Eric Gales Pens a Powerful Letter to His Younger Self on ‘Crown’

For those who’ve followed Eric Gales over the last 10 or 20 or 30 years, the North Carolina-based singer and guitarist is a beloved blues shredder. But for those who are new to the party, Gales has a message for you: “This guy is a tough old bastard!”

Gales released his latest album, Crown, in January, and when he says it’s “on a whole ‘nother level”–as he recently told American Songwriter over the phone—he means it. The record’s sixteen tracks find Gales at his most confident and unconfined, pairing his unsparing songwriting with masterful guitar work. Lyrically, the songs on Crown dive into Gales’ experiences with racism and his struggles with substance abuse. But musically the album is full of groovy jams and funky rhythms that producers Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith embellish with bold, brassy arrangements.

If you don’t learn from your mistakes, it’ll be the death of me, Gales sings at the start of the album. It’s one of several songs that read like a letter from the veteran musician to his younger self. Later, the slow-burning blues jam “Too Close to the Fire” gives way to the ritzy funk-rock of “Put that Back.” Meanwhile, Gales’ wife, LaDonna, steals the show on “Take Me Just As I Am.” Near the end of the record, Gales reminds his listeners —and himself—of the importance of being one’s own best friend: I used to be nothing / but a shell of a man, he sings. I was young, I was foolish. But Gales is older and wiser now, and he’s finally ready to claim his throne.

Gales spoke to American Songwriter from his home in Greensboro about the long journey toward Crown and why he considers it “the next tier” of his career.

American Songwriter: When and where did the songs on Crown come together?

Eric Gales: Two years ago we started the writing process. It was the day after the George Floyd murder, and that [shaped] quite a bit of material that I wrote for this record because I was infuriated by a lot of things happening during that time that needed to be talked about.

AS: What are some of the songs where you hear that influence most?

EG: All of them. “Stand Up, “The Storm,” “Survivor,” “Too Close to the Fire.” [They’re] Relating to the state of the world that I see and personally have experienced through my own life.

AS: Where did you actually record?

EG: We recorded most of it in Nashville at Sound Emporium and Ocean Way, and we did a few overdubs here in Greensboro.

AS: How long was that period?

EG: Not very long, man. About three or four months. We honor in. We had nothing else to do—it was during the pandemic, so we definitely made wise of our time.

AS: What comes first for you, lyrics or music?

EG: Generally it’s music first. That makes it a whole lot easier [if I start with] a melody, a riff, or something like that. Sometimes I’ll have a topic that I want to talk about.

AS: Are your guitar riffs planned before you’re in the studio or do you improvise?

EG: It’s a little bit of both. It all depends on the mood. Some stuff comes right on the spot and some stuff is put together prior.

AS: What’s the story or the message behind the album opener “Death of Me”?

EG: I’m just talking to my younger self. It’s a conversation with little me. If one were to read through the lyrics, I think it’s pretty self-explanatory.

AS: In the next song, “The Storm,” you sing, How could you love what you do / but hate who I am? Do you remember what prompted you to write that line?

EG: Yeah, during the pandemic there was a bunch of stuff through social media. I didn’t have a problem being quite vocal about where I stood with racism and all this stuff. There was a comment that said, from somebody, “Just shut up and play.” And that’s the wrong thing to tell somebody like me, you know what I mean? It was wrong when it happened to LeBron James. It’s wrong happening to me. Just because we entertain and play music, is one stupid enough to believe that we don’t have a voice too? With this whole resurgence of something that’s been very prominent for years, it just, in certain instances, has laid dormant… until a situation happens where somebody of color is being shot or killed in the same scenario that somebody [who’s] white would wind up being pulled over or stopped, but they’re sent on their merry way… It’s too much. It’s too many times.

People that don’t understand why the anger comes out…. ain’t nobody been listening! Nobody’s been listening, so you have to open your eyes and see that something doesn’t seem right here. You know, there are people out there, where… It woke up those who were somewhat closet racists and those who potentially might give me a pass because they like what I do. They really love the fact of what I do but [they’ve] got a problem with the color of my skin. If I didn’t play guitar and you had no idea who I was and I walked past you on the street and asked you what time it was, would you answer me? Ask yourself that question, and if you’ve gotta hesitate, then it’s you that I’m talking to.

AS: How would you describe the feeling behind “I Want My Crown?”

EG: There’s not much to it. Joe and several of my peers had a conversation. They know the backstory. Some people will open up Crown and it’s their first book, but those that know, know that this is not the first book. I’ve been around since 1991. And I’ve been through a whole lot of stuff – a lot of it by my own hand. But to have survived all of that and still be standing and doing it in a grand way… Joe was like, man, you deserve everything, all the positivity that’s coming your way because for 30-plus years, it seemed like nothing but negativity came . Again, I will say, by my own hand. And he said, dude, you deserve your crown, so let’s go get it.

AS: Did something switch for you to feel that deservingness yourself?

EG: No, not really. I mean, I just hadn’t been vocal about it, but I know that I strive hard and give everything I have into what it is that I do. If it’s recognized by the masses, I’m fine with that. If it ain’t, you know… it’s good being recognized. I’m okay either way. But it is very, very gratifying to see props being given in ways that I didn’t ask for.

People are starting to see something that people that knew me had been saying the whole time. Per words out of their mouth, it’s about time. Per words out of their mouth, excuse my French, we’ve been waiting on you, what the fuck you been waiting on? And again, it’s not me saying that. I’m just staying in the position that I’ve always been in, very humble and very level about things.

That’s not to say that I’m not happy, that I’m not full of gratitude. It’s not me flipping a switch into this egotistical, braggadocios – that never would be me, that never has been me. [Some] people have said if I chose to be a shit-talker I could back it up, but I don’t choose to go that route. I just let my gift speak for itself.

AS: How long have you known Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith?

EG: I’ve known Joe for 30 years. Josh I’ve known for maybe 10 years.

AS: So they were the natural choices to bring onto the record?

EG: Yeah, exactly. It was very intentional for that to happen. They brought everything. They brought a lot of things out of me that I knew [were] there… This record is a whole ‘nother level. It’s the next tier. And we didn’t leave the studio until it was there. I’m very thankful for the input of the writers and the players and people behind the scenes and everyone involved.

AS: “Too Close to the Fire” is a real slow-burner. What’s that one about?

EG: Just being too close to the fire, man, in any scenario that you can put together. From my personal experience, I’ve been stopped by the cops before and it came pretty close to being a terrible situation. For me that’s too close to the fire. What makes me different from what happened to George Floyd? That’s being too close to the fire. I’ve been on dope most of my life, and I almost died. That’s too close to the fire.

AS: Another song, “Take Me Just As I Am,” features your wife. Had you recorded together before?

EG: She’s done background vocals on several of my other records, but not her being at the front. It was an idea pretty much coerced by Joe, and it was a great idea because she has an amazing voice. It took some working on her to convince her [to do it]. And she’s very, very happy that she was pushed by me and Joe, being the bullies that we are.

AS: Are there any songs you’re especially proud of from a writing or musical standpoint?

EG: The whole record, man. This whole project is something I can sit back and be very proud of and look at feeling very accomplished. That it’s finally seeing the light of day after two years – we purposefully held it off in 2021 because we didn’t want the record to be overshadowed by any confines of the pandemic. We wanted to be able to go out and push and promote this record. We got a little uphill to go, but it had to be now or never.

AS: I hear the song “My Own Best Friend” as another letter to yourself.

EG: Absolutely, absolutely. I think that was a very much-needed tune to be on the record because a lot of people in this world got what they call “friends” but [none] of those are themselves. That was very important to me, to get that one across. I’m not only talking to people, I’m talking to myself too.

AS: Is there anything else you hope listeners take away from these songs?

EG: That this guy is a tough old bastard! He’s still around and he’s coming out even harder than before… Just know that I’ve been here, and by the grace of God I didn’t die in the process. As long as I’m still living and breathing it’s going to be all gas, no break. I’m going to keep pushing and letting the world know that I have something to say not only by the guitar but by my mouth as well.

Crown is out now via Provogue/Mascot Label Group. You can stream it HERE.

Photo by Katrena Wize

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