Though these days he lives and works in Memphis, Reed Turchi was born and spent his formative years in Asheville. Nominally a blues artist, multi-instrumentalist Turchi draws from a much wider array of styles, and his music is informed by his studio knowledge and experience. This summer, Turchi and his band, The Caterwauls, will launch a major tour to promote Turchi’s upcoming solo album, Speaking in Shadows. But first, there’s a special album release party, Friday, Feb. 26, at The Root Bar.
Growing up just outside the Asheville city limits, Turchi was raised on a diet of music, though not so much mountain music. “My mom is the real musician in the family,” Turchi says. “She’s a classical viola player. She started me out fairly early with the usual, by-the-book piano regimen.” He didn’t enjoy the material he was tasked to learn. “I remember one particular night when she realized I was practicing theory, but I had headphones on and was listening to something else. That was not a good moment.”
But then he discovered the blues. “A couple years in,” Turchi recalls, “once I had some basic musical knowledge, I finally started to make the connection that it might be possible to actually play music that I liked listening to. And that’s when I started doing boogie-woogie piano, Kansas City and Chicago style: the stuff with the walking left hand and chords in the right hand.”
That foundation set Turchi on his musical path, but the potentially restrictive format of the blues didn’t limit him. “As an artist, I think that all music is an elastic thing,” he says. In Turchi’s music, listeners may hear the blues plus influences of more contemporary — and even exotic — styles.
“The real addiction for me for the last six or seven months has been Tuareg music like Tinariwen, Bombino and Tamikrest,” he says. “A lot of people make a blues connection to that music, but what I’m attracted to in all of that is the groove.” He says that hooks and melody are qualities that he “definitely focused on. I’m always interested in chasing new musical ideas, and I am also interested in trying to make the best music possible.”
That commitment comes through in the songs on Speaking in Shadows. Another key ingredient is the approach Turchi used to make the basic tracks: direct to tape. “For me, it was not necessarily a debate about nostalgia, but more about restraint,” he says. “The goal was to simplify, using as few microphones as possible. We had only one reel of tape, so we could only ever keep a single take of a song, and not say, ‘Oh, we have 10 versions of that; we can go back and pick one later.’”
For several years, the Swannanoa native led a self-described “kudzu boogie” trio bearing his surname; the band released three albums and an EP. Settling in Memphis, Turchi landed a job at Ardent, the legendary Memphis recording studio founded by John Fry, that produced classic recordings from Big Star, ZZ Top, The Cramps, Stevie Ray Vaughan and many others. Turchi is the director of the newly revived Ardent record label.
In between those responsibilities and sessions for Speaking in Shadows, he toured Italy, opening for “mind-boggling guitarist” Adriano Viterbini. “He’s one of Europe’s top guitarists,” Turchi says. “He and I did an album together about two years ago, and he’s producing some even newer stuff of mine.”
Turchi brings the skills of his day job at Ardent to the making of his own record and applies the same can-do mindset to the label’s other projects. “Ardent is a magical place to be around,” he says. “I’ve certainly learned a ton. And on the album, what you hear is me trying to take advantage of all that it has to offer.”
The Root Bar in Swannanoa might not be the first place one thinks of for an album release party, but for Turchi, it’s a perfect (and not a little sentimental) fit. “The Root Bar is my favorite bar on the planet,” Turchi says. “I grew up about a half-mile from there; I had my first legal drink there. I love it. For me, especially there just outside of Asheville … it really feels like coming home.”
After a year working on Speaking in Shadows, Turchi is ready to hit the road with his new band. “As much as I’ve worked on and sweated over this record — and I’m proud of a lot of things about it — I’m even prouder now of this new band. I took about eight months to put The Caterwauls together,” he says. “Slowly, slowly, hanging out together, making music together but in a no-pressure way. Taking time to get the chemistry together. And it’s there. So now we’re rolling; now it’s time to actually go play music.”
WHO: Reed Turchi & The Caterwauls
WHERE: The Root Bar, facebook.com/rootbarnumberone
WHEN: Friday, Feb. 26, 8 p.m. Free