When they started doing research on the history of the blues in 1995, brothers Frank and Eddie Thomas didn't know they were embarking on a musical odyssey that would take them seven years and lead from the roof of the Falls Building in downtown Memphis to the choir loft of St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans.
Their idea was to be "songstorians" of blues and jazz, with Eddie performing and Frank recording at sites along Highway 61. This year, they completed the fourth and final CD of Angels on the Backroads, their remarkable collection of 65 songs by 55 singers and composers both famous and obscure.
Except for a segment on National Public Radio, Angels on the Backroads hasn't yet received the national acclaim it deserves. The soft-spoken Thom-as brothers live in the little northeast Mississippi town of Iuka, where Frank is director of a church choir and Eddie used to be a pharmacist. They are selling the set on the Internet at their Web site, www.angelsonthebackroads.com.
Eddie sings and plays guitar and trumpet on location and backs himself up on piano, drum, and harmonica tracks recorded in a studio. Frank recorded the songs in settings that included cotton gins, railroad crossings, remote country stores, the banks of the Mississippi River, and the Louisiana State Prison at Angola, hauling a trunkload of equipment up and down Highway 61 on countless trips between 1998 and 2002.
They started in 1995 at the Blues Archives of the Department of Archives and Special Collections at the University of Mississippi, where Eddie had gone to pharmacy school 30 years ago. Musicians almost all of their lives, Eddie and Frank, a graduate of LSU, were looking for a worthy follow-up to a CD about the Natchez Trace which they wrote, performed, and produced the previous year.
They decided they would look for the origins of the music that rocked their youth and influenced such artists as James Brown, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones.
"The music that we were playing and listening to back in high school didn't originate in London or Greenwich Village," says Eddie. "There was this wonderful musical aroma around us, and we came to find out that we were living right on the edge of the garden."
For more than two years they drove back and forth to Oxford, making 45 one-hour tapes of hundreds of songs.
"We had already read most of the books and stories of the music, but we hadn't heard it," says Frank. "We would listen to something we liked and then put it on the map of Mississippi based on where the author was from or whatever the song was about. Then Eddie would take the tapes home and decipher the words and learn the songs. At this point, we didn't know we were going to record on location. We just knew there was a story there."
In 1998, they began to literally connect the dots on their map and record songs. Eleven songs on the first CD were recorded in Memphis. On the roof of the Falls Building, once the site of the Alaskan Roof Garden where W.C. Handy and his band performed in 1914, Eddie played the opening trumpet refrain of "St. Louis Blues." On subsequent visits, they recorded "Downtown Blues" on a trolley car, "Mississippi Bottom Blues" at The Peabody, "Downhearted Blues" at The Orpheum, and "Memphis Blues" at the corner of Main and Madison.
Next, with frequent side trips, they set off down Highway 61. On a good day, they would get two songs done or as many as five songs on an overnight trip. When mockingbirds sang, dogs barked, or train whistles blew in the background, Frank called it the voice of the angels and got it all on tape. Curious onlookers often remarked "that's pretty good" when Eddie gave one of his impromptu concerts. His vocal range and guitar talent are amazing. He doesn't try to mimic the originals but takes pains to get the key, phrasing, and finger-picking just right. He does "Jolie Blonde" in Cajun French.
By the time the brothers were ready to record the last songs in New Orleans, word had gotten around, and an NPR crew came to do a segment at St. Louis Cathedral. On the first take, Eddie nailed the haunting "Sweet Hour of Prayer," a tribute to Mahalia Jackson, leaving the interviewer nearly speechless. To the Thomases, it was blessed by an angel.