Michael Hurwitz &
the Aimless Drifters,
Blue Coyote
(Meadowlark, 2006)

I would be tempted to call Michael Hurwitz a sort of Wyoming answer to Tom Rush, except for the fact that Tom Rush has lived in Wyoming for some while now. And the Tom Rush that Hurwitz sounds something like is the early one, of the Prestige albums and the first two Elektra releases that followed -- in other words the Rush who performed folk songs and blues before moving along to cover the folkish-pop likes of James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne just before they became 1970s rock-scene royalty.

Hurwitz, who is a native, can claim authentic Wyoming roots. His baritone sounds a bit more weathered -- in a good way, let us be clear -- than Rush's, but he has Rush's way of finding the emotional and melodic core of a song. The Aimless Drifters are an almost entirely acoustic band, a bunch of Hurwitz's friends who are in sync with his vision of a music that extends from a folk base into Western swing, country and early rock 'n' roll. It's an approach that never pushes too hard but never loses any races, either.

Though hardly a deep-blues recording, Blue Coyote, unlike the previous, generally more Western-oriented Bunkhouse Blues (2002), draws in part on African-American folk material, from the repertoires of songsters like Mississippi John Hurt ("Payday," "Frankie & Albert"), the Rev. Robert Wilkins ("Prodigal Son") and the Rev. Gary Davis ("Candyman"). He also picks up songs from white hillbilly artists who were either influenced by black music or lifted songs outright from bluesmen and songsters they heard or encountered: Jimmie Rodgers ("California Blues"), Carter Family ("Cannonball Blues"), Uncle Dave Macon ("Morning Blues"), Charlie Poole ("Milwaukee Blues") and Hank Williams ("Honkytonk Blues").

Rodgers' song in particular is a collection of floating verses from the folk-blues tradition. In that spirit, Hurwitz inserts a verse Rodgers didn't use, the well-traveled one that starts "If your house catches fire...." This is a Rodgers classic that some of country music's giants have covered -- Gene Autry, Lefty Frizzell, Merle Haggard -- and Hurwitz doesn't try to emulate them. He does it in his own easy-going fashion, and he does it fine. Unrelated to the artistic merits of the just-stated, however, he writes in the notes to the song that Rodgers recorded nine blue yodels ("California Blues" is formally "Blue Yodel #4"); actually, it was 13.

Likewise, he reports that he learned "Cannonball Blues" from "an old Frank Hutchison 78," but his is recognizably the otherwise-unrelated folk song of the same name that the Carter Family recorded on three occasions in the 1930s. Though Hurwitz says the Carters called it "Solid Gone," that was the title Rush used when he covered it on Tom Rush (Elektra, 1965). (Another Rush cover that appears here, by the way, is Willie Dixon's "Can't Judge a Book by the Cover," which Rush recorded on his 1966 Elektra release Take a Little Walk with Me.) AWest Virginia singer and guitarist strongly influenced by African-American styles, Hutchison cut "Cannon Ball Blues" in 1929. It's played on slide guitar, and it's a genuine blues, not a blues in literal name only. Both songs are hobo tunes, though Hutchison's very dark version -- again, largely a collection of floating verses -- is as much about doing oneself in as about rambling one's sorrows away. The Hutchison "Cannon Ball" is virtually never revived, and I'm sorry Hurwitz did not, his contrary testimony notwithstanding, revive it. If he had, I'm sure he'd have turned in a splendid and distinctive reading.

None of this will or should interfere with the pleasures and satisfactions this disc provides. If you've never heard these songs before, their discovery will set you aglow. If you do know them, on the other hand, Hurwitz and company bring to them such feeling, humor and heart-felt musicianship that you'll thank them for returning them to your life.

by Jerome Clark
14 April 2007

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