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Key change
With 'In the Outside,' guitarist Eric Culberson makes a bold musical statement
Eric Culberson is a Savannah native (photo Geoff L. Johnson)

WHAT'S GOTTEN into Eric Culberson?

After two decades of kicking around every club in town, most recently as the blues player to beat, Culberson — inarguably, Savannah’s finest electric guitarist – has taken a hard left turn.

His new CD, In the Outside, is a multi–colored rock record. The living, breathing ghosts of Jimi Hendrix and Duane Allman hover like guardian angels over its 11 tracks, which brim with melody, harmony, unusual chord changes — and, most importantly — four–alarm fire guitar playing. Culberson’s singing voice is both gruff and tender.

In the Outside is not just a breath of fresh air, it’s a great, overwhelming gulp of pure oxygen.

“I’ll tell you what it is — it’s what was bouncing in between my two ears,” Culberson explains. “It’s no conscious effort to go any direction, or a conscious angle, it’s just what I was hearing in my head.”

Culberson, 44, says he’s coming off of a rough couple of years. Divorce, family tragedy and financial problems had taken their toll.

And the Eric Culberson Blues Band — including bassist Nate Saraceno and drummer Stuart Lusk — was gigging pretty much nonstop.

“I kind of flat–lined creatively, for about 10 years, which felt like an eternity,” Culberson explains. “I quit writing songs. I was just beatin’ the highway, man, we were playing our asses off everywhere, up and down. I guess I was just too exhausted to feel anything.”

As recently as 2007, he adds, “I was in a hole so deep, and I didn’t care any more.”

Once things began to turn around — thanks, in part, to a new lady in his life — Culberson began to re–acquaint himself with the Muse. “I fell in love, the sun started shining,” he smiles. “I crawled out of the hole and I started writing music. Alive again. I started feeling things again.”

Another reason for the new guitar sound — indeed, for the multi–textural feel of the entire album — is the fact that Culberson put aside his trademark red Gibson Trini Lopez 335, his longtime blues instrument, and started playing a vintage Fender Stratocaster.

He’d had the guitar, the same model played by both Hendrix and Eric Clapton in their glory days, since the 1980s. Once he started working with it again, his sound evolved.

“It’s a little harsher sounding, a little thinner,” Culberson explains. “And I started using pedals again.

“For 18 years, I had been plugging the Gibson straight into the amp. No effects. Any kind of effects that I wanted, I would just do with my fingers or my hands, to the extent that you could do them with your fingers and your hands. And a little bit of reverb every now and then.”

He picked up the Strat, and soon discovered he just couldn’t put it down.

In his teenage years, Culberson’s first guitar hero was Ace Frehley, from Kiss. “I had every single one of their albums,” he smiles.

From there, he developed a lifelong love for Hendrix, and once he began to teach himself to play, his textbook examples were Lynyrd Skynyrd (for the band’s clean, swampy, triple–guitar attack) and the heavy blues–inflected riffage of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page.

An infatuation with the more molten–electric English guitar bands (Black Sabbath, Judas Priest) led, perhaps inevitably, to a discovery of the original American blues artists from whom they’d liberally lifted. “There was a common denominator in all those different musics,” he recalls thinking. “And it was the blues.”

Music began to take over his days (he was a construction worker and electrician until he started falling asleep on the job) and nights (for seven years, his EROK Trio was the house band at a Savannah blues bar called Crossroads).

By the end of the 1990s, as the expansion of SCAD brought more students downtown, the music scene was growing. Culberson and his then–wife bought the Crossroads, re–named it Savannah Blues, and ran it until 2003.

Culberson had already been “discovered” by Florida–based King Snake Records, which promoted his “sex appeal and charisma” and dubbed him “The New King of Southern Blues” with two CDs, No Rules to the Game and Blues is My Religion.

Despite numerous glowing reviews from national blues magazines, the King Snake years were a bust. Culberson and EROK were back in Savannah, playing the clubs.

Music has always been his adrenaline, through hard times, hard living and assorted wheels of hard cheese. Once, the bones in his arm snapped during a particularly heated arm–wrestling match. That night, he was onstage, his limb in a sling, playing guitar (help upright like a cello) with his thumb.

“When I’m not happy, I don’t really feel like playing,” Culberson says. “And I don’t. But as soon as I do, I feel better.

  “I don’t care if it’s the stomach flu, or a broken arm. It’s not like ‘I feel bad, I’m going to play great tonight.’ That’s not it. You have to feel bad all the time, long enough for it to register and come out the other side a little bit. You almost have to be over it to write about it. But you have to experience it.”

One of the most exhilarating aspects of In the Outside — recorded locally at Kevin Rose’s Elevated Basement Studios — is its seamless incorporation of blues phrasing into the mix — like Clapton’s seminal Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the album puts hardline blues right next to creative, exhilarating rock proudly, right there on the same shelf.

And it works.

Culberson is at a loss to explain it. “It’s confusing for me,” he says. “I’m a rock ‘n’ roller at heart, and I also like the blues. It’s kind of like coming out of the closet.

“I felt like I’d always written really good blues songs. It’s just that the music, in blues, is not gonna change that much. But the message – the story – is, and that’s what makes a blues song. It’s the same music, re–hashed. Now, I’m not talking about the soul, and the feel, and the timing which is the deceptively simple part of the blues. That touch, you know? That’s the something you can’t ever take for granted; you have to bring that up every night.

“In this case, this is the first time I’ve written these chord changes and bridges, and dynamically everything’s changing. Ten, 15 chords in a song – I’d never thought about doing that. I’m really amazed, and humbled, and I feel blessed by the whole creative process.”

He, Saraceno and Lusk are now officially called the Eric Culberson Band (the word “Blues” was dropped from the moniker late last year). They’re a spectacularly tight unit; Lusk co–wrote two of the In the Outside songs with Culberson.
They’re thinking of adding a second guitarist, or a keyboard player, to flesh out the complex new material onstage.

Culberson loves his hometown, and he loves his devoted fans, and he knows people are talking about what he’s been up to. “I’ve heard people say ‘They’re doing this album because they don’t want to play blues any more.’ That’s not true. We’re just more now, musically.

“It’s all a good thing, man. And when we play blues now, we’re playing blues better than we ever have. Because we feel refreshed and invigorated, just creatively stimulated. We have a better attitude. Everything in the band is just gelling across the board. It’s always been me, and now it’s a band. And I like that a lot.”

Eric Culberson Band

Where & when: Rocks on the Roof, Bohemian Hotel, 102 Bay St., at 9 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 27

Where & when: Fiddler’s Crabhouse, 131 River St., at 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 28 and 29

Artist’s website: