Like most artists, Eli Fox found himself with plenty of time on his hands during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And like most boys with roots in East Tennessee, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter took advantage of that downtime to engage in a pastime that stills his mind and occupies his hands: He went fishing, and it was on the banks of the Clinch River that his most recent single, “A Pretty Woman’s Like a Rainbow Trout” was conceived. “I was just trying to catch some trout, and one got off, and it just kind of stirred up a lot of things I had been thinking about — feeling lonely, feeling disconnected from people in the pandemic,” Fox told The Daily Times recently. “It’s kind of funny, because people hear it and are like, ‘That’s a little weird, but whatever.’ But I had someone tell me, ‘Man, if you’re gonna put that out, you’ve got to own it.’ I can’t be halfway about something — I’ve got to own a song as weird as that!”
To be fair, the title may be a tad unorthodox, but in exerting that ownership, Fox — who will serve as the latest guest of Daily Times columnist Lee Zimmerman’s “Songs and Stories from The Bird and The Book” series on Wednesday at the bookstore/event venue of the same name on East Broadway in Maryville — sells it with the same earnestness that’s been his calling card since he left his teenage bluegrass band to pursue a solo career.
It’s been seven years, in fact, since Subtle Clutch broke up, but it’s a band still remembered fondly because of the passion and skill of its members, Fox among them. A graduate of Webb School of Knoxville, Fox sings like the second coming of James McMurtry and harnesses the multi-instrumental deftness of a folkie like Dylan. His interest in exploring sounds outside of the bluegrass paradigm found purchase on his debut EP, “Nothing to Say,” a rollicking set of country honk, Appalachian blues, Old Time porch picking and tales of grenade-tossing monkeys and more. He started booking shows as a solo act, put together his own band and went back into the studio to cut “Tall Tales” in 2017. A second full-length, “Or Something Like It,” came out in 2019, and he’s slowly and steadily working on his next effort, he said.
“I’ve just started on it, with the bare bones on one or two songs, but I’d like to experiment sonically with it,” he said. “I’ve done some field recordings of freight trains, and I want to get some atmospheric sounds and just experiment with sound a little bit. That’s something I’ve never really done — it’s always been cut and dry music with no effects.
“As for the writing, this is the first time I’ve ever gotten a red pen and edited the songs. I never did that before; I always just wrote it down and that was it. But now, I print them out and go sit somewhere and really think about them some more. This is an album that’ll have 12 songs, but I think each of them could stand alone. That isn’t always the goal, but I think they’re all getting better and getting more honest, because I don’t see songs as a chance to just make money or have folks sing along. I see songs as an expression of living.”
Credit both the growth in ability and the outlook on the process to his time in Nashville. He moved there in 2018 to attend Belmont University and decided to stick around. Along the way, he said, he’s made great connections, bonded with other artists and seen a commercial side of the music industry that’s also shown him what he doesn’t want to do.
“I go to bluegrass jams, and that’s kind of been a pretty good community, and there’s always something going on, so you can get out and play a lot with people and meet a lot of other musicians, so it’s fun to do that,” he said. “But the downside is that I’m 23, and I already feel burnt out! It feels like I’ve been doing it forever, and in some ways, it feels like I’m just starting. I still want to do it 100%, and I put everything I have into it, because that’s who I am, but we live in a world where you have to pay rent, and gigs don’t always do that.
“I do fairly well, but at least at the stage I’m at, as an artist in the modern world, you’ve got to have some other income. You can take gigs where you get more, but you’re playing cover songs, and that’s good for variety, but to pay the bills just doing original stuff takes a long time to grow.”