Jim Byrnes,
My Walking Stick
(Black Hen, 2009)

If -- as it was to me -- Jim Byrnes' face looks curiously familiar, it's because (in common with English folksinger John Tams) he works as a character actor on television and elsewhere. If you aren't Canadian, however, you probably have not have heard his music. I'm not, and I hadn't, but the promo material that came with my copy of My Walking Stick informs me that his previous albums have won him numerous Juno awards (the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. Grammy). The CD provides yet more evidence of how impressive that nation's roots-music scene is; testimony, too, to how unfortunate it is that most of it is so little known outside its boundaries.

Though a resident of Vancouver for many years, Byrnes was raised in St. Louis, living in the same apartment building as the late Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Berry's esteemed piano player (who always insisted, with justice, that he played a large if uncredited role in shaping Berry's sound). In later years Byrnes befriended Ray Charles, whose "Drown in My Own Tears" he covers -- with surprising success. It takes either confidence or craziness to try to equal a Charles performance, or at least not to embarrass oneself in the attempt. Byrnes possesses a muscular voice with which he delivers songs in an utterly convincing soulful rasp. Though they don't sound much alike and he's a better singer in the conventional sense, his (and producer Steve Dawson's) is an approach first attempted by Ry Cooder in his early recordings decades ago, namely the fusing of folk music with r&b.

Byrnes' knowledge of the rural tradition evidently rivals Cooder's. Though he takes composer credits for the opening cut, "Ol' Rattler" consists in its near-entirety of images and couplets borrowed from African-American prison songs. "Rattler" was a hated hound who tracked down fleeing convicts, though in white Southern music -- most famously in Grandpa Jones's version -- he evolved into a more benign canine, a beloved hunting companion. Two other songs here are modern tellings of 19th-century folk ballads: Mel Tillis and Wayne Walker's "Walk On, Boy," their take on the John Henry legend (recorded, some of you may recall, by Doc Watson in the 1960s), and Suzie Ungerleider's "Three Shots" (a gimlet-eyed recounting of "Staggerlee," though the real-life murder on which the original is based took place in a St. Louis ghetto, not in "a pretty little town").

Byrnes gets my thanks for reviving Conway Twitty's 1960 hit "Lonely Blue Boy," which I haven't heard since, probably, 1960. While Twitty did it as a straightforward sad country song, Byrnes sets it in an r&b arrangement, with gospel-inflected chorus but without horns. Other notable covers include the title tune, an Irving Berlin number, and The Band's "Ophelia," a song bluegrass bands have picked up on in recent years, though Byrnes' version is pure soul and gospel. Like Cooder, Byrnes has a taste for doo-wop, conjuring up a tasteful rendering of the Valentinos' 1962 "Looking for a Love."

My Walking Stick boasts a dozen cuts, every one of them robust but only three bearing Byrnes' byline, and two of those are shared with Dawson. It concludes on a triumphal note with Byrnes's haunting, hymnlike "One Life (Creole Poetry)."

review by
Jerome Clark

11 July 2009

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