Michael Hurwitz & the Aimless Drifters,
Cowboy Fandango
(Meadowlark, 2007)

Nothing of the drugstore-cowboy Nashville hat act, singer/guitarist Michael Hurwitz is a man with bonafide range credentials. These days, working the circuit from his home on the Wyoming/Idaho border, he and his band, the Aimless Drifters, preserve the unadulterated Western sound in clubs, bars and dancehalls far from the madding crowds. His music is plain-spoken and straightforward, sung in a charmingly cracked baritone, the voice of a man who's been around and has a supply of good stories -- funny, rueful or grim -- to pass on.

As was not the case on his last two albums, Cowboy Fandango consists entirely of his own compositions. Happily, he's a supremely able writer -- I've known that since the first time I heard him several years ago, when his self-penned ballad "Old Broncbuster" (on his 2002 Bunkhouse Blues disc) passed through my ears and dazzled my brain -- who can carry the load with something of the aplomb of Ian Tyson in his prime. Too observant of the passing scene to waste time contemplating the ol' navel, Hurwitz does not traffic in the usual singer-songwriter piffle. His songs, set in the Old and New West, are propelled by oak-sturdy folk and honkytonk melodies, and they're populated with flesh-and-blood characters -- heroes, fools and other human varieties, each vividly portrayed.

I might add that a good part of the charm of those melodies is that they're old friends. Like any good rooted songwriter, Hurwitz fearlessly borrows and steals as inclination or necessity dictates. "Ghost Ranch" is a melody you'll recognize from Bob Dylan's "North Country Blues," but Dylan -- like the old balladeers and bluesmen whose "folk process" models have guided his long career as unabashed melody and lyric thief -- didn't write that one, either. The drolly comic "Spaceships O'er Wyoming" revisits the hoariest of hillbilly tunes, well known from the likes of "Great Speckled Bird," "There's a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere," "Wild Side of Life," "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" and God knows what more -- all purloining a melody from the mid-19th century (and, in 1930, the Carter Family) "I Am Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes." "Spaceships," however, is surely the only time -- at least as far as I know -- that the melody has been used for a song about UFOs.

The album winds down with the ballad "Tom Horn." Horn, a notorious, real-life range regulator who hired out his gun to Wyoming cattle barons around the turn of the last century, left a trail of blood -- not to mention a host of unresolved questions -- behind him. (The late Steve McQueen played him in the eponymous 1980 film based on a Thomas McGuane screenplay.) Out where Hurwitz lives, memories stretch back far enough that people still argue whether he was a misunderstood hero or a cold-eyed killer. Unfortunately for him, the legal consensus of the period leaned toward the latter, as the consequence of which he expired at the end of a rope in the Laramie County Jail on Nov. 20, 1903. In centuries-old ballad tradition Hurwitz's gorgeous, haunting song treats its title character as tragic, noble and innocent, the exemplar of a fading era.

review by
Jerome Clark

9 February 2008

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