor the legacy of Highway 61 by recording some of the songs associated with the towns and cities that fell along the road's route. After nearly nine years of work, Frank and Eddie Thomas have released Angels on the Backroads (www.Angelsonthebackroads.corn) , a four-CD set of 65 blues and jazz songs that trace the musical path of Highway 61 from Memphis to New Orleans.  "Our first idea was to make a spoken-word narrative recording that you could listen .to as you drove along the highway," Frank explains. "We had done a similar thing following the route of the Natchez Trace. But we realized that the songs could tell the story far better1han we could."

Eddie has played trumpet and guitar since he was in high school in the early 1960s, and Frank has worked as a sound engineer on location for various motion pictures. Together they founded their own company to produce industrial and independent films. For Angels on the Backroads, they came up with the idea of recording the songs in the actual spots mentioned in the lyrics. "After years of researching and learning old blues and jazz songs, we made our first recording on October 9, 1998, in a barn on Stovall Farms near Clarksdale, Mississippi," Eddie says. "That barn was about a half mile from the cabin where Muddy Waters grew up, so I thought it would be appropriate to play his song 'Country Blues.'"

That first session was fraught with technical difficulties, but when Eddie and Frank heard how well it turned out, they knew that they would just have to figure out how to make it work. "It was amazing to hear the difference between what Eddie practiced at home and what we got on tape in the field," Frank says. Eddie used a number of vintage guitars for the on-site recordings, including a Martin 00-18, 1930s National Triolian, 1930s wood-body National Trojan, circa-1900 Bay State parlor guitar, and 1923 Gibson L-1 archtop. "Time and again the location just seemed to inspire him," Frank notes. "'Mississippi River Blues' is a different song when you record it sitting on the porch of an old abandoned house at sunset looking out over the river than it would be in the studio. Leadbelly's 'Midnight Special' takes on a whole new depth when you record it at the Angola prison farm where he was once incarcerated."

Eddie has a hard time narrowing down the high points among so many treasured memories. "Our visit to Mississippi John Hurt's hometown of Avalon was exciting," he says. "We met an older gentleman there named Guy Duke who used to know John Hurt. He took us to the Valley Store, where John used to sit and play on the porch. When I played my version of 'Avalon Blues' on that same porch, Guy said, 'Sounds like old John to me,' but I knew he was just being polite."

The Thomases also made a visit to perhaps the most famous spot in the Mississippi Delta: Robert Johnson's crossroads. "We jokingly said that we were going to find the actual cross- roads, even though it's most likely a myth," Eddie says. "But we knew that Robert Johnson lived in Robinsonville, near the town of Commerce. We reasoned that he could have written the song inspired by a nearby crossroads. We spent the afternoon searching for a likely spot and finally found a set in a cotton field that was in the process of being picked. We didn't go at midnight because it would have been too difficult for us to see what we were doing, so we recorded 'Crossroads Blues' in the late afternoon. The sun was setting on the levee, the harvest moon was rising behind us, and we could hear the distant sounds of the machines picking cotton. It was a magical time."

Eddie and Frank ended their journey in New Orleans. On the front porch of Jelly Roll Morton's boyhood home, they recorded a guitar version of his "Mr. Jelly Lord," and in Congo Square, now part of Louis Armstrong Park, Eddie recorded his guitar rendition of 19th-century New Orleans pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk's Afro-Caribbean-inspired "Bamboula."

Their final recording was made in St. Louis Cathedral. "We chose to perform the old hymn 'Sweet Hour of Prayer,'" Eddie says. "As I finished the piece, the church bells started to ring. And as the sound faded, we could hear the sounds of bands playing for tourists in the square outside. It was a nice reminder that our journey down Highway 61 was over but that the music goes on."

-Michael John Simmons