Anderson East: From the Holiday Inn to Here

"Southern Music Starts in the Same Place"

On paper, Anderson East looks just like a country star.

He’s from Alabama.

He loves Don Williams, George Jones and Willie Nelson.

He moved to Nashville right after high school.

He used to play gigs at the Holiday Inn on West End.

He writes songs about sleeping with a preacher’s daughter.

He’s about to go on tour with Chris Stapleton.

And he’s dating Miranda Lambert.

But when East headlined his own sold-out show on Sunday (Feb. 21) in Chicago, there was nothing country about it.

His 90-minute set showcased his own songwriting skills, with songs off his latest album Delilah. And then East and his six-man band did a handful of cover songs that felt like they came from another era. Like David Bowie’s 1974 “Rebel Rebel,” the Faces’ 1971 “Stay With Me,” Eddie Floyd’s 1967 “Knock on Wood,” Van Morrison’s 1972 “Tupelo Honey” and, then randomly, a Mariah Carey tune from 1996, “Always Be My Baby.”

What I loved, though, is that every song East did sounded like it have been his own.

“It’s more like I’m just servicing the song at all times, just depending on what the song calls for,” he told me before the show. There’s a thread through it all, though. It’s just Southern music. Country, soul, pop, gospel — it all ultimately starts in the same place.”

The place where he started — East’s first gig when he got to Nashville was at the Commodore Lounge in the Holiday Inn on West End — is where he had his epiphany about what he wanted to do.

When we caught up before he took the stage Sunday, he told me he did it just to play for people. And back then, there was no money involved.

“You have to be delusional to get into this business, you know?” East admitted. “You have to go play those gigs and be terrible, and then some part of you still has to be like, ‘That was awesome. I had so much fun. That was amazing.’ And then be lucky enough that nobody kills your spirit in the meantime.”

His spirit was very much intact as he told the crowd the stories behind the songs he wrote for this major-label debut album.

“It’s hard lovin’ folks sometimes, isn’t it? Y’all know. It’s the truth. I wrote this song because my old man always told me, ‘Son, you will be OK if you can keep all of your shit in one sock.’ This is about keeping it together,” he said of “Keep the Fire Burning.”

East told me he’s written most of his songs so far over beers with his roommates.

“That’s been my whole world of songwriting,” even though he said he’s gone on some musical blind dates recently. “It’s really hard for me to be open and be completely honest with a stranger.”

Fortunately, Lambert is no stranger. So after she posted a photo a few weeks ago of a “weekend well spent” with East, writing songs, some good music will come of that. And if that happens, I wondered, who would get to cut that song?

East laughed and said, “We ain’t got that far yet, but if it’s good, I’m gonna take it.”

At the end of the night, East closed the show with one last great ballad and the kind of humble honesty that should take him just as far as his talent.

“We were gonna walk off the stage, but then we realized, we ain’t got nowhere to go,” East said before sitting down on the edge of the stage to sing his “All I’ll Ever Need.”

Alison makes her living loving country music. She's based in Chicago, but she's always leaving her heart in Nashville.