Mike Beck,
(independent, 2013)

Rick Shea,
Sweet Bernardine
(Tres Pescadores, 2013)

Tom Waits once observed that Merle Haggard is where you go to learn to write songs. That thought popped into my head as I heard the opening cut of Rick Shea's splendid Sweet Bernardine. "Mexicali Train" doesn't just sound like a Haggard song, it sounds like a really good one.

Well, all right, Haggard -- whom, by the way, Shea frankly acknowledges as a musical hero -- probably hasn't heard of Carlos Castaneda (as in "the voice of Castaneda echoes out among the cars like a refrain"). Now, strictly speaking, the late Castaneda (author of The Teachings of Don Juan, A Separate Reality and other books once revered in the counterculture) was exposed decisively as a shameless bullsh-- er, serial exaggerator, but I suppose that he can still be deployed for some symbolic purpose. I infer that Shea's purpose is to evoke the mysteries of Mexico, for which Castaneda, however, did not speak honestly or accurately. Oh well, so I quibble. I love the song. It's one that sticks in the psychic jukebox.

Sweet Bernardine mixes soulful originals with freshly re-imagined versions of songs by Hank Williams ("Honky Tonk Blues") and Roy Acuff ("Streamline Cannonball," in a duet with veteran California folksinger Mary McCaslin). The eight self-composed cuts are tight, smart and memorable. In common with the greats (Haggard and Dylan, for two prominent examples) Shea is not just a performer but a listener. "Shake It Little Sugaree" falls into that small subset of songs about songs, in this instance Elizabeth Cotten's beloved "Shake Sugaree" (which also inspired a long-ago Grateful Dead song, if memory serves). I have no doubt Cotten would have liked it.

There's also the deeply emotional "Gregory Ray DeFord," concerning an honest man driven to crime and paying the ultimate price. In the venerable tradition of "Jesse James" and "Pretty Boy Floyd," it's a true story; it happened in California in 2010. "John Shea from Kenmare," about the travails of an Irish ancestor, is written around a quote from the traditional "Shule Aroon." In the title piece Shea pays impassioned tribute to his troubled hometown of San Bernardino, Calif.

Sweet Bernardine is the testimony of a mature and seasoned artist who has seen a lot, sung a lot and knows precisely what he wants to say. There's wisdom in these tracks. Beauty, too.

Cowboy troubadour Mike Beck dedicates Tribute to a worthy if unusual effort: "working one-on-one with veterans to help abandoned and neglected horses re-establish bonds of trust with people." Tribute features 11 cuts, most them dealing with horses, most of them originals. One non-original, "Sales Ring Seance," is a spoken piece written by cowboy poet Jeremiah Watt. Others include the traditional "Molly & Tenbrooks" -- this one learned from the Bill Monroe version, though as with all folk songs numerous variants exist -- and Ian Tyson's epic "La Primera."

Beck is a solid, no-nonsense, meat-and-potatoes kind of songwriter, employing language and arrangements from country and folk in homespun fashion. He's obviously a decent guy. The music is good, and so is the cause. Consider yourself urged to reach into your wallet or equivalent.

music review by
Jerome Clark

7 September 2013

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