by Eric Althoff
There are absolutely no certainties in the music industry, which makes it both an incredibly exciting pursuit as well as a field in which even those you might not expect could be as talented as yourself.
“If you’re in Nashville, they might [even] be your Uber driver,” singer-songwriter Eliot Bronson said with a laugh.
A native of Baltimore, Bronson moved to Music City after a stint in Atlanta, where he collaborated with Josh Lamkin on a duo they called Brilliant Inventions. Bronson described that Atlanta-based act as a “quirky pop band” with a Ben Folds vibe. They had management and seemed to be off and running, but things for Brilliant Inventions fizzled just as they appeared to get going.
Bronson stuck around Atlanta as a solo artist but realized if he was to make it performing his own work, Music City was where he needed to be.
“I went through a big breakup, and I thought this is my chance to just try Nashville out,” he said. “I have a ton of my colleagues and my peers here. All the labels and agents and management are here.”
Still, Bronson hasn’t forgotten the streets of Baltimore that informed his young life as well as his early tastes in music. He will be returning to the capital region for three dates in February, including Richmond on Feb. 8th, followed by a showcase at Hobson’s Art Barn in Herndon, VA on Feb. 9th, and then back home to Baltimore at Club 603 on Feb. 21st.
“I grew up in kind of a working-class neighborhood right on the edge of the city,” Bronson said of his formative years in Charm City, where he was able to walk to neighborhood stores. And despite growing up in one of the largest cities in the country, Bronson said the Baltimore of his youth felt more like a small-town community.
“My grandfather built and was a preacher in a Pentecostal church right around the corner, and my dad grew up in that house [too]. My mom grew up less than a block away,” Bronson said. “Me and my brothers all grew up in the same house, and everybody went to the church.”
Early on, Bronson was exposed to gospel music emanating from the church, but the often-heavy Pentecostal hymns were leavened by his parents’ “hippie” tastes for Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
“I got ‘mixed messages,’” Bronson said.
In addition to the Greenwich Village folk scene and gospel music that drifted his way, his parents’ record collection also included blues. As Bronson came into adolescence, his tastes even expanded to the D.C. punk scene, particularly Fugazi.
“That was all seeping into my consciousness,” he said. “I don’t know if any of that is discernible in my music, but it was an influence.”
Bronson says his music bears the stamp of Paul Simon and Tom Waits, whom he counts as being among his heroes—and it was this singer-songwriter tradition that pushed him to up and move to Nashville.
“In my late teens and early 20s, I rediscovered that storyteller folk tradition. All of those greats from the ‘60s and ‘70s are a part of my makeup at this point,” Bronson said, adding that he believes the time is ripe for more of the warrior-poets he so admires to have their day in the sun in today’s music scene.
At the same time, it’s always good to come back to his home turf.
“When I lived in New England, people thought that Maryland was ‘the South,’ and then I moved to Georgia, and I was called a Yankee immediately,” Bronson said. With a laugh, he added, “I realized nobody wanted us.”
Bronson says his shows are intimate: just himself and the guitar. He alternates his original songs with stories behind their gestation, as well as humorous anecdotes from his life. He says that because people have more choices for entertainment than ever before, he wants to give his audience something special and memorable.
“I realize people can go to a movie or a play or stay in and [watch] Netflix [so my show] has to have a certain quality,” he said. “Every song I write I try to make great. If I’m presenting it, I believe in it, and I try to tell a story.
“I want the whole night, the whole experience, to be memorable.”
For all his talents, Bronson is keenly aware that his adopted town of Nashville is awash in gifted performers. When he was younger, this might have inspired jealousy, but Bronson meditates for 30 minutes daily to keep himself centered both mentally and artistically.
“It’s important that my life isn’t only about writing songs and singing and chasing success. I have to have other things going on that ground me, stabilize me and make me happy,” he said. “That ritual, that practice of ‘disidentifying’ with everything that’s happening, that is the biggest and healthiest thing I’ve ever committed to in my life. Without that I think I would be much more of a basket case.”
He relates a particular lesson in humility from not long after moving to Nashville. Bronson was invited to take part in a songwriters’ conclave, where he was surrounded by musicians he describes as “Olympic-level.”
“This town is full of the world’s best singers, guitar players, instrumentalist and writers. Any one of them could be a star tomorrow,” Bronson said. “I was in this room [which] was barely full and nobody really cared…and I was trying to figure it out: These people were probably the best in their hometowns and they moved here, and now they’re in the top 1 percent, but there’s probably a thousand more people just like them in [Nashville].”
“What I realized was it wasn’t important just to be excellent; you had to be doing something that you cared about. When someone is singing a song that they needed to write to survive, that’s compelling.”
Bronson said the epiphany provided a mental switch to be the best that he could be, not necessarily the greatest musician in a town overflowing with the cream of the crop.
“Tell your story, make the record you want to make, because no one else can make that,” he said. “If you do that, you have a chance; otherwise, you [won’t] because there is going to be someone better than you.”
Since moving to Nashville, Bronson has worked with producer Dave Cobb, a frequent collaborator of Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell. With Cobb, Bronson recorded his latest album, Empty Spaces, which will be out this spring.
“It’s all about people in my life and Nashville and the recent big breakup,” Bronson said of Empty Spaces. “And it’s fun.”
Bronson is somewhat cagey about his goals for the 2020s but will say he hopes to continue writing and performing while also taking care of his mental well-being.
“I really have to focus on the art itself and pour whatever struggles come up in life back into [the music] and try to make a better and more meaningful life for myself,” he said. “I always had faith that if I could do that, the other pieces would find their way.
“I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s what I believe will help me.”
A native of New Jersey, Eric Althoff has published articles in “The Washington Post,” “Los Angeles Times,” “Napa Valley Register,” “Black Belt,” DCist, ScreenComment.com and Luxe Getaways. He produced the Emmy-winning documentary, “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” and has covered the Oscars live at the Dolby Theater. He lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with his wife, Victoria.
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