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John Egan’s returning to roots with National resonator guitar

April 5, 2017 GMT

Like James Brown or Apollo Creed, Houston has more than its share of nicknames. John Egan snared one of the more antique tags for his new album, “Magnolia City.”

Magnolia City was heard more often in the late 1800s, long before development and expansion did in the city’s prominent magnolia groves. Subsequent nicknames surfaced because of space exploration, professional sporting teams and a cough-syrup culture. The antiquated name fit Egan’s recording.

“It just seemed like a cool, imaginary version of what this city could’ve been if we’d maintained more historical stuff,” Egan says. “Kind of how New Orleans does it. It just captures the idea of forgotten history, which is fascinating to me.”

The notion is particularly timely after the recent destruction of the facade for the old Bronze Peacock club, once a prominent R&B and jazz landmark in Houston.

“It’s really odd what happens here, when you think about it,” Egan says. “We steamroll the history and move onto the next synthetic thing.”

The 10 songs on “Magnolia City” touch on themes related to the ethereal and the elusive.

Twice Egan goes to the Lightnin’ Hopkins songbook, with “Once a Gambler” and “Mojo Hand.” Both songs find a woe-struck solitary narrator - woeful narrators being a Hopkins’ requisite - but the former is more a cautionary tale of having and losing something, while the latter is rooted in hoodoo folklore. They play well with another cover, Townes Van Zandt’s “Marie.” The song - about a drifter and his pregnant significant other traveling and looking for work - is about as bleak as they come, and sadly resonant more than 20 years after Van Zandt first recorded it.

“Every time I play a gig downtown and pass the mission on Prairie,” he says of the Beacon downtown. “All these men and women there, lined up. It’s a terrible thing we’ve let happen. I think of that song every time I’m there. It’s a tough one to sing because it’s such an emotional and intense song. And if you don’t go to that place with it, it’s going to suck. That dynamic is really attractive: It’s such a soft song but so heavy, too.”

Three years ago, Egan expanded his sound on “Amulet,” a band recording with some strings and other atmospheric touches. “Magnolia City” presents the songs in the sparest of formats: just his voice, his stomping boots and his National resonator guitar, which he still plays with feverish dexterity. He’s returning to his roots with the instrument he picked up as a kid.

Egan was born in Connecticut but moved to Houston as a child when his father, also John Egan, finished out his 11-year NBA career as a point guard with the Houston Rockets.

The younger Egan was in his 20s in 1991 when a pair of prominent recordings were made with a National resonator guitar in featured roles: Chris Whitley’s “Living With the Law” and John Campbell’s “One Believer.” Those recordings were next-generation entry points to the instrument’s storied history in the blues. Egan took to the instrument and has been banging on a resonator since. It suits him well, providing haunting accompaniment to his quieter moments and blasting out with more force on the louder ones.

He’s experimented with the instrument, finding different tones and textures on “Phantoms” and “Amulet.”

His approach is more spare and straightforward on “Magnolia City.”

“The last record was really dense,” he says. “I’ve talked about doing something different for a while now, though. I just wanted it to be one guy playing, full of open space. I’ve done bigger and gnarlier. I wanted it to feel more like a house concert.”

A standing Monday-night gig at the Big Easy has allowed him to experiment with songs, from the Hopkins and Van Zandt covers to a take on Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” to Egan’s own “Midnight Raven Blues.”

So even the old feels new again.

“Those gigs allow you to test stuff out, do things differently,” he says. “Maybe you accidentally change the key and go, ‘Hey, that works.’ Or maybe it doesn’t. But you find places where you land on your feet and work with that. I like to push and pull the songs and see how they evolve. Taking the songs and putting them in another space: It just makes me want to play them more. To see where I can take them, and see what’s out there. Finding something new in something old.”