Mark Erelli,
Hillbilly Pilgrim
(Signature Sounds, 2004)

One of the high points on Mark Erelli's album Compass & Companion was the western swing ditty, "Why Should I Cry." The arrangement was perfect and the melody, infectious. The song showcased Erelli's ability to write songs that sound like timeless standards. On Hillbilly Pilgrim, Erelli delivers a whole album in this manner. It might be considered country via folk. If you liked "Why Should I Cry," sit down and make yourself comfy.

Erelli's forte is his blend of rough-edged folk sincerity with smooth pop craftsmanship. At his best, he takes themes that have been done many times before and makes them his own with a catchy melody, an interesting turn of phrase or just plain charm. When he's good, his songs are so much fun you don't care whether you've heard the idea before or not. The drawback to this kind of songwriting, of course, is when a song doesn't quite lift itself above the pack of others treating the same theme. Erelli's strength is also his weakness, and all his albums have examples on both sides of the ledger. Hillbilly Pilgrim is no exception.

At first glance, a folkie like Erelli going country seems like a departure, but Erelli's basic approach is one suited to country. Country tunesmiths are also in the business of making the old seem new and varying the routine with a memorable turn of phrase or a hook you can't get out of your head. Erelli has always written in this style; the twang is just overt this time around. The country trimmings are supplied by Boston country act the Spurs, and it sounds as if they're having as much of a lark on this album as Erelli himself.

Many of the songs are lighthearted fare. "Let's Make a Family" is self-explanatory, while "Ain't No Time of Year" is a fluffy holiday confection about a jilted lover hoisting a few with Santa. "Pretend" is a duet with Erin McKeown, fun but insubstantial. "Troubador Blues" is a catchy number about folksinging, which slips a little social commentary between the pedal steel licks and nods to past songwriters.

"A Bend in the River" starts as an affectionate ode to a simple hometown, but gradually gets more complicated and then downright apocalyptic with a vision of a flood that will wipe the slate clean (and take out all the big box stores on the edge of town). The opposite side of the coin is "The Farewell Ball," which says goodbye to a town destined to be drowned for a reservoir. "Troubles (Those Lonesome Kind)" is a rockabilly treat that would fit into the young Elvis's repertoire just fine; it happens to be the one cover on the album. Hillbilly Pilgrim closes with the hymnlike "Pilgrim Highway."

When analyzing Hillbilly Pilgrim, I find myself picking the lyrics and themes apart and not being overwhelmed by them. But when I listen to it, I enjoy it a lot. In retrospect, the world probably doesn't need another song about being a fool for love, but "Fool No. 1" is completely captivating while it's in the CD player. So Hillbilly Pilgrim is another slice of what Mark Erelli does so well; nicely crafted and performed songs that tend to sneak up on you. Before you know it, you're humming along by heart and you don't quite know what hit you.

- Rambles
written by Jennifer Hanson
published 10 April 2004

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