Cris Jacobs is from Baltimore, which says something about him. “It’s a city where people don’t necessarily move to,” said Jacobs, a singer-songwriter. “It’s a city where people are from.”
Baltimore is, among other things, famous for the T.V. show “The Wire” and for being the home, for a time, of writers like Edgar Allan Poe and H.L. Mencken. Those facts convey something of the idea that Baltimore is a place of unique, idiosyncratic grit.
“I have a strong connection to Baltimore,” said Jacobs, who spoke to me by phone last week as he and his wife and young daughter drove back from Nashville. “It’s been a great home. I sort of take pride in not being attached to any quote-unquote scene. You don’t hear of a lot of people coming out of Baltimore.”
Jacobs has been making music for two decades now, first as the frontman of the band the Bridge and now, for the past eight years or so, as a solo artist with his own band. He’s had a workmanlike drive and focus from the beginning, following the model that if you play 200 shows a year, keep writing new material and steadily sharpening your skills, over time you’re going to expand your audience and connect with more and more people. (The Cris Jacobs Band plays the Muddy Creek Music Hall in Winston-Salem on Thursday, Feb. 28.)
“I’m not concocting some artificial package,” said Jacobs about his approach.
“I support my family, and it’s one foot in front of the other. Every day we get up, and we try to create something. That really is as far as I’m able to see. That’s where the really important work gets created.”
Jacobs is set to release Color Where You Are, his second solo album, in April. It comes on the heels of Neville Jacobs, a collaboration with Ivan Neville (son of Aaron Neville), which came out last fall.
As a singer-songwriter, Jacobs isn’t so easy to pin down. As his pairing with Neville suggests, he’s got a special taste for New Orleans groove and funk, but Jacobs also makes music with a rootsiness, a jammy looseness, and a kind of working-class muscle. His 2016 record Dust To Gold had a swampy vibe in places, with songs, like the lovely “Cold Carolina,” that brought to mind the slow-burn soul of early ZZ Top and the smoky, molasses grooves of JJ Cale.
“There were several moments when I said to myself ‘OK what would JJ Cale do?’” Jacobs said. It’s not easy to play at those deep-breathing tempos while remaining funky. And Jacobs said his rhythms section — Todd Herrington on bass and Dusty Ray Simmons on drums — prides itself on being able to play just behind the beat while staying in the pocket.
The rhythmic/tempo sensibility may remain the same, but much else has changed since that last record. Jacobs is a father now, for one thing. And the landscape of American politics has gotten much more charged. Both of these things have made Jacobs, in typical down-to-business fashion, focus on concrete action, clear-minded assessments of what to do in the future, to make sure that the future is better than the present.
“It changes the whole dynamic,” said Jacobs about parenthood. “Your priorities reach a different level. With this record — it’s not about being a dad, it’s not about being affected by the political climate specifically, but it’s about what those things bring out. Yeah, I’m a dad, and I have to support my family, and yeah, I’m pissed off about politics, but I don’t just want to stew about that. But now what?”
There’s a song called “Afterglow” off the forthcoming record. It’s a big shining gospel-tinged song, with hints of Bruce Hornsby solemnity. The song seems to be about awaiting something that will emerge or remain after these times of turmoil, some way that America or our relationships with each other will be better because of the soul-searching, the introspection and the quest for what really matters about our shared ideals.
“In the afterglow, we shall taste the fruit of that which dug deep in the ground and held to the root,” Jacobs sings. It’s a hopeful sentiment — the notion that we’ll be strengthened by struggle.
The spirit is indicative of the feel of the whole record, in a way, Jacobs said. There might be a little less Spanish moss, moaning train whistles and snarling slide guitar on this record.
“The vibe is a little different. It wasn’t an intentional thing. Records are snapshots in time,” he said. “I think I was maybe unconsciously going for an uplifting kind of a vibe.”
In recent years, Jacobs has gotten to perform with, open for and tour with some legends of American music. He got to open a string of shows for Sturgill Simpson and Willie Nelson, and these high-profile gigs certainly served to put Jacobs’ name in front of new audiences. Another life-goal opportunity came when he was asked to participate in a show at the Hollywood Bowl last fall of Phil and Friends, the rotating collaboration with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh and a revolving cast of players. Jacobs was raised by parents who were avid Deadheads, so the chance to perform that music in that context was something of a full-circle situation for the singer, who brought his father out for the show.
I asked Jacobs about the ways that touring, with its constant motion, can create its own insights for the traveling musician, in addition to the cliches of the road. Jacobs views it all in the cosmic American perspective, where the highway is a little like the frontier of outer space, where individuals face their limits and gain insights into their place in the cosmos. Getting up on stage and making music with an audience is a way of forging a “collective consciousness,” Jacobs said. It’s more than just having fun and singing tunes.
“You’re sort of a spiritual explorer,” he said.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.
See the Cris Jacobs Band at The Muddy Creek Music Hall, 5455 Bethania Road, Winston-Salem, on Thursday, Feb. 28, at 8 p.m. $10.