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."
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."'
Blues in Britain Magazine Reviews
United Kingdom Tour - 2005
The Crown Hotel, Nantwich
October 30, 2005
This appearance in Nantwich formed part of the second tour of the UK by Eddie and Frank Thomas within the space of six months. The brothers from luka, Mississippi, received rave reviews from their first tour in the spring of this year and were in great demand to make a return visit. Furthermore, their Angels on the Backroads 65-song, four-CD tribute to blues and jazz was awarded a '10' by Mike Mager in the June 2005 edition of Blues In Britain. On witnessing this performance, it is not surprising that their talent, warmth and charm touched the hearts of so many people.
Eddie and Frank wonderfully combine their respective skills of musicianship and filmmaking to provide a riveting melange of music, history and geographical images around a journey along Highway 61 from Memphis to New Orleans. Eddie sings and plays the music and delivers a commentary on Frank's sensitively compiled film, which depicts the Mississippi river, the railroad and Highway 61 itself and the cities and townships along the way. It also gives a flavour of the ancient and modern aspects of the cotton industry from the old buildings on legendary plantations to the current machinery that has replaced the labour-intensive cotton picking methods that inspired and nurtured the blues.
The musical element of the show fully demonstrates Eddie Thomas's remarkable versatility, embracing fine vocals, intricate finger-picking on acoustic guitar, authentic slide on his 1932 National, occasional blues harp and some beautifully controlled artistry on muted trumpet. The first set of the programme began very appropriately with Rice Miller's "Good Evening, Everybody", followed by the "Downtown Blues" of Frank Stokes. The National was introduced on terrific versions of Charlie Patton's "High Water Everywhere", describing the devastation caused by the flood of 1927, and Robert Johnson's "Crossroad Blues", while the trumpet was initially employed to accompany footage of Po' Monkey's (the Poor Monkey Lounge juke joint in Merigold, MS). The acoustic guitar was reintroduced for Mississippi John Hurt's "Avalon Blues" and the steel for Patton's "Pea Vine Blues" over pictures of the Dockery Farms. To end the set, we were treated to another helping of fine trumpet playing, which included "Hotter Than That" in affectionate memory of Louis Armstrong.
The delight was undiminished throughout the second set, which featured music by Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup, Gus Cannon, Bukka White, Big Bill Broonzy and Lonnie Johnson. In contrast and by way of acknowledging the simultaneous and influential development of jazz and country music, it also contained a splendid rendition of "Mr Jelly Lord" in homage to Jelly Roll Morton and Jimmie Rodgers' "Mississippi River Blues". Finally, this unique presentation of superb entertainment was brought to a close by Louis Jordan's "Let The Good Times Roll", which, in truth, was an entirely inappropriate and superfluous exhortation, as the good times had already rolled in abundance all evening.
- Lionel Ross
bluesinbritain December 2005
Eddie & Frank Thomas
Bluesnights @ Dorchester Arts Centre
October 15, 2005
Kicking off this, their second tour of the UK, Eddie and Frank Thomas from the tiny town of luka, Mississippi, brought their fascinating show Angels on the Backroads to Dorchester. Frank, the photographer and filmmaker, and Eddie the multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, had taken for their theme the famous Highway 61, focusing on the southern section which runs from Memphis to New Orleans. As the film rolled Eddie provided a verbal commentary and at various points along the route they stopped off and checked out the history. This was a very rich and illuminating experience, encompassing the origins of Delta Blues and its evolution.
Eddie played harmonica, trumpet and two guitars -one being a National Steel evidently once owned by Bo Carter. As this journey unfolded we heard the music of artists who had played a significant part in the development of blues and jazz - Sonny Boy Williamson, Frank Stokes, Jim Jackson, Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, Muddy Walters, Mississippi John Hurt; the roster even featured Jelly Roll Morton, Lester Young and Satchmo himself. Eddie's playing and singing were superb, delivered with grace and panache. He is a natural entertainer and made everyone feel at home. The visual and audio quality of the film were excellent helping to bring all the well-known place names into focus and bring the audience closer to the music and those who created it. This was a very informative and well thought out concert. Two particular highlights for me were Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's "Mean Ol' Frisco" and Mississippi John Hurt's "Avalon Blues". The tiny auditorium, with just 90 seats, was full to overflowing, proving that shows like Angels on the Backroads offer not just great live music, but also an opportunity to discover some of the rich history that has shaped blues and jazz. I would highly recommend it.
– Lewis A. Harris
The 15th Banbury Blues Festival
The Mill Arts Centre
March 5, 2005
Eddie & Frank Thomas...
...took to the stage armed only with a guitar and trumpet, well that was Eddie. Frank had handfuls of remote controls, a DVD player, projector and screen. These two brothers from luka, Mississippi, have been researching the history of the blues along Route 61, from Memphis to New Orleans. They have been back to many of the places mentioned in the history books and played a song or two that would have originally been played there. They have filmed the area as it is now and recorded the songs. This afternoon's performance was an extract from those performances. Eddie played the songs live while Frank played the films showing the locations, complete with their sounds. This presentation was so spellbinding and absorbing that your reviewer was left with a blank page in his notebook by the end. I can only sum it all up in the statement 'I've got to go there!'
bluesinbritain May 2005
The 17th Burnley National Blues Festival
The Mechanics 26 & 27/3/05
I was not alone in wondering just who The Thomas Brothers were - and what they were going to entertain us with? It turns out that these two sons of luka, Mississippi have their own film production company. Their latest joint venture is Angels on the Backroads, a four CD set.
Eddie and Frank recently embarked on a musical tour of discovery down U.S. Highway 61. Filming and playing at every major location between Memphis and New Orleans, they captured the heart and soul of traditional US blues. The end result is a well-crafted film that we saw a large extract from this afternoon, complete with musical accompaniment and dialogue from Eddie, while Frank took care of the projectionists role.
Playing a variety of 6-string acoustic and Dobro guitars and the odd trumpet solo, Eddie ranged through a variety of material from the new CD, including Frank Stokes' "Downtown Blues", Jim Jackson's "JJ's Kansas City Blues", Charlie Patton's "Pea Vine Blues", and even a song from Satchmo himself, the 1926 "Hotter Than That". There were also tunes from Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup, Gus Cannon and Buddy Bolden, rounded off with Bukka White and Jimmy Rogers.
To hear Eddie range through this illustrious repertoire and see the accompanying film on the big screen is the closest thing to actually being there. The Thomas Brothers have produced a work of considerable achievement, and it is conveyed with a sense of total commitment to what they do.
bluesinbritain May 2005
REVIEW OF 4 CD BOXED SET
Eddie & Frank Thomas - Angels on the Backroads
Eddie & Frank Thomas - Angels on the Backroads The Thomas Brothers are sons of luka, Mississippi, and have their own film production company. This latest joint venture is a mammoth four CD set.
Eddie and Frank recently embarked on a musical tour of discovery down U.S. Highway 61. Filming and playing at every major location between Memphis and New Orleans, they captured the heart and soul of traditional US blues. The end result is a well-crafted film that the Thomas Brothers have recently been touring. This is the accompanying CD set.
Eddie takes care of the performing duties and sings and plays all of the instruments heard on the CDs, whilst Frank does the studio and location recordings.
Volume 1. Memphis to Clack's Store kicks off in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis with Kid Bailey's "Mississippi Bottom Blues", originally recorded at the same location in 1929. It romps through a selection of tunes from the likes of The Memphis Jug Band and W.C. Handy before culminating at the site of Clack's store north of Robinsonville, with Son House's "Shetland Pony Blues".
Volume 2 continues from Robinsonville to the Valley Stores at Avalon, home of Mississippi John Hurt and inspiration for his "Avalon Blues". Along the way we are treated to songs from Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson. Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, all of whom lived and played in the locations featured here.
Volume 3, Mounds Landing (where the levee broke in 1927) to Crawford Street in Vicksburg, encounters Big Bill Broonzy. Robert Petway, Arthur Crudup and Skip James, before closing with Willie Dixon's "You Can't Judge A Book".
Volume 4, the final leg, documents the odyssey from Levee Street in Vicksburg to the journey's end at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans. Tunes from the likes of Sleepy John Estes, Jimmie Rodgers, Huddie Ledbetter, Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong complete the final CD.
This is much more than a labour of love from the brothers. It is an inspired and visionary collection documenting the birth, infancy and subsequent progression of delta and country blues. Extensive liner notes and a map are included.
It should be an essential component in the collection of every blues fan (in spite of the cost).
Rating: 10 - Mike Mager
bluesinbritain June 2005
The Thomas Brothers
Blues in Britain October 2005
Angels on the Backroads...
... is a live music and film performance, by brothers Eddie and Frank Thomas, who will be touring in the UK again in October and November. This email from Frank Thomas covers the brothers' history and explains what their performance is about.
Mississippi... both the River and the State have a certain exotic appeal, and for people interested in the growth of Country Blues, the Delta lies near and dear to the heart of an amazing story.
Eddie and I grew up in the hills of northeast Mississippi in the small town of luka. Culturally and geographically, the hills of Mississippi don't much resemble the Delta, and we grew up not realizing that the roots of the music that rocked our early lives in the 1950s and 60s ran deep in the soil of our native state, soil only a dusty day's ride to our west. It was the British musical invasion of the US in the 60s that really brought the importance of this land to our attention, but the extent to which the Delta in Mississippi has shaped our music didn't reach us until much later.
Eddie and I both played trumpet in our high school band and sang in the church choir (had to, our mother was the choir director). As a child Eddie was further inoculated with music by listening to obscure radio shows like Randy's Record Shop out of Gallatin, Tennessee, listening over a 6 transistor radio while hiding beneath his bed sheets late at night. He performed this music too, in small combos throughout his high school and college days. He began playing folk guitar in the 1960s and during the 1970s played in a musical duo along the rocky coast of Maine in New England.
When I finished college, the two of us formed a partnership to combine our talents, Eddie's music and my interest in telling stories with film and writing. We did promotional films - ski resorts, tennis camps and the like, and a few entertainment pieces of our own.
A film we planned for the Natchez Trace, an American Indian trail and frontier road that runs through Mississippi, turned into an audio driving tour instead. Travelers along the Natchez Trace Parkway now use our Natchez Trace: A Road Through the Wilderness to learn the history of this ancient roadway as they travel its 450 miles from Nashville, Tennessee to Natchez, Mississippi. Eddie wrote an album of original music as part of this audio tour, which led us to spend more time on our music.
Following the success of Natchez Trace: A Road Through the Wilderness we decided to do a similar tour for Highway 61, the blues highway, along the section from Memphis, Tennessee to New Orleans, Louisiana. This goes through Mississippi and the Delta. Rather than using original music for this journey, we focused on classic as well as obscure roots music created by the early heroes of blues and jazz. To make this a special tribute to these Angels on the Backroads, we recorded faithful renditions of their music while on location on the land and in places that inspired them. The resulting 65 song, 4 CD tribute to blues and jazz, Angels on the Backroads, has tunes we recorded in barns and cotton gins, atop parked train cars and a Memphis office building, alongside roads, rivers and a cypress swamp, in a hotel lobby, in theaters, at train stations, dusty store fronts, juke joints, churches and a cathedral choir loft....
Eddie performed all the music, and I recorded it. During our journeys we learned about the people, the land and the music. It surprised us that many of the people in today's Delta have lost the history of this music and the importance their land and culture played in the music's growth. We determined that when our CD tribute was finished we would return to help rekindle their interest. We were given the opportunity, by grant money provided through Delta State University, to make a musical tour to high schools in Mississippi during the fall of 2004. To help the story relate to students, we videotaped scenes of the land that we projected during Eddie's live performance. It was a delight to see children in the high schools of Mississippi connecting with their history and music.
John Morgan at the Carrick Music Agency in Scotland was planning our first tour to the UK for the spring of this year when he saw clips from one of our high school performances. He felt that UK audiences would appreciate seeing these Mississippi images too.
So... We made our first trip to the UK for five weeks in March and April and had the time of our lives lugging two guitars, a harmonica, a trumpet, and a video projector over 3500 miles of England, Scotland and North Wales. It was a whirlwind experience for two guys from Mississippi, and we were treated royally everywhere we went. I love the review Simon Heath posted on the Otterton Mill website following our performance at the mill on March 31:
"One of the best nights we've had here - an absolutely magical journey down the Mississippi with wonderful film and photographic images accompanying stories and songs - if you get the chance to see this show, grab it with both hands!"
Nice huh? Well, you will be the final judge of how we've done with our efforts, but that's the way I'll forever remember this first magical trip to the UK - five weeks packed with that kind of enthusiasm.
From time to time people have asked what makes Country Blues and the Delta so special. I hope our show helps audiences to ponder and come up with their own thoughts and answers to that. I know it can add a dimension to the music by taking a look at the Delta today. A lot has changed in the Delta and throughout the world since this music was created, and much hasn't changed at all, since the human heart is just as pure and innocent, just as corrupt and guilty as ever. What the Angels on the Backroads did with their music and their lives, perhaps without even intending it, is help give eyes and ears to better understand our world. How rare and important a gift for us today!
Eddie and I hope to see many of you when we return to the UK on tour in October and November 2005.
- Frank Thomas