As with any relationship, a band must continue to evolve or begin to slowly die. With their sophomore album, Bones, which is slated for August release, Nashville's moody roots rockers The Delta Saints make that leap from collegiate good times into something more mature, continuing a journey that began at Belmont University.
"We started out more as drinking buddies. We were all new to the city, didn't have too many friends and all just wanted to play music," recalls Louisiana-bred singer/guitarist Ben Ringel. "Belmont has a church next to it with a big beautiful auditorium. The first writing sessions we had were late night, up to no good. We snuck into an open door in the church early in the morning — just playing around causing trouble."
The Delta Saints' early approach was also informed by Ringel's love for the blues of John Lee Hooker and the raw, rhythmic hill-country rumble of Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. The band featured a harmonica player for five years before ultimately replacing him with keyboards two years ago.
"The music we were playing was a little too far away from the music that we were loving internally," explains Ringel. "We just started listening to more modern bands like My Morning Jacket. I can still appreciate a lot of things I listened to back then, but now. ... I just think musically we've all grown a lot."
That's particularly apparent on Bones' title track. Its groove-laden thrum traverses a headspace that links classic-rock experimentalists Traffic to East African world-music band Tinariwen, one of Ringel's favorite acts.
"I've listened to Tinariwen's albums a thousand times at this point, and it still emotionally affects me," he says, comparing the droning repetitive quake to the rawboned bite of Mississippi's hill-country blues. "It's not far removed at all, in that it's primitive and carnal."
Producer Ed Spear worked on Tinariwen's latest album and with Jack White's Third Man Records, which made him a natural choice for Bones.
"It took Ed — just a crazy guy with such a bright career in front of him — to pull us out of this place we were in and put us in a new place we're all so excited about," Ringel says.
As an example, he points to the band's slithery, soulful slow-burner, "Butte La Rose," which sounds like the Black Crowes with an arid Texas Blues vibe. Keyboards reverberate across a spare, echoing blues riff that could serve as the backdrop for a Western gunfight, before spinning into something more like Pink Floyd. The song began when Spear sent Ringel and guitarist Dylan Fitch into a recording booth together.
"I'm like, 'Ed, the song's not written,' and he said, 'I don't care, just sing it, figure it out. This is what this moment needs.' I felt like I was crawling out of my skin," Ringel says. "Being in front of the mic is pressure enough, but being ill-prepared? Yet it ended up being this really magic moment. It's full of imperfections, but it was a magic moment."