Songwriter Eric Brace, founder of the band Last Train Home and Nashville’s Red Beet Records, has a pedigree of pure Americana. But if you scour his catalog deeply, you’ll see that he very much enjoys singing songs from France.
“It was part of my growing up, these old French songs. I didn’t realize how unusual that might be considered,” he said this week after his own CD release show. The tuneful, romantic tradition of chanson is woven into his family history. Brace’s father grew up in France before and during World War II, then boarded a Liberty Ship in 1947 to attend college.
“But then when I was 10 years old my whole family moved to France,” Brace said. “My dad got a job. And it just became part of who we are.”
For years, Brace has wanted to make an album of favorite covers, and he’s finally done so. The elegantly designed Cartes Postales comes out next week. The challenge was to find collaborators who could play the essential instruments - clarinet, gypsy style guitar, accordion and harmonica. As it happens, Brace knew one person who could do all of that and more, the multi-instrumentalist Rory Hoffman.
“When Eric wanted to make this record, it just fit because I already knew a lot of the repertoire,” says Hoffman, whose resume includes the Gypsy Hombres through today’s work with Ricky Skaggs and extensive studio calls. “I knew that style. I knew how to think in that way.”
That way implies sophisticated but accessible chord changes, tasteful improvisation and a jeweler’s care for the French language. The songs have their origins between the hot jazz era of the 1930s and the sophisticated pop of the 1960s. Besides Django Reinhardt and perhaps Yves Montand, the songwriters and original artists behind the selections are largely unknown to US audiences while being often revered in France.
“The thing that draws me to it is these beautiful lyrics that are tied to these really singable melodies,” Brace said.
The album may run into obstacles getting reviewed, given the language barrier. But famed BBC radio host and Americana music champion Bob Harris was on hand for the CD release event last Saturday and in the days following he tweeted: “If you only buy one more album in your life...make it this one.”