Country singer Eli Locke may have chosen one of the toughest, most competitive careers known to mankind, but he wouldn't have it any other way. For Locke, who appears Friday, June 17, at Joe's Great American Bar & Grill, it is an almost altruistic avocation.
"There's a quote attributed to [songwriter] Harlan Howard: 'Country music is three chords and the truth,'" Locke said. "Well, I think it's my job to tell the truth, and I like to think that my music can make people feel something. As an artist, you get to be a part of people's lives even if you don't know them. Sometimes you're helping someone get over a breakup helping them fall in love, or just letting them forget about their troubles and have a good time."
Locke's approach is an appealing mixture of traditional and contemporary country and, as showcased on songs like his bittersweet tale of romance gone sour, "Tail Lights," and the boozy honky-tonk hookup anthem "3,2,1 (Ask Her to Dance)," he displays an emotionally convincing vocal style. As a lyricist, he has a command of some critical genre elements — an amiable sense of irony and a simple, direct use of language.
In performance, his Locke & Loaded Band is a powerhouse of fast-moving, hard shuffling country. "Our music is more on the traditional side of country and we try to always be authentic, drawing from the sounds of heroes like Merle Haggard, George Strait," Locke said. "These days I'm drawn to both the honky-tonk feel of the Bakersfield sound and a lot of Texas country and red dirt music."
With the recent death of Haggard and Strait's constant threats of retirement, traditional country music is in a state of flux, and Locke intends to step up and fill as much of the void as he can. He was born to it.
"I grew up outside of Saratoga, Calif., in the Santa Cruz Mountains," Locke said. "My dad introduced me to country music at a young age, and after leaving the mountains for L.A., I really started to connect with it, particularly older music by such as Haggard and Hank Williams. I always like telling stories, which led to writing lyrics, and after realizing I would not have a career in football I picked up the guitar and the rest just seemed to fall into place."
Locke has a keen sense of history and place, an awareness which he uses to great advantage. "California once rivaled Texas and Tennessee as a home for country music," Locke said. "It's the birthplace of Merle Haggard the home of Buck Owens and, more recently, the launching point for both Dwight Yoakam and Gary Allan. I like to think that there is still plenty of room for the rough-hewn honky-tonk style of country that was such a huge part of California's past, and we're also finding ways to do new things, to say things in new and interesting ways."
It's working for Locke. His bandleader is the noted guitarist Jake Kelly, longtime Gary Allan bandleader-songwriter/touring guitarist. Locke's "Tail Lights" also wound up on the soundtrack of Lifetime Network's "Big Women, Big Love." And there's plenty more where that came from.
"We're currently working on a new CD, and I'm really excited about the songs, and the overall sound of the record," Locke said. "I'm really looking forward to giving everyone a chance to hear it. I think we have something really special going on in the California country scene, and when I see the successes we've had over the last few years, and all the progress we've made, it's really encouraging."
"But the thing that really keeps me going is how good of a time we have making the music, and how good of a time our fans seem to have hearing it."
Who: Eli Locke
Where: Joe's Great American Bar & Grill, 4311 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank
When: Friday, June 17, 9 p.m.
Cost: No cover, two-drink minimum
More info: (818) 729-0805, joesgreatbar.com
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of "Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox" and "Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story."