Michael Reno Harrell,
(Dancing Bear, 2006)

I don't know if Michael Reno Harrell was born with that name, but I'd be surprised if he was. Some of you may think of Reno Harrell as Don Reno (pioneering bluegrass-banjo stylist) and Bill Harrell (vocals and guitar), who were once Reno & Harrell and the Tennessee Cutups.

This particular Reno Harrell, who lives in North Carolina, is not a bluegrass artist. Instead, he may make you think, here and there, of a Southern-fried Gordon Lightfoot. Other times, Tom T. Hall comes to mind, or Guy Clark. A regional performer and a regular on Charlotte's vibrant Americana scene (where my friend and occasional songwriting partner David Childers and his band, the Modern Don Juans, loom large), he's been around for years. This is far from his first album, though the first I've heard.

On Drive, acoustic guitarist Harrell sets his own songs to spare accompaniment, to light, relaxed effect devoid of overweening ambition or energy. He sings about domestic pleasures, love of spouse, gardening, fishing, a beloved old pickup and the like. As a pro he does it decently enough, coming across as an amiable presence who will not grab you by the collar and demand that you listen up. This is not, in other words, music that will make you stop what you're doing -- which is perhaps the price of being too likable. This listener wants to be shaken up once in a while.

How you feel about this approach depends, of course, on what you're looking for in a song. Harrell is at his best, to my taste anyway, when he wanders beyond his immediate surroundings, as happens with the poignant "Ballad of Til Huffman," an unsentimental look back at the South's dark racial history and a quietly understated, eloquent celebration of the civil-rights era.

by Jerome Clark
30 December 2006

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