All Heart, No Chart
Singer-Songwriter Chuck McDowall of ESOEBO Works and Plays in the Moment
An acronym for Eclectic Sections Of Everything But Opera, ESOEBO is a band centered around the guitar, vocals and cello of singer-songwriters Chuck McDowell and Gail Burnett. Their improvisational Timbuk 3-meets-The Beatles-at-the-Ryman sound has been cultivated over the past decade at venues across the country with regular local stops in and outside the perimeter.
With a catalog of four decidedly eclectic albums, the full band often includes - but isn't strictly limited to - Jonathan Cullifer (steel guitar), Kirk Sarkisian (drums) and Ryan Robertson (bass).
INsite spoke with the easy-going McDowell before a show last month at the Red Clay Theater in Duluth.
Tell us a little about the band name. It's definitely unique.
It actually came about purely as a tongue-in-cheek joke. Ten or twelve years ago, we were playing coffeehouses and restaurants and one owner in particular was very enthusiastic about us. He booked us at a Cajun restaurant in downtown Duluth. We needed a name. I just made it up on the spot. Since I'm from Louisiana, I was like, "Just pay Gail and let me eat for free." Then, when people started asking us to play more gigs, Gail suggested we use that name, so we stuck with it.
So it wasn't pay to play, it was play to eat.
During crawfish season, it was great.
So you went the OTP route and worked the Gwinnett County scene?
Yeah back in the '80s, there was a convenience store and bait shop in Duluth called Whitey and Eddies. People would go there on Friday and Saturday nights with their instruments. There might be 12 or 14 of us and we'd play until way past midnight. It was just friends playing music.
From sampling your albums, your music seems more timeless than timely. You aren't making time-sensitive statements.
Well, I just write songs that I like. Fortunately, the members of the band are nice enough to play them, so we just do what we do. We've had expansions in our popularity but we're still just kinda floating along. Basically, it steers us.
You're back at Eddie Owens' Red Clay Theater this month. He's a tireless music supporter.
I met him when he moved out to Gwinnett to do the Red Clay and he's been so supportive. He was very encouraging for the monthly web-based YouTube show ["Wednesday Writers Series"] I wanted to do. He was all for it. I host it and we have national and local acts. We're getting multi-platinum songwriters coming in and we're just enjoying it. The songwriters play and we all tell stories. Just like with ESOEBO the band, we're just steering it and seeing what happens. It's on the Eddie Owens Presents website. It's like a Bluebird writers-in-the-round-type show.
You're putting Duluth on the map because people can see these showcases around the world.
And you know, Eddie still treats everyone the same. If you're a touring professional or a 14-year-old playing for the first time, he treats everybody with the exact same respect and kindness. He truly loves music, songwriters and people. He's as genuine as can be and I think people really react to that.
You wear your influences your guitar strap, not on your sleeve.
Yeah I wrote a song on Michelle Malone's album Slings and Arrows called "Beast's Boogie." Her partner and percussionist Trish Land is an artist. She painted a strap for me that included the four cornerstones of my influences: Elvis, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis. They didn't just get up and sing, they brought their own reality to it.
You go from duo to full-band shows, yet you never rehearse. But it seems to always work out fine.
If you get to the core of ESOEBO, it's guitar, cello and voices. We joke that since we don't rehearse, every show's a practice for the next gig. It relieves expectation and perfectionism because we really don't know what it's gonna sound like before we do it. I delight in what everyone plays. I know they have great taste and amazing skills so there's no way to do it "right," because we haven't done it yet.
That's pure artistic expression, yet you don't veer off into jam-band noodling.
We just play music. If we had parts and all that, we'd have burned out on it by now. A lot of times musicians are asked to play by chart, but we're all heart, no chart. We exist for the listener, not for us so every show is different. I just try to stay out of the way. I might tell them what key it's in, but I'm in the audience at the same time. I'm like the guy who lights the fireworks but doesn't stand back. I stand in the middle of it and enjoy it.
You've had a few health issues, but they certainly haven't slowed your creativity.
Three years ago last month, I was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. I've had 46 rounds of chemo, two rounds of radiation, pneumonia three times and had parts of my colon, liver, lungs and brain removed. If I could say anything, I'd say to go get a colonoscopy and do it early. But I waited. It's a lot easier to deal with when it's just a polyp, before it starts to spread to other parts of the body.
How are you feeling now?
Grateful. When I have chemo, I'm basically a vegetable all that week. I kinda come out of it by Friday night and we've played shows on Friday nights of chemo week. Right now, things are shrinking, so that's pretty much where it's at.
Does it affect your creative process?
It does. I was brought up to love God and love people. I got cancer, but I have a platform. Musically, things have fallen in my lap. I've been fortunate to play the 30A festival and I got invited to showcase at South By South West. I've played with Emmylou Harris' band. I can't say cancer has held me back because I've gone even further, during it. But I've realized that everybody goes through some kind of suffering. We just have to deal with it.
ESOEBO will be performing on August 17 at the Red Clay Music Foundry. For more information, please visit eddieowenspresents.com.