by Soul One
Twenty-five year old Leon Bridges was born in 1989, but his story begins in 1946, when a budding and inexperienced Muddy Waters fled from the plantations of Mississippi and caught the ears and attentions of Leonard and Phil Chess while performing in the raucous blues bars of Chicago. It also began in 1956, when Sam Cooke was lured away from his beloved gospel group The Soul Stirrers, by Art Rupe, to record secular music for Specialty Records. And again in 1962, when an unknown Otis Redding signed to the tiny and unassuming label Confederate Records, having his first release distributed bearing a flag that served as an incendiary reminder of his oppressors’ imagined supremacy.
In 2014, this narrative continued through Bridges, as the Fort Worth wunderkind began his career performing in the murky, soul-laden, hole-in-the-wall bars of Austin. And akin to Muddy and Sam, and Otis and Etta, Bridges conveys his emotions through ballads of love and heartbreak, and despair and protest. By translating his strongest, rawest, and innermost emotions through song, Bridges (like his musical ascendants) gains freedom and a means to surviving the confines of Black life in America– a survival that required them all to wrestle with balancing the responsibilities of being Black artists, and still position themselves to thrive commercially.
The title-track, “Coming Home”, immediately nostalgic and adamantly transcendent, is a syrupy serenade of submission, where Bridges confesses that although the world leaves a “bitter taste” in his mouth, it’s his partners’ affections that help to comfort his anxieties, pressures, and fears. The song is a tale of the young singer recognizing his humanity and need for his partner’s care, while hoping her love empowers him as he works to endure turbulent times. Bridges musical memoir echoes the stories in many of our own lives, as we are reminded, almost each instant, of the dangers we may face in poverty, or as victims of police brutality, or from the pressures of racism, or even the trials of sexism. He reminds us that without the devotions of our loved ones, and particularly our romantic partners to ease our paths through life, we simply might not survive it.
“Better Man”, an upbeat anthem, is quintessential buttermilk-blues aimed at forgiveness and reformation. Served with traditional “give me another chance” vulnerability, in homage to Marvin Gaye and Bobby Bland, Bridges croons “What can I do, to get back to your heart? I’d swim the Mississippi River, if you’d give me another start…”. And on “Smooth Sailing”, Bridges attests he will not be burdensome to his love interest, “…I won’t wear you down, no honey I won’t/ wear you down/ smooth sailin”, which shows remarkable maturity, for such a young writer.
Essential to Bridges’ sound palette, and also to the widest scope of past artists in traditional Black blues, is a beginning in the Black church. Bridges’ quest for salvation is evident on “River”, where he pleads to be baptized and become anew, as his sins “flow down the Jordan”, bearing a striking resemblance to Sam Cooke’s passionate and brilliant river references. The lyrics are desperate although confident, and Bridges’ plea on “River” resounds as distant, but still faithfully attainable. Challenging harsh social conditions, with revolutionary and sometimes even blinding faith, is a paradigm that Black blues and soul singers have encountered through decades. Unbeknownst that such great social extremes, would lead to produce great art, as evident in gospels’ beginnings in slavery, the blues’ binding ties to The Depression, jazz’s birth in post-Depression, and soul’s civil-rights surgence. All born through hopelessness, and all forged forward through the same spirituality heard in Bridges’ harmony.
“Coming Home” is a triumphant return to 60’s blues and soul. And as young Leon Bridges continues to focus inward, on the world, and on his song, eventually his voice will bear more urgency and the pains of his experiences, as in the ways Etta James’ pains led her to wage war against her songs, and in the ways Otis Redding so transparently bore his weary soul, and in the ways an exhausted Sam Cooke still declared, a change was gon’ come.
“Home”, to southern Blacks, is a term that transcends places, time, and people alike. Home for me, is Sunnyside. A densely concentrated Black neighborhood on Houston’s south side. Home is also Hearne, Texas, where my great-grandparents sharecropped through the Jim Crow south, armed with little more than dreams of better lives for their children, and their dedication to each other. Home is Opelousas, Louisiana. Home is several antebellum South Carolina small towns, which is as far back as the living patriarchs of my family can trace our story. Home is West Africa, home is my birth mother. And for Leon Bridges, home is the stories of his influences, and the paths they cleared for him, to walk in his own journey. “Coming Home”, indeed.
SoulOne is a DJ, record collector and producer, writer and culture critic from Houston, TX. His life’s work is preserving, documenting, and archiving performance arts.