Singer/songwriter Stephen Rhodes lets his talent flow by David Grimes
That Stephen Rhodes, a singer/songwriter whose hometown is Cornwall-on-Hudson in upstate New York, loves to be down by the river is evident in his tunes, which often draw on the rhythms and tropes of those who travel the waves, both for fun and to make their living.
“I love the water,” Rhodes said. “The Hudson is a great river - I love it. It's really wide in the area where I'm from. It's called the Cornwall Bay, it sits probably about a mile across, and a lot of oil tankers and day liners travel there.” Rhodes spoke about the compositions collected in his first two recorded efforts, the eponymous Stephen Rhodes and Going Home, arrangements of his own fingerstyle folk and blues, with a judicious injection of carefully-chosen covers. Songs like “Captain Ahab”, “Sailin'”, and “Captain Nemo”, the latter of which tells the tale of how Rhodes nearly drowned in the Hudson as a youth, reflect life near the water like choppy waves do the light.
“When I was a kid I loved to mess around near the river, to walk along the train tracks and watch the sun set,” Rhodes said. That winsome nostalgia and gentle playfulness is evident in many of his songs as he draws from the influences of his childhood, among them some of the greatest singer/songwriters of our age, Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
“I've been listening to Dylan since I was eight years old,” Rhodes said. “My parents brought home a copy of Highway 61 Revisited and played it all the time.” The classic disk has been ranked by Rolling Stone magazine at number four among the greatest albums of all time, while the signature tune “Like a Rolling Stone” figures at number one among their five hundred greatest songs of all time.
“I love the blues and a lot of Dylan's tunes are blues-influenced. He has a great folk and blues style, and lyrically he's really cool. It's one of the first albums I ever really listened to.”
Rhodes has a harder time articulating how Neil Young has affected his life and songwriting. “It's hard to say what about him that gets me,” Rhodes said. “The expertise in the song writing and the lyrics is one thing. Young is sort of multi-faceted, he plays great folk stuff, then he straps on that black Gibson and plays gnarly rock.”
Rhodes also draws on influences from blues masters such as Jelly Roll Morton and Mississippi John Hurt, covering one of each of their tunes on Going Home, as well as pre-1950's jazz, and classic seventies rockers like Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith.
Taken together, those influences might seem to clash, but Rhodes melds them all into a pair of albums that, like the Hudson of his youth, take on all tributaries and flow onward to a wide and deep destination.
Rhodes' songwriting career began at an early age. “I started when I was a teenager in the 1970's,” he said, “with a lot of not-very-good songs about cars and girls and whatnot. I stopped when I went to college in my twenties and started again in my mid-twenties, and I've been writing ever since.”
Rhodes can be critical of his own artistic output. “I'm not as prolific as I'd like to be,” he said. “I try not to force it. I really have to have a solid idea for a song before I can write it. I've tried to force myself, but that really doesn't work for me.”
“One song I'm working on now, the chorus just came to me,” Rhodes said, but the unfinished opus needs further inspiration. “I'm still waiting on the verses to come.”
Rhodes acknowledges the difficulties of balancing the rigors of a workaday life with writing, performing, recording and promoting his songs. “I'm driven to do it; I love to do it, and I'm working and trying to get my songs heard more widely,” he said. “It's not easy for a guy like me, just an ordinary, everyday Joe.”
“But I think I do have some good songs, so that's what I'm trying to strive for.”
Listen to segments of Stephen Rhodes' music and purchase his two albums at cdbaby.com/cd/stephenrhodes as well as leave comments on one of Knoxville's most interesting and engaging songwriting talents. He is also a member of the Knoxville Songwriters Association, and a frequent contributor to the KSA Songwriter, their monthly publication.
- David Grimes