There wasn’t much going on for country musician E.J. Cox in Seagrove, Florida. Sure, things were nice enough in the little panhandle town, a place so leisurely that Cox figures it’s reminiscent of “the way Florida used to be 100 years ago,” but they were slow. He wrote songs but couldn’t find much in the way of a receptive audience. He’d tell people he was a songwriter, and they’d say, “Good luck with that.”
Then came the clarion call from Justin Cox (no relation), a friend out in California. “Man, you gotta get out of there and come to California where things are happening,” one Cox said to the other. With that, the Floridian moved westward, and things have been looking up ever since.
Fast-forward three years, and E.J. Cox’s new single, “River Town,” is playing across the state, with rotations in Monterey, King City, and Bakersfield. He’s also playing some of his first California shows, joined by a very talented band of Santa Barbara and L.A. musicians. The band played a recent show at SOhO on Wednesday, October 14, and will be playing again Friday, October 23, at Santa Ynez’s storied Maverick Saloon. Things are really starting to happen for Cox, who is finding more success in California as a country singer than in his native Deep South, and making surprising connections along the way.
Cox was impacted at an early age by his grandmother, a very skilled fiddler, whom he calls the “most influential” figure of his life. “I remember growing up going to these fairs where she got to be a guest performer, and I was amazed this little old lady would tear that fiddle up,” he recalled. She tried to pass her gift on to Cox, but the fiddle wasn’t the right fit; he settled on piano. The two would play at lakeside family barbecues, joined by cousins on the banjo, singing traditional songs like “Turkey in the Straw” and “Under the Double Eagle.”
However, piano was too big an instrument to carry off to college in Auburn, Alabama, so Cox took up guitar. He fronted a band and even lived in Nashville for a year. It was around this time that he penned “River Town,” based on his lonesome experience of longing for a girl in another state, seeing pictures of her drinking margaritas while he, meanwhile, sat in a flooding house as a nearby river outgrew its banks in a storm.
It’s songs like these that set Cox apart from his many “bro country” contemporaries who hail from the same area. Cox is a storyteller first and foremost, and cites musicians like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard as some of his greatest musical heroes. “It’s difficult when you’re going against this tide,” he said of being a traditionalist in an ever-poppier country scene, “but I think there’s starting to be a curve in the road.”
Traveling west has brought him closer to his old western musical roots. He visited old west legend Doc Holliday’s grave in Glenwood Springs — Holliday and Cox’s great-grandfather were friends — and Cox now has a song on the airwaves in Bakersfield, hometown of Haggard and Buck Owens.
Cox first stationed himself in Los Angeles but ultimately found the gridlock and sheer culture shock to be too challenging. “It’s really a shame because there’s so much opportunity down there,” he said. His frustrations with traffic drove him northward, where he explored the cliffs and coves of Big Sur and eventually settled down into Santa Barbara.
E.J. recorded his debut, River Town, at Playback Recording Studio, working with celebrated area musicians like Randy Tico (Jeff Bridges & The Abiders), Jonathan and Nathan McEuen, Phil “Fiddle Phil” Salazar, and Austin Beede, among others. Things have worked out well out west for Cox and are only pointing upward from here. “Anything is possible when you come out here,” he said.
E.J. Cox plays the Maverick Saloon (3687 Sagunto St., Santa Ynez) on Friday, October 23, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 245-2404 or visit mavericksaloon.org for more information.