There's a few things you need to know before you can really appreciate “Back To The Soul”.
Let me begin by dispensing with any notion that your humble correspondent is an unbiased observer. I bought two copies of Grayson Hugh’s debut album, 1988’s “Blind To Reason”. I bought four of his 1992 follow-up, “Road To Freedom”. And then I burned a back-up disc, just to be sure.
See, I had this fear that, five or ten years down the road, if my vinyl album broke or my CD became unplayable, I might not be able to just waltz in to the record store (we still had record stores then, children) and buy either one. And this was music I simply did not want to be without.
I loved “Talk It Over”, the hit single from “Blind To Reason”; it was burnished with harmonies the Temptations would have been proud to call their own, haunted like an old house by the ghost of Sam Cooke, and had Grayson preaching an inspired sermon from the gospel of baby-please-just-give-me-another-chance.
And “Road To Freedom” might just be my favorite album of all time, a masterwork of songwriting and performance, of small moments keenly observed and sung in one of those rough-sweet voices, truer than father’s wisdom, that strikes unerringly at the tenderest spot in your soul.
I played those discs until they were burned in memory and waited eagerly for the next album by Grayson Hugh.
It was to be a long wait. Almost 20 years, to be exact.
It turns out Grayson had begun a long, all-too-familiar spiral. His champion at MCA Records left the label and Grayson followed, shortly thereafter. It was about this time, he says, that he found out his business managers weren’t doing a very good job of managing his business. Bankruptcy followed. Then prescription drug addiction. Then Grayson, an alcoholic who had been sober for 20 years, started drinking again.
“By then,” he recently told an interviewer for Standing Room Only, “I was teaching at Berklee College Of Music in Boston and living in my stepfather’s house helping him take care of my mother who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s."
“Things got worse and I was fired from Berklee for drinking on the job and kicked out of my stepfather’s house. I found myself broke and homeless. I found a room above a bar in a restaurant, where I drank worse than ever for two years. In 2004, I had a seizure in a blackout and wound up in a detox at a hospital, then landed in a sober house. A bed opened up at the last minute or I would have had to go to a homeless shelter.”
The road back was a long one, hard steps of personal redemption. He found himself working at a McDonald’s and was glad for it. “Something to show up for,” he says. Weeks turned to months, months to seasons, seasons to years. And healing came. Slow, and not at all inevitable, but it came. Love came. Marriage came. And then, in 2006, a rehab counselor who knew Grayson’s work came and asked him if he’d ever given any thought to recording again.
So, here's why you had to know all stuff first: because “Back To The Soul” is about all of that, about going through it all, surviving through it all, gathering the skeins of a sometimes-difficult life – the alienation, the loneliness, the brokenness – and weaving them into a song of redemption, a redemption that comes, not despite those things, but because of them.
Grayson sings this explicitly in “Thank You Lord”, a searingly-intimate letter to God, a meditation on those lost years, on their blind alleys and degradations and on the amazing grace by which he was delivered and redeemed. “I needed every stumble, drink and failure, every one,” he sings.
It’s a theme Grayson returns to in “Already In Love With You”, a smoldering ballad. “Now, when I look back it all seems so clear,” he sings. “I took every step I needed to get me to here.”
None of which is to suggest “Back To The Soul” is an album of somber pieties. No, this is the music of a man who’s come through the fire and wants to dance about it.
“We Were Havin’ Fun” is a light-hearted paean to young love, young music and those good old days when “summer was a feelin’ and there was sunshine all around” fitted me with an Afro I haven’t worn in 30 years, and put me back behind the wheel of that raggedy Pontiac I junked in 1978, with the Commodores blaring on the AM radio. In other words, it took me back. It made me feel good.
The title song and “It’s Got Soul” are cut from similar cloth, affectionate, up-beat homages to the truth, rhythm (and, okay, blues) of that foundational American music. Among the other highlights: “We’re Gone Again”, a slow-burn of irresistible sexual attraction; “Everybody’s Hangin’ On”, which recalls Marvin Gaye’s immortal “What’s Goin’ On”, both in the way it opens with a party and, more substantively, in its gentle insistence upon our shared humanity upon a shared planet; “Motorcycle Ridin”, a barroom blues fable about two-wheeled escape down endless highways, the ride more important than the destination.
And don’t miss “Gettin’ On With My Life", an anthem of a different kind of escape – of the conscious decision to leave behind a stuck place and embrace the promise and the uncertainty of a fresh dawn.
This is music of and for people who know what it is to be scarred and scared, who have been knocked down hard a time or two and had to find their way back to their feet. It is music of and for people who can appreciate a hot horn section or funky bass groove, who know how to slide on the grease that oozes when the organ hits a lick just right, who are suckers for a rough-sweet voice singing the truth.
Finally, this is music of and for those who have a little life behind them – and a whole lot more ahead. It is both realization and reminder that, for all the changes life takes you through, if you hang with it and fight through it, it will eventually, inevitably, round the corner and bring you back.
Back to self. Back to joy. Back to love. Back to, well…you know.
- Leonard Pitts, Jr., Miami Herald Journalist and winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, iTunes Album Review, August 12, 2015