Making It: A review of Grant Peeples’ Okra and Ecclesiastes

Northwest Florida is an in-between place for the most part. It’s mile marker signs and a through-way for people from other places getting to where they want to be. It’s highways lined with pulp mill pines harvested in even rows that kids half-way notice while they ride in their SUVs to places like Panama City Beach and other resort areas labeled “The Forgotten Coast,” “The Emerald Coast,” or “The World’s Most Beautiful Beaches.” This is the place where native son Grant Peeples once again calls home after returning from a long stay on an island in the Caribbean off the shores of Nicaragua.

The story of a man making his way on the road with 6 string in hand to sing about what’s on his mind is a common one. The music establishment calls it folk singing but it’s actually more like singing to folks. What makes Grant’s story a unique one is that he started this journey in his late 40’s. That’s practically having one foot and half your damn mind in the grave for someone looking to start a recording career. But it didn’t matter much to Grant, he just had to give it a shot and he’s been full-bore ever since.

Grant’s third official release is called Okra and Ecclesiastes and after digging into it I feel its his best. He had established himself with his debut It’s Later Than You Think and follow up Pawn Shop as a man with a unique and definable story to tell. While these two releases feature some great highlights like “Tears From Carmen’s Eyes,” “Sunshine State” his most well known song, “There’s a Bluebird in My Heart” and “The Hanging” the albums or CDs or downloads or whatever you want to call ’em didn’t seem to quite whittle themselves down to a singular focus. With Okra and Ecclesiastes he’s unearthed a hard to find album mojo. The 12 songs fit together and the listener is given an experience as opposed to a sprinkling of great songs.

I’ve come to understand that you just can’t underestimate the importance of production when it comes to putting together an album. Grant, with the help of financial donations from friends and fans who call themselves the Peeples Republik, headed out to Austin, TX where Waylon Jennings knew Bob Wills is still the king to seek the services of renowned producer Gurf Morlix. The man may have a “keep it weird Austin” name but his attention to sonic landscape and detail jumps out quick and fast beginning with the opening track “My People Come From the Dirt.”

This song is kind of a Grant 101 if you aren’t familiar with his tone and songwriting; tongue in cheek tethered to some deep rooted and heart felt cultural observation. The album takes its title from “Dirt’s” chorus:

My people come from the dirt, full choke and steel guitar
Cigarettes and whiskey, and a dog chained in their yard
My people come from the dirt, white bread and kerosene
Catfish and flatbeds, sweat stains and retreads, okra and Ecclesiastes

Right there Peeples is telling you about what is just on the other side of those pulp mill pines.  Hard lives lived and loved in the shadow of the area “Tourist Development Council” or the latest fast buck making big city developer.  What’s exciting about O&E is that this universal opener is turned inwards and personal as the album progresses, the same sentiments and intonations are made but in a cohesive narrative way.  This combined with Murlix’s production touches makes O&E a great listen.

“Lethal Injection Blues” is a hell of a song.  Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” is turned on its head as we’re reminded of Springsteen’s Starkweather inspired “Nebraska.”  A muted drum plays steady and calm like the few remaining heartbeats of the song’s narrator ready to close the book on a self-perceived life of loss:

No I ain’t afraid to die I just hate to lose
I got them lethal injection blues

The real stand out song on O&E, the one that really shows a growth in songwriting from Peeples is the tune “Elisabeth.” When you’re writing you know you want to say more with less. The very best do, but that’s a hard hard row to hoe.  “Elisabeth” encapsulates the choices Peeples has made as he faces another day of uncertainty.  I’m reminded of that line from John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” when I hear this one, “To believe in this living is just a hard way to go.” Peeples pines for a place in the world where his soul can rest and renew.  He sings:

Elisabeth, is it just the coffee talking? As I struggle through the fog of yet another brutal morning. I am wishing I was there with you in your sacred garden. Sipping from that cup of wisdom that we’ve both come to share.

The concept of “making it” can have several different connotations.  Peeples has the hunger to break through and actually make a living at his career of choice of singing to folks.  I hope he does just that but I know many people, those from places like Northwest Florida, that are going to put on Okra and Ecclesiastes and feel like they have a common bond with Grant, wanting to share from his cup of wisdom and to me that’s about as “making it” as a man needs to be.

Here’s a live clip of Grant performing the closer from the album “High Fructose Corn Syrup.”

If you’re interested in picking up a copy of O&E or just want to find out more about Grant I encourage you to head over to his official site.

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