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Saturday, December 27, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 34.0° F  Overcast
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MadTracks: 'Tennessee Whiskey' by The Eugene Smiles Project
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Madison may not be the first place a fan of Southern rock would look to find a band exploring that genre. There are some hard-working bands in the metro area tilling that soil, though, such as Mighty Short Bus, whose latest album came out in May. Blues rockers Clovis Mann, who just released their own new disc, also flash some Southern tones, and have even played a few shows dedicated to just the Allman Brothers Band. But the most Southern rock-sounding band in the Madison area may be The Eugene Smiles Project, who likewise released a new album in May. The title my american radio is apt, as the release showcases a winning combination of rock, blues and a bit of country.

The band's beginnings date to 2004, when singer/guitarist and Michigan native Steve Eller convinced former Hounddog Moonshine bandmate Daniel Yachcik to move to Madison and play bass in Eller's then-current band. "Yachcik packed his gear, moved into the basement of my house, learned the songs we'd written, and the band promptly broke up two weeks later," writes Eller via email, "leaving he and I to take our first baby steps as The Eugene Smiles Project."

Guitarist J.R. Short, a former rhythm player and tech with Luther Allison, was the band's next addition. "We auditioned J.R. shortly after his return from a tour of duty with the U.S. military in the Middle East," says Eller. "He hobbled out of his apartment on crutches, holding a beaten up, barely in tune acoustic guitar, armed with the 'I haven't played in a while, I may be rusty' excuse, and proceeded to blow us away. Five notes into the audition it was apparent that J.R. was the player we needed to write with. It wasn't what he played, but how he played it that caught my ear. The notes that leapt from the guitar landed on my ears with a vibrant, soulful energy that made it apparent J.R.'s approach to music was rooted in a deeper musical foundation than that of the other hacks we'd auditioned."

Fast forwarding through a few years of personnel changes brings us to 2010 and my american radio, the band's second album. Band members performing on the release include the original trio and another pair of relatively new arrivals to Dane County. One is drummer Chris Sandoval, who had formerly played in the San Francisco area with The Tubes and Tommy Castro's band, among many others. "Chris landed in our lap after he chose to get off the road where he was doing 250 shows a year with bluesman Tommy Castro," says Eller. "Chris is an absolute monster on the kit. Hands down the most talented drummer I've ever had the pleasure to work with. With The ESP, Sandoval is no longer tethered to the blues leaving The Eugene Smiles Project the benefactors of his freedom."

The final contributor to my american radio -- and one of its secret weapons -- is multi-instrumentalist Stephen Ellestad, who came to Madison from the Baltimore area about a decade back. Ellestad joined the band on bass during a couple years' break for Yachcik, afterwards moving primarily to keys but also playing acoustic guitar, mandolin and banjo. Since the album's release, Ellestad has retired from the band to work in a different musical direction, with former Mighty Short Bus player Josh Smith taking over the multi-instrumentalist role.

The players' combined experience adds up to an eclectic album that remains engaging all the way through despite being nearly enough material for a double LP, an accomplishment hard to pull off for any artist. The first few listens through I noticed the album was long, but was surprised to find it clocks in at well over 70 minutes. Eugene Smiles makes it happen partly through musical arrangements that change up the instrumentation just the right amount as the album goes along, helping hold the listener's attention but not disrupting the music's flow. A bigger part of the equation is their ability to tell a story compellingly in song, whether tales of individuals in love, semi-outlaw lifestyles, respecting family bonds or other subjects -- sometimes all at once.

One track that does this is "Tennessee Whiskey," which in just three verses paints a convincing picture of a man willing to stand up for honor at any cost. Eller explains: "[It] began as an introspective piece pitting my feeling towards the importance of respecting the family name with my views and observations of contemporary familyhood. However, the song took on a much deeper and more personal expression with the passing of Yachcik's father in the fall of '09."

If I had to make one overall comparison, The Eugene Smiles Project reminds me of the laid-back groove of the Black Crowes, but without quite as much of the pot-smoke haze which sometimes leaves that group unfocused. There's definitely a touch of the Allmans in the occasional twin-guitar lines sprinkled through the disc, and even more Skynyrd due to the group's willingness to bring in the country twang.

Recorded at Madison Music Foundry by Landon Arkens, the crisp, warm sound is only occasionally disrupted by a bit of overproduction, such as on the bluesy jamband number "Broadway," which begins with the becoming-ubiquitous low-fi scratchy record effect. That's a very minor complaint, though. Any album that can flow from the Santana-esque original "The Lurper" to a gentle, countryfied cover of Old Crow Medicine Show's "Wagon Wheel" without ever feeling forced has a lot going for it.

Listen to an MP3 of "Tennessee Whiskey" in the related files at right. More music by The Eugene Smiles Project is available on its ReverbNation profile and MySpace page. The band will perform more tracks from my american radio at a show at the Brink Lounge on Saturday, August 28.

MadTracks highlights and provides MP3s of songs performed by local musicians. All tracks here are provided with permission of the artist. If you are a musician based in the Madison metro area and are interested in sharing your work as a MadTrack, please send a message.

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Tennessee Whiskey - The Eugene Smiles Project.mp3

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