Normally, musicians gravitate to cities rich with musical heritage — be it Nashville, New Orleans, or Chicago. But the story of Red Mouth’s Eric Gebhardt is different. He’s from Muscle Shoals. “It’s not easy growing up in a town known for hit records, especially with my music being so unique to the area,” he says. “Everybody likes hits here, and I could really care less.”
At least that was Gebhardt’s attitude 20 years ago. He was brought up in Muscle Shoals back in the ’90s and had interests other than the town’s historically sought-after studios, where everyone from The Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin created gold. Instead, his mind drifted to punk scenes outside his hometown. Gebhardt’s brother had already introduced him to The Ramones, but it was his Floridian cousins who told him about bands that hadn’t quite made it to the Alabama sticks, acts like The Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges.
“That was eye-opening,” says Gebhardt. “After I discovered that stuff, I knew I was in the wrong town and in the wrong place. As soon as I got out of high school, I started saving my money and moved to Florida with my aunt in Orlando, and I didn’t care about Muscle Shoals one iota. I was so sick of hearing about it that I just couldn’t stomach it anymore. I said, ‘There’s so many interesting things in the world — why does everybody wanna talk about this all the time?'”
Gebhardt started the punk band Stud Dogs in Orlando, and they had a good five-year run. “That was a lot of fun, like rock ‘n’ roll college or something,” he says. “But we were all drunks, so that blew up in our faces. Four drunks in a band doesn’t really work.”
And so it was back to Alabama for the disillusioned punk, and the music Gebhardt would soon make under the moniker Red Mouth represented all he’d been taking in — country, blues, punk, rock. Back home, Gebhardt holed up in his parents’ basement and learned how to record, write songs, and arrange music. In 2007, he released the full-length Sir Red Mouth, followed by 2009’s Saint Red Mouth and The Old Original Saint Red Mouth Blues in 2012. And in October last year, Red Mouth released his best work yet, Toska.
On each record, his love for Muscle Shoals grows more evident, and his influences continue to expand. When Gebhardt returned home, he brought with him a newfound love for old country via Kris Kristofferson. While listening to one of his live records, Gebhardt heard Kristofferson introduce Donnie Fritts, a piano player from Muscle Shoals. That’s when he started paying attention to the town and what it had to offer — and to Fritts himself.
“I’d moved back home and was trying to get my life together and stop being drunk and started going to the YMCA, right, to work out,” Gebhardt explains. “And there’s this guy walking around in a cowboy hat and sunglasses, and he’s walkin’ around the track and I was like, ‘Wouldn’t that be funny if that was Donnie Fritts?’ And it turned out to be Donnie Fritts.”
Fritts was not only a session keyboard player, but he’d also penned songs covered by a long list of greats, from Fritts’ own hero Ray Charles to Dolly Parton, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Dusty Springfield. Gebhardt’s fascination with Fritts led to several interactions (Gebhardt worked at a record store and a movie theater Fritts frequented) before finally becoming his friend and collaborator. “He actually lives down the street from my parents, and I’ve gone over there to have him teach me how to play piano,” Gebhardt says. “And he plays piano on ‘She’s Got a Crush on Me’ on my record, and that’s a song he wrote as well. It’s his song, and he’s playing piano and I’m singing.”
“She’s Got a Crush on Me” is a bluesy track off Toska, an album named after a Russian word novelist Vladmir Nabokov says can’t exactly be translated. “The long and short of it, he says, is that at its worst, it’s a great anguish and great suffering that oftentimes doesn’t have a cause for the victim,” Gebhardt says. “But it can even be used in Russian for mundane things, like boredom and ennui and everywhere in between. For me, I’ve always been enraptured by the blues. And when I read that, I knew that’s what the blues are to me — not a sound, but a feeling.”
Although the blues are felt throughout Red Mouth’s works, Toska explores it in an extraordinary way. With a violin, saxophone, soulful backup singers, and Gebhardt’s Nick Cave-meets-The Cramps-meets-Captain Beefheart vocals, Toska is like a more goth-punk shade of blue. From “Black Old Bones” to “God Don’t You Trouble My Body No More,” Gebhardt’s roots are as evident as his wanderings.
“After a long journey of discovery and experimenting with everything from free jazz to punk, I eventually came back to these beautiful little songs and these wonderful people playing around here like Donnie Fritts,” he says. “And I rediscovered a love for the pop song, the hit song.”