Exhibiting a combination of talent, soul, and grit often unmatched by debuting artists, Julie Rhodes seems poised to become a mainstay in the Americana blues music scene for years to come.
For many, being able to record part of an album at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama and to work with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and a Grammy-award-winning producer would be the apex of a successful musical career. But for New England-based singer Julie Rhodes, it’s just the beginning. On her debut album, Bound to Meet the Devil, Rhodes fits right in with a star-studded cast that includes cameos by Spooner Oldham, Sara Watkins, Greg Leisz, and Sheldon Gomberg. Exhibiting a combination of talent, soul, and grit often unmatched by debuting artists, Rhodes seems poised to become a mainstay in the Americana blues music scene for years to come.
Two years ago, however, all of this would have seemed improbable to Rhodes, as she hadn’t yet written or performed a song. She was slinging ice cream cones and sundaes at an ice cream parlor, spending 50 to 60 hours a week trying to get by. But attending a house show featuring New Jersey-based folksinger Jonah Tolchin changed everything for Rhodes. After Tolchin heard Rhodes sing along to his set, he motivated her to start writing songs herself. Rhodes then embarked on a two year journey of writing and recording, which culminated in the release of Bound to Meet the Devil, an 11-track opus of Americana blues, equal parts traditional and contemporary.
The musical revivalism on Bound to Meet the Devil takes many shades, all of which are colored by Rhodes’s thick vocal strokes. Rhodes and her bandmates resurrect the country gospel anthem in “Faith”, wade through the raw Delta Blues in “Grinnin’ in Your Face” (a Son House cover), pick through the bluegrass textures of “Skyscraper Blues”, and dance among the jazzy funk of “Hurricane.” No matter what genre, Rhodes impresses, her voice combining the husky dynamism of Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, the brazen wails of Janis Joplin, as well as the sultry swoons of Bonnie Raitt.
The album begins with a swagger. Over the opening stomps and claps of the blues-drenched “In Your Garden”, Rhodes struts her vocal dexterity, intensifying a song about self-confidence in the face of rejection with dogged howls. “Collector Man” is another song that showcases Rhodes’s ability. Over a blend of soul, funk, and harmonica-driven blues, Rhodes applies a velvety vocal touch for much of the song. But during the bluesy deluge of guitar and harmonica at the song’s climax, she unleashes torrents of throaty cries, which signal the desperation with which the song engages issues of working class struggle.
The theme of working class struggle permeates the record, giving it a political edge to match Rhodes’s vocal grit. Throughout, Rhodes develops a playful metaphor that hearkens back to her time working at the ice cream parlor. She refashions the image of scooping ice cream into the labor of digging in “Collector Man” and “Holes”, transforming her own experience in a way that encompasses general working conditions. On “Holes”, for example, she sings about how often people end up working themselves to death: “Sister, quit your diggin’ them holes / If you keep workin’ that shovel / Then you’re bound to meet the devil.” Rhodes’s ability to locate her own particular story within histories of labor and capital even manifests itself on the cover of the album, which depicts her carrying a shovel.
While Rhodes’s vocal virtuosity and lyrical insurgence form the centerpiece of Bound to Meet the Devil, her bandmates sonically hew its edges with similar aplomb. “In Your Garden” features a grungy pentatonic riff that crescendos in a bluesy squall of Jonah Tolchin and Danny Roaman’s dueling guitar solos. Matt Murphy’s driving bassline on “Collector Man” is as propulsive as the song’s train-whistle-like harmonica. Michael Bosco’s syncopated hi-hat rhythms on “Hey Stranger” give the song a particular dancehall vibe, and Doug Moffet’s churning saxophone turns up the funk on “Hurricane.”
Altogether, Bound to Meet the Devil is an Americana blues showcase. Each song summons the ghosts of the celebrated blues past, and Rhodes stands among them, bearing her soul with tremendous skill and confidence. With Bound to Meet the Devil, Julie Rhodes is certainly bound for success.