Ray Bierl,
Any Place I Hang My Hat
(Greasy String, 2007)

Ray Bierl practically defines the concept "West Coast figure." Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, he grew up in San Diego, then moved to the San Francisco Bay area in 1972. As singer, guitarist and fiddler, he's been active on the California folk scene since the 1960s, but Any Place I Hang My Hat is only his second album. That explains why, unlike longtime Californian Tom Waits (an admirer who provides a warm quote), this Midwesterner had never heard of him till I shook this CD out of a fat package dispatched from Rambles.NET international headquarters not long ago.

If you like folk music in the old-fashioned sense -- which is to say what it was people used to mean when they said "folk music," which was not self-composed, self-directed pop tunes strummed on an acoustic guitar -- you will be drawn to this album. Bierl, whose love of hobo and cowboy songs places him in Woody Guthrie's line of succession, reminds me -- though he is no banal imitator of either -- of a couple of other West Coast figures: Ramblin' Jack Elliott, who forged his own identity from the Guthrie template, and the late Jim Ringer, who did the same from Johnny Cash's.

In common with Elliott and Ringer, Bierl's taste is broad enough to encompass some older commercial country songs with folk music's sense of narrative. These include two forgotten gems: Jerry Reed's rollicking, autobiographical "Guitar Man" and Red Sovine's truckdriver-ghost recitation "Phantom 309" (written by Tommy Faile), which Bierl performs sans Sovine's trademark schmaltz-intensive choking voice, though I may as well confess here that I've always had a soft spot in my head for that sort of excess. He also revives Fred Rose's "We Live in Two Different Worlds," covered most prominently by Hank Williams, as well as Hank's version of the traditional fugitive ballad "On the Banks of the Pontchartrain."

Less happily, there's "Lonesome Town," a Rick Nelson song that, though it sounded good to me when it was on the radio and I was in junior high school, has not aged well. My older, more jaded ears hear a melody that is short of full-bodied. Bierl does his best with it, but it still feels like an odd, dubious choice for one whose ear is otherwise finely tuned. Though I've never heard a lousy version of the infrequently recorded Appalachian lament "All Around the Mountain," I've never experienced a more fiercely lapel-grabbing one than this one. As Bierl sings "All around the mountain / And it was so cold / You couldn't hear nothin' but the car wheels roll," you may notice that the temperature has fallen and all you're hearing are turning car wheels.

Hearing Bierl resurrect Ringer's "Tramps & Hawkers," something of a modern folk standard, I was led to an idle reflection or two: How many listeners realize it's based on an antique British folk song of the same name? How many are aware that Bob Dylan stole the same melody for his "I Pity the Poor Immigrant"? Or, more obscurely, Trevor Lucas for Fairport Convention's "The Plainsman"? Whatever the narrative purpose to which it is set, that magnificent tune fails nobody. Ringer, who grew up in poverty and died in destitution, wrote a poor man's hymn to a vanishing, agrarian California, an anthem of such visionary power that any singer not in full command of his powers should not even consider taking it on. Bierl is in full command of his powers.

The well-known California bluegrasser/folksinger/fiddler Laurie Lewis produces the album, affording it a rich, full sound that belies the skeletal stringband arrangements to which much of the material is set. The title song, though, is a Tin Pan Alley piece by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, done in jazz-blues-pop style with Pete Yellin's soprano saxophone prominent. Probably not often do it and "Old Chisholm Trail" rub shoulders, but to all appearances they don't mind.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
Jerome Clark

23 February 2008

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