Before he spent a decade playing bass in the Heartless Bastards, Jesse Ebaugh had a country-bluegrass band out of Kentucky. And that’s what he tried to rekindle on How You Make a Fool, the debut album from his new band the Tender Things — whose “The Secrets We Could Tell,” a duet with Patty Griffin, is premiering exclusively on Billboard today (March 25).
“I was still trying to bring forth the idea I had from years before,” Ebaugh, who started the Tender Things a few years back — after the Heartless Bastards went on hiatus and he got sober — tells Billboard. “It was a bluegrass band mish-mashed with rock ‘n’ roll. We did Gordon Lightfoot, tons of hippie tunes, the first couple of Little Feat records, sort of a California college town hippie-country type of thing — that was an era of American rock ‘n’ roll that I love a lot. So it was natural for me to go there.
“And I felt like that isn’t represented out in the working musical world right now. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I’m just trying to participate and make folk music — folk music made with a lot of electric instruments.”
The Austin, Texas-based Ebaugh made How You Make a Fool with producer Josh Block in Fort Worth, recruiting a crew of musical friends such as Robert Ellis, Heartless Bastards mate Erika Wennerstrom, pedal steel player Ricky Jackson from Phosphorescent and Steve Earle’s band and others.
Griffin, meanwhile, came to the Texas two-step of “The Secrets We Could Tell” — which also features Ellis — through his wife, an artist who’s designed album covers and T-shirts for Griffin.
“It’s that small college town story where everybody knows everybody, and we started hanging out with Griffin] at Christmas parties and stuff like that and became friends,” Ebaugh says. “But I was terrified to send her an email asking if she wanted to duet on that song, ’cause it’s a little bit blue. But I sent her the lyric, and to see the response being ‘yes’ and feel the encouragement flowing from her, it definitely stopped me in my tracks. I can’t stress how flattered I am to have somebody like Patty say ‘yes’ to this.”
The rest of How You Make a Fool, due out March 27, cuts a wide swath of styles, from country rockers such as “Sister Elizabeth” and “Fix Me” to the Little Feat-flavored boogie of “The New Mission Bell,” also with Ellis, the “Wichita Lineman” vibe of “I Don’t Know How to Love You” and the Muscle Shoals soul of the title track and “Texas City.”
“I don’t really feel I’m a very talented songwriter,” Ebaugh confesses. “But one thing I can do is take an honest snapshot. If my art were photography, I’m not a fine art photographer; I’m a guy with a Polaroid who catches something that means something. Hopefully the songs feel like that.”
Like everyone else right now, Ebaugh and the Tender Things are in a kind of limbo waiting for a time when the music world can reactivate in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic. He was disappointed to have a batch of shows slated for South By Southwest canceled, and he’s hoping the group’s Austin City Limits Festival spot won’t be in jeopardy. But the enforced time off may well work to his advantage, too.
“I’m a little bit older, not in my 20s anymore,” Ebaugh notes. “It’s hard to convince everyone in the band to go on tour and eat dirt in the beginning. So I’m trying to figure out other ways to draw eyes to the project — that’s something you have to do in the music world anyway, I think, even before all of this uncertainty.”
The video for “The Secrets We Could Tell” is below.