While the styles of music in Austin, Texas are many, it has always been a hot spot for non-mainstream country & western music. Three of the finest performers calling Austin their base of operations when it comes to carrying the real country torch are Dale Watson, James Hand, and the Cornell Hurd Band. The fact that all three released new albums just last month has already made 2006 a banner year for the genuine article in the C&W scheme of things. This week’s Compact Capsules gives you the quick and dirty on each recording. Put simply, each gets thumbs up from this camp.
Whiskey or God
Palo Duro Records PDR-0801
When it comes to hard-core country in the modern era, Dale Watson has been one of the leading torch bearers of the sound. His debut release for indie label Palo Duro Records, consider the latest longplayer called Whiskey or God standard issue Watson. The meaning in that statement is twofold. First off if you’re already a fan, then Whiskey or God is a no brainer. In other words, it’s essential goods. If you’re not familiar with Watson but like your country music straight-up minus the mainstream sheen, then this latest will surely please the ears. Produced by Watson and featuring spot-on backing from his road-tested band The Lone Stars, the 13 tracks comprising Whiskey or God present the many sides of the Watson real country persona. With that deep baritone in fine form, the material found on Whiskey or God spans bootscootin’ hot-steppers for the Texas two-step crowd to 100-proof tear-in-the-beer balladry to classic sounding gearjammin’ goodies. Just like I said, standard-issue Dale Watson. What’s not to like about that? (Palo Duro Records, P.O. Box 810, Ooltewah, TN 37363, or www.palodurorecords.com. You can also reach them toll free at 866-PALO-DURO. Dale Watson has his own web site at www.dalewatson.com.)
Cornell Hurd Band
Texas By Night
Behemoth Records 1018
Numbering some dozen full-time members not counting the typical array of guests, the Cornell Hurd Band on its latest release called Texas By Night delivers the goods like a well-oiled machine. What hurts for us folks outside the Lone Star State is that because this band is so immense, it makes large-scale touring near impossible. At the same time, it also makes the yearly CD release from Hurd and company almost essential for satisfying the cravings of the CHB faithful outside Lone Star lines, of which there are plenty. For comparison’s sake for neophytes out there, think something on the order of honky tonk great Hank Thompson & his Brazos Valley Boys when it comes to the Cornell Hurd Band. Texas By Night may be the most accomplished release to date. The song selections mix Hurd originals with some deep catalogue nuggets. What struck this listener most about the recording is how perfectly it is sequenced. Simply stated, it is difficult to go anywhere near the Stop button once the sucker starts playing. Like every Cornell Hurd Band recording, democracy is hard at work on Texas By Night. One of the beauties of Hurd’s role as leader has always been his complete unselfishness when it comes to making records. While he is clearly the straw that stirs the drink, you’ll find few front men who let their band mates spread their respective wings like Hurd does. Team Hurd, perhaps? It’s a trait that that has been there since record number one in the late 1970s straight through to this latest. In some respects, with the dollop of talent he has at his disposal in the Cornell Hurd Band he’d be a fool not to let them strut their stuff. With accomplished musicians like guitarist Paul Skelton, fiddler Howard Kalish, steel player Scott Walls, sax man Del Puschert, pianist T. Jarrod Bonta, drummer Lisa Pankratz, and rubboard player Danny Roy Young to name but just a portion of the band, Hurd and company swing, swagger, flip, flop, and fly on Texas By Night. It begins with the rolling of the radio dial that yields snippets of CHB tunes from the past before the comforting voice of Alan Crider welcomes one and all to a little late night Texas tunage, Cornell Hurd Band-style, of course. When they launch into the Skelton-fueled instrumental that doubles as the title track, it’s party time. Once again Hurd’s originals impress with numbers like the wink-and-a-smile “You Only Kiss Me When We Say Goodbye” and the riotous romp that is “If You Play With My Mind (You’re Gonna Get Your Hands Dirty)” taking the cake where this camp is concerned. The covers, and there are a bunch, are a typically well-chosen bunch with receiving A-1 treatment from the band. They include the perennial live staple “Viva Las Vegas” with Blackie White on vocals, Red Simpson’s dieselbilly classic “Black Smoke Blowin’ Over 18 Wheels”, Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “I Don’t Know Why I Love You (But I Do)”, Joe and Rose Lee Maphis’ “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud, Loud Music” featuring guest vocals by Texas C&W legend Frankie “Black Land Farmer” Miller, and what may look like a stretch on paper but is done remarkably well in “There Are Strange Things Happening Everyday” from the catalogue of legendary gospel great Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Consider Texas By Night arguably the band’s finest moment on disc. (Behemoth Records, 1704 1/2 South Congress Avenue, Suite H, Austin, TX 78704, or www.cornellhurdband.com)
The Truth Will Set You Free
Rounder Records 3241
Here’s betting that the initial reaction for many upon encountering Texas-based singer and songwriter James Hand is he is as close a disciple of the House of Hank, as in Williams, that they’ve ever encountered. (Speaking strictly from personal experience, the half dozen times I’ve seen Mr. Hand in his performing base of Austin, the Hank likeness from the voice to the duds to the body english was at times so close to the original article it was downright chilling.) Hand had a couple of albums released in the late 1990s for small Texas labels which didn’t have much of anything for national clout when it came to distribution, hence his never finding an audience much beyond Central Texas beer joints. With his debut recording called The Truth Will Set You Free for the prominent indie label Rounder Records, Hand is finally positioned to make national inroads. He backs it up with talent to spare. With a top shelf collection of Austin talents that include Redd Volkaert on guitar, Lloyd Maines on pedal steel and dobro, and Jason Roberts (Asleep at the Wheel) on the fiddle, Hand reprises half a dozen songs from those first two records to go with six new compositions. He moves comfortably in all his real deal C&W-ness between infectious honky tonkin’ hot-steppers (“Banks of the Brazos”, “Little Bitty Slip”), hard-hitting ballads (“Just An Old Man With An Old Song”) and classic country shuffles (“In the Corner, At the Table, By the Jukebox”). In a nutshell, if you dig the hard country, The Truth Will Set You Free from Mr. Hand is a guaranteed ear pleaser. (Rounder Records, One Camp Street, Cambridge, MA 02140, or www.rounder.com. Check out James Hand’s web site at www.jamesslimhand.com.)
James Hand performs at the Rhythm & Roots Festival in Charlestown, R.I. on Sunday, September 3. Call 888-855-6940 or check out www.rhythmandroots.com.
(Dan Ferguson is a free-lance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 – 9 pm on WRIU-FM 90.3. He lives in Peace Dale and can be reached at email@example.com.)