With ‘In the Outside,’ guitarist Eric Culberson makes a bold musical statement.
After two decades of kicking around every club in town, most recently as the blues player to beat, Culberson — inarguably, Savannah’s finest electric guitarist – has taken a hard left turn.
His new CD, In the Outside, is a multi–colored rock record. The living, breathing ghosts of Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman hover like guardian angels over its 11 tracks, which brim with melody, harmony, unusual chord changes — and, most importantly — four–alarm fire guitar playing. Culberson’s singing voice is both gruff and tender.
In the Outside is not just a breath of fresh air, it’s a great, overwhelming gulp of pure oxygen.
“I’ll tell you what it is — it’s what was bouncing in between my two ears,” Culberson explains. “It’s no conscious effort to go any direction, or a conscious angle, it’s just what I was hearing in my head.”
Culberson, 44, says he’s coming off of a rough couple of years. Divorce, family tragedy and financial problems had taken their toll.
And the Eric Culberson Blues Band — including bassist Nate Saraceno and drummer Stuart Lusk — was gigging pretty much nonstop.
“I kind of flat–lined creatively, for about 10 years, which felt like an eternity,” Culberson explains. “I quit writing songs. I was just beatin’ the highway, man, we were playing our asses off everywhere, up and down. I guess I was just too exhausted to feel anything.”
As recently as 2007, he adds, “I was in a hole so deep, and I didn’t care any more.”
Once things began to turn around — thanks, in part, to a new lady in his life — Culberson began to re–acquaint himself with the Muse. “I fell in love, the sun started shining,” he smiles. “I crawled out of the hole and I started writing music. Alive again. I started feeling things again.”
Another reason for the new guitar sound — indeed, for the multi–textural feel of the entire album — is the fact that Culberson put aside his trademark red Gibson Trini Lopez 335, his longtime blues instrument, and started playing a vintage Fender Stratocaster.
He’d had the guitar, the same model played by both Hendrix and Eric Clapton in their glory days, since the 1980s. Once he started working with it again, his sound evolved.
“It’s a little harsher sounding, a little thinner,” Culberson explains. “And I started using pedals again.
“For 18 years, I had been plugging the Gibson straight into the amp. No effects. Any kind of effects that I wanted, I would just do with my fingers or my hands, to the extent that you could do them with your fingers and your hands. And a little bit of reverb every now and then.”
He picked up the Strat, and soon discovered he just couldn’t put it down.
In his teenage years, Culberson’s first guitar hero was Ace Frehley, from Kiss. “I had every single one of their albums,” he smiles.
From there, he developed a lifelong love for Hendrix, and once he began to teach himself to play, his textbook examples were Lynyrd Skynyrd (for the band’s clean, swampy, triple–guitar attack) and the heavy blues–inflected riffage of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.
An infatuation with the more molten–electric English guitar bands (Black Sabbath, Judas Priest) led, perhaps inevitably, to a discovery of the original American blues artists from whom they’d liberally lifted. “There was a common denominator in all those different musics,” he recalls thinking. “And it was the blues.”
Music began to take over his days (he was a construction worker and electrician until he started falling asleep on the job) and nights (for seven years, his EROK Trio was the house band at a Savannah blues bar called Crossroads).
By the end of the 1990s, as the expansion of SCAD brought more students downtown, the music scene was growing. Culberson and his then–wife bought the Crossroads, re–named it Savannah Blues, and ran it until 2003.
Culberson had already been “discovered” by Florida–based King Snake Records, which promoted his “sex appeal and charisma” and dubbed him “The New King of Southern Blues” with two CDs, No Rules to the Game and Blues is My Religion.
Despite numerous glowing reviews from national blues magazines, the King Snake years were a bust. Culberson and EROK were back in Savannah, playing the clubs.
Music has always been his adrenaline, through hard times, hard living and assorted wheels of hard cheese. Once, the bones in his arm snapped during a particularly heated arm–wrestling match. That night, he was onstage, his limb in a sling, playing guitar (help upright like a cello) with his thumb.
“When I’m not happy, I don’t really feel like playing,” Culberson says. “And I don’t. But as soon as I do, I feel better.
“I don’t care if it’s the stomach flu, or a broken arm. It’s not like ‘I feel bad, I’m going to play great tonight.’ That’s not it. You have to feel bad all the time, long enough for it to register and come out the other side a little bit. You almost have to be over it to write about it. But you have to experience it.”
One of the most exhilarating aspects of In the Outside — recorded locally at Kevin Rose’s Elevated Basement Studios — is its seamless incorporation of blues phrasing into the mix — like Clapton’s seminal Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the album puts hardline blues right next to creative, exhilarating rock proudly, right there on the same shelf.
And it works.
Culberson is at a loss to explain it. “It’s confusing for me,” he says. “I’m a rock ‘n’ roller at heart, and I also like the blues. It’s kind of like coming out of the closet.
“I felt like I’d always written really good blues songs. It’s just that the music, in blues, is not gonna change that much. But the message – the story – is, and that’s what makes a blues song. It’s the same music, re–hashed. Now, I’m not talking about the soul, and the feel, and the timing which is the deceptively simple part of the blues. That touch, you know? That’s the something you can’t ever take for granted; you have to bring that up every night.
“In this case, this is the first time I’ve written these chord changes and bridges, and dynamically everything’s changing. Ten, 15 chords in a song – I’d never thought about doing that. I’m really amazed, and humbled, and I feel blessed by the whole creative process.”
He, Saraceno and Lusk are now officially called the Eric Culberson Band (the word “Blues” was dropped from the moniker late last year). They’re a spectacularly tight unit; Lusk co–wrote two of the In the Outside songs with Culberson.
They’re thinking of adding a second guitarist, or a keyboard player, to flesh out the complex new material onstage.
Culberson loves his hometown, and he loves his devoted fans, and he knows people are talking about what he’s been up to. “I’ve heard people say ‘They’re doing this album because they don’t want to play blues any more.’ That’s not true. We’re just more now, musically.
“It’s all a good thing, man. And when we play blues now, we’re playing blues better than we ever have. Because we feel refreshed and invigorated, just creatively stimulated. We have a better attitude. Everything in the band is just gelling across the board. It’s always been me, and now it’s a band. And I like that a lot.”
Eric Culberson ranks as a journeyman musician. The Savannah, Georgia, native has logged over a million miles on the road traveling from gig to gig. Over the last 20 years he’s opened for Johnny Winter, J. Geils, Buddy Guy, John Mayall, Mose Allison and Ted Nugent among others.
In The Outside was recorded by Kevin Rose at Elevated Basement Studios in Savannah, and mastered by Terry Manning (Widespread Panic & Led Zeppelin) at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, Bahamas.
Culberson wrote all 11 of these songs, except two he co-wrote with longtime drummer Stuart Lusk. In The Outside counts as Culberson’s third full-length studio release. Unlike his previous studio collections, In the Outside sounds more versatile and side winding as opposed to straight-ahead blues.
The opening track, “Ironing Song” features the original guitarist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jack Sherman. Culberson’s songwriting continues to strengthen over the years. There are traces of Jimi Hendrix in the sonic qualities of these compositions. The variegated sound of the album, and subtle guitar licks allow one to hear something new with each listen.
“Wash Away” emits a late night rock & roll ambience that travels into Stones & Gov’t Mule territory. “The Catch” stands as one of In The Outside’s true gems. Culberson streamlines the blues, funk and gritty Rock & Roll into one cohesive sound, which indicates he’s found his truest voice.
“Not There” also utilizes various blends of American musical styles. “Quittin’ Time”, like all of these songs, will transfer well to a live audience, especially when peppered in his bluesy set lists. Sherman appears again on “Stars In Your Tears”, a melodic song that adds soulful diversity to Culberson’s repertory.
“I Came To Get Down” harkens back to the days when Culberson would unleash his funk/punk on rowdy audiences on a Friday night. “Pentop” keeps the listener on their toes with an R & B vibe. “NTD” showcases Culberson’s deft guitar playing, which he chooses to downplay somewhat on this release, proving he’s focusing more on song craft.
“11 Eleven” exists as one of the best songs on this collection—high-octane rock & roll at its finest. The final track, “In The Outside”, is a mellow instrumental that’s so laid-back it’s almost jazz. In the Outsidepropels Eric Culberson and his band into rarified musical air…
For most people, the city of Savannah, Ga., calls to mind enduring images of antebellum South: elegant old mansions, moss-covered oak trees, oppressive humidity and flirtatious belles hoop skirting their way to family inheritance. But for those who have wandered through the doors of the Savannah Blues nightclub on the right night, the lasting image of this quiescent Southern town is that an electrifying blues workhorse named Eric Culberson.
Inside this restored club, Culberson dazzles patrons with the fiery guitar work that has made him a rising star on the national blues scene. And these fortunate visitors should be grateful: With exposure for his newest Kingsnake release, No Rules to the Game, gaining momentum, Eric’s performing time back home is sure to become less frequent. At least, God willing and the Savannah River don’t rise, that’s the way things should go for this blues guitarist who has paid his dues in spades.
“When I was 10 years old,” recalled Culberson, “my dad had a Harmony acoustic that I tinkered around with. I’d take the tone arm of a record player, dig the needle into the body of the guitar and make that Harmony an electric. From there I learned from watching others”. But Culberson makes it sound much easier than it really was. Around the time he hit school, the blues bug bit Culberson, and from that point on it was nose to the grindstone in pursuit of his newfound passion. He did construction and demolition work on the side and developed his guitar skills at night.
“I would get the neighborhood guys together at my one-room efficiency” Culberson explained. “We’d soundproof the room with duct tape and sofa cushions and then jam into the night.” And jam he did. Through intense sessions with rotating members of his revolving outfit. The EROK Band (from nickname given to Culberson by his friends), Culberson acquired a strong command of the instrument. By his early20s, he had developed a sound mature enough to catch the ears of Kingsnake Records major demo and bassist Bob Greenlee. “A mutual friend of ours, Tim Coy sent me a tape.” said Greenlee. “The tape sounded good, but it was very rough. I suggested that he come into the studio and lay down a few tracks. As soon as he played in the studio, I was a believer.”
Culberson’s first release, Blues Is My Religion, introduces his razor sharp playing and natural, down-home voice to the world through an impressive line up of original songs. He tackled genres ranging from Memphis soul to Texas blues with the confidence of a veteran. But more than anything else, the album revealed his love for Chicago blues. It’s a love he attributes to blues great Buddy Guy, among others.
“It was a big rush for me seeing Buddy Guy for the first time,” Culberson said. “It was right before he released Damn Right I’ve Got the Blues, and he just blew me away. I watched him very closely, and I could hardly sleep the night before because I couldn’t stop thinking about opening the show.”
Another obvious influence on Culberson was the legendary Otis Rush. Like Rush, Culberson often will launch into a high falsetto, lending his songs an added intensity.
BB King cannot go unmentioned. “The first time I got to talk to BB was at a festival in Tampa,” said Culberson. “The way he carried himself and talked to people made a real impression on me. He was a real gentleman, and I learned alot from watching his perform.”
Blues Is My Religion was received warmly by critics, but like so many good blues artists who don’t live in the big markets, Culberson found that the path to stardom was as slow and winding as the Georgia backroads. But that only fueled his desire. Night after night, he would set the strings on fire with The Erok Band at the local Savannah clubs like Night Flight and Cross Roads. As word of his talent spread, Eric was soon sharing the stage with such well known artists as Carey Bell, Eddie Kirkland, Johnny Copeland and Etta James when they passed through town.
Over a stretch of nights a few years ago, Culberson even showed his willingness to give an arm and a leg for the blues, or at least an arm. He was locked into an arm wrestling match (one of his more unheralded talents) when his arm snapped like a twig. Does that mean the other guy won? Culberson won’t say, but his career could have ended forever that night.
What happened next was the stuff of local legend. Culberson immediately had his arm bandaged at a nearby hospital and, never one to miss a gig, made a beeline for the stage at a club. Recruiting two guitar players to back him up, Culberson stood his guitar upright like a cello and played with his thumb. Needless to say, it was a painful experience, but this uncomfortable style worked well enough that he went on to perform nightly. He even backed up J. Geils in the same manner before his arm was fully healed. After one show stopping set, Geils turned to Culberson and remarked, “You’re damn good. I’d sure hate to see you when your arm is good.”
Now his arm is in great shape, as evidenced by No Rules to the Game. A virtual tour de force of fret-burning guitar work, No Rules just might be the album that vaults Eric Culberson into the national spotlight. Complemented by a soulful horn section and a stable of seasoned Kingsnake session players, Culberson’s energy is palpable as he demonstrates equal skill on both electric and slide guitar. He has developed a mature Texas-meets-Chicago sound that generates sparks without being overwrought or flashy. And most promising of all, there isn’t a weak cut on the entire album.
“This album was further down the road for me personally,” said Culberson. “The horns are kickin’, and the entire album has a great feeling because everyone was into it.” Greenlee, who plays bass on the album, also sensed a natural energy to the proceedings. “Eric likes to perform his material rather than layer it with too much production, so we just let him go for it,” said Greenlee.
Culberson covers a lot of ground with No Rules to the Game. He broaches the topical with “Broken Family Blues,” delivers upbeat boogie rhythms on “Savannah Swine’ and takes a country blues turn on the acoustic “Muddy Waters.” But the centerpiece of the album is ” Why Did You Lie?” in which Culberson pulls out all the pyrotechnic stops in a blazing solo.
“A lot of the techniques in that song I learned from Buddy Guy’s ‘Stone Crazy’ and Leiber and Stoller’s ‘I Smell a Rat,'” Culberson said. “It’s an angry song. I was kicked pretty hard around then and it came out in the recording.”
Reviews have been glowing for “No Rules to the Game” and Eric Culberson is taking his EROK band on a sweep of the northern United States in support of the album this October. Until then, you’ll find him lighting up the fretboard at midnight in the real garden of good and evil — the Savannah Blues club on a Saturday night.
Culberson’s follow-up to his Kingsnake debut, Blues Is My Religion, follows a similar path with the guitarist drawing from his main influences, Albert and Freddie King. Culberson’s raw attack also comes with a lot of rock pyrotechnics, and seldom does he lay back in his approach, which can be positively blazing on instrumentals like “High Steppin'” and “Savannah Swing.” On the more rock-oriented numbers like “Broken Family Blues,” “Matter of Time” and the title track, he shows chops galore while on covers of Muddy Waters’ “Honey Bee” and the venerable workhorse “It’s My Life, Baby,” the shows considerably more restraint. Other highlights include the shuffling “Workhorse Blues,” the slow blues extravaganza “If You Leave Me” and the six-minute John Lee Hooker-styled “Small Town.” Fans of no-holds-barred, hardcore blues-rock will absolutely love this one. If you dig blazing guitar and lots of it, this is definitely for you.
Every once in a while a blues artist emerges from the deep south and bursts fully mature upon the national scene. Eric Culberson is one of those bluesmen. His style is unmistakably authentic, energetic, and blessed with sex appeal and charisma. He will be a breath of fresh air for the blues.
Eric hails from Savannah, Georgia, where he worked the usual small clubs. The resurrection of electric blues was apparent when demand for good music supported the creation of Savannah’s first and best blues club, The Cross Roads. Eric and his band, The EROK band, were installed as the house band, and became an instant local phenomenon. Another Savannah native, agent, and club owner Tim Coy, recognized Eric’s potential and got in touch with his friend Bob Greenlee, president of Kingsnake Records. One trip to Kingsnake studios in Sanford, Florida and Eric was signed and recording his first Kingsnake CD, “Blues is my Religion”, released January 23, 1996.
The band has opened for or jammed with numerous recording artists, such as Jerry Portnoy, Carey Bell, (two of Muddy Waters’ harp players), Johnny Winter, Buddy Guy, John Mayall, Tony Coleman ( B.B. King band) Jimmy Dawkins, Casey Jones (Albert Collins), Room Full Of Blues, Ted Nugent, J. Geils and Magic Dick, Eddie Kirkland, Johnny Clyde Copeland, Koko Taylor and Etta James.
“Blues is my Religion”, the title song on Eric’s CD, was used in the pilot episode of the TV show “Savannah”, an Aaron Spelling and Warner Brothers production shown nationwide.
Music Choice Network chose eight songs off of “Blues is my Religion”. This is a twenty- four hour commercial-free digital music service available through cable TV and direct TV satellite, reaching millions of subscribers daily.
With the release of the CD , Eric Culberson and the Erok band are on their way to far broader recognition. They are appearing up and down the East coast, and seem poised to make the jump to stardom. And why not, combining spine-tingling guitar, soulful vocals and powerful original blues, Eric Culberson is on his way!
“An earnest tone dominates Eric Culberson’s songs, as he addresses the consequences of broken homes, the importance of a work ethic, and an individual’s autonomy. Add a brilliant guitar style that’s stinging and versatile, credible vocals, and tight arrangements, and you’ve got a winning combination. Like Michael Hill, who also refuses to fall back on “tried and true” issues and lyrics, Culberson is working toward defining a contemporary vocabulary and style for electric blues, a difficult but crucial task if the genre is to remain vital. A powerful album that never sags for a moment, “No Rules to the Game” is required listening.”
“Here’s a very pleasant surprise from those folks down in Florida. I’m not at all familiar with Eric Culberson’s background, but he sounds like he’s been around and paid some dues. He’s got three big positives: nice natural voice, smooth Chicagostyle blues guitar work, and a knack for very good songwriting. Eleven of 13 tunes are his and virtually all are fresh and full of fire. Not many blues artists out there are delivering discs as strong as this. As usual, Kingsnake provides stellar backup (Ronnie “Byrd” Foster is one of the best blues drummers on the planet) and Bill Samuel provides excellent punchy horn arrangements. Bob Greenlee’s production work deserves mucho accolades as he’s given us a finished product that glides and slides along from one fine track to another with no letdowns or rough edges. Culberson’s guitar work is comparable to Buddy Guy of 15-20 years ago (when Buddy still had passion for the, blues) and this disc is going to surprise a heck of a lot of people. Culberson is a real find, and the longer you listen to this CD the more this guy’s talent will grab you. There are several radio hits and at least four that should make a big impression with Shag/ Beach deejays (“Workhorse Blues” and “I Promised Myself” are dance floor fillers), and slow intense blues like “Small Town” and “I Came From the Blues” will startle jaded purists. All in all, Eric Culberson has emerged as a major blues artist with a big future. He’s got it, in spades. This one transcends color/cultural barriers and I’m inclined to believe this boy’s from somewhere down in cottonmouth country. Put this one on your must-have list. It’s a real blues delight. Kingsnake has a big blues talent with potential to conquer the blues world.” Rated.- 5 big bottles.
Who is Eric Culberson? I had heard the name before but never the music. What I found after listening to his second King Snake CD was very impressive. Even though he is in his mid-twenties, this young bluesman from Savannah, Georgia sings and plays guitar like an old, pro. Drawing on the influences of Freddie and Albert King, Culberson has developed a style that is based on that tradition yet has a totally fresh and energetic sound. He has a piercing, direct guitar style played with some real depth, feeling and fire and both his playing and singing have a definite maturity about them. His vocals are strong and confident and his songwriting is not too shabby either, with 11 original songs out of the 13 cuts. The material on this CD features a variety of slower and faster paced songs and even some fine slide guitar that sounds like it was recorded in the 1950’s (“I Promised Myself I Wouldn’t Drink No More”). There was also a nice acoustic version of the Muddy Waters song, “King Bee”. If you haven’t heard of this young talent I suggest you check out this CD. Fans of Tinsley Ellis are sure to like this recording.
“Ever since the meteoric rise to stardom of Stevie Ray Vaughan, his bruising, “rough and tumble” guitar style has been the standard against which Texas blues guitar is measured. Forgotten in the popular analysis is the fact that Texas had a rich blues guitar history setting the standard long before Stevie Ray. on his second King Snake release, guitarist and vocalist Eric Culberson reintroduces the public to what Texas blues guitar sounded like in-the pre-Vaughan era when the genre was defined by the likes of Freddie King, Johnny Copeland and Albert Collins. “The 12 cuts here – 11 of which are originals – feature the clean flurry of well-placed notes that was the stock in trade of these standard-bearers of Texas blues guitar. While Culberson doesn’t add anything new to this rich legacy, he does his forefathers proud. Culberson, who’s still in his mid-twenties, has mastered the instrumental approach and, more important, the tone that me music of King, Collins and others so compelling. Accompanying Culberson on his journey to the Lone Star State are Warren King on rhythm guitar, Bob Greenlee on bass, Ronnie “Byrd” Foster on drums, Terry Myers on tenor and baritone sax, Steve Walters on trumpet and Doug Bare on piano and organ. While the entire band provides solid support, the horns are integral to the sound of this disc. Their punchy fills and accents take the cuts on side trips to Memphis and add a warm, soulful counterpoint to Culberson’s stinging guitar. With vocals that recall W.C. Clark’s, Culberson weaves heartfelt tales about social strife (“Broken Family Blues”), the distress of playing by the rules (“No Rules to the Game”), the importance of remembering your roots (“I Came From the Blues”) and the games of love (“If You Leave Me”, “Small Town”, “Why Did You Lie” and “Matter of Time”). While this disc probably won’t redefine the public’s current notion of Texas blues, it’s a good reminder of an earlier chapter in Texas guitar history.”