Sons of the San Joaquin,
One More Ride
(Western Jubilee, 2017)

Formed in the late 1980s, Sons of the San Joaquin are three members of the Hannah family. The Hannahs left Depression-era Missouri to settle in the Nevada Sierra Mountain foothills, thus the group's name. In their career the Sons toured the world and managed to be among the more financially successful of cowboy-culture acts. I use the past tense because they inform us that this is to be their final album. Consequently, One More Ride is more than simply a nod to the classic Sons of the Pioneers song -- composed by the immortal Bob Nolan, to whom Jack Hannah bears an uncanny physical resemblance -- that doubles as the first cut. These Sons are retiring because Joe and Jack Hannah are in their 80s and Lon, Joe's son, is 60.

The notes are a little confusing on what was recorded when, but apparently Ride comprises heretofore-unreleased material cut between 1996 and 2016. It affords the impression of songs that happen to rub elbows only because of (1) the Sons' desire to clean out the attic before shutting down the house and (2) their fondness for each number individually. The result is probably not the sort of thing Rambles.NET readers ordinarily listen to, or are even aware of.

Except for the spare arrangements and acoustic instruments, this is neither folk nor country music, just some dim echo of it from the popular sounds of the 1930s and 1940s, when singing cowboys -- Sons of the Pioneers, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Rex Allen and more -- were in vogue. (They would also be an occasional influence on the early Marty Robbins.) In arrangement and content such songs were gloriously inauthentic; no actual frontier cowpuncher ever sang anything remotely like them. These were songs not of Western prairie but of Hollywood backlot, where absurdly garbed, immaculately groomed "cowboys" were there to croon to sweet young virgins, as opposed, say, to herd cattle in pursuit of stingy paychecks.

I grew up hearing this stuff, even I'm sure dreaming about it. In my adult life, on the rare occasion I'd be reminded of its existence, I thought it was only pleasant childhood memories that made it feel so enjoyable. Later still, when the revivalist Riders in the Sky, half jokey, half sophisticated endeavor, came along, I began to grasp how splendidly performed and crafted these faux-cowboy songs were, with their irresistible melodies, thrilling harmonies and appealing (however cornball) lyrics. Probably my lifelong fascination with the historic Old West has some of its roots in the genre, also responsible for the "western" in "country and western." In our time the latter is spoken only by persons who know nothing about country music, but once upon a time it did stand for something, though Western music was never more than a niche in the larger market, whose tastes more often ran to honkytonks and cheatin' hearts. The cowboy hats are all that remain of it in current Nashville.

While I pride myself on living without nostalgia genes, the album does gin up some warm memories. "I'll Take You Home Again, Kathleen," written in 1875 as a pseudo-Irish parlor ballad, was my mother's favorite; her first name was Kathleen, and she was third-generation Irish. "How Great Thou Art" is sung in a deep baritone that recalls George Beverly Shea and the Billy Graham crusades that felt as if all there was on television in its infancy; they could force even those who were otherwise heathens and reprobates to assume a pious mien, if only passingly. Then again, if I want to hear "How Great" (its lyrics written in the 19th century to a stirring older Swedish folk melody) again, all I have to do is point myself to yet another of the small-town Lutheran funerals I attend with ever more alarming frequency. Suffice it to say "Great" gets to me every time.

Of the dozen selections here, a few are hymns, sung sincerely by the devout Hannahs to moving effect. Only about half tackle Western themes, which range from Jack Hannah's comic "Don't Fiddle with a Cowboy Hat" to Stan Jones's "The Searchers," the theme song of the much-praised 1956 John Ford film. The song betrays no hint of the movie's dark, race-driven theme; in its original iteration it was sung by an earnest men's chorus in full throat as the opening credits rolled. Hard to believe Jones also composed the magnificent "Ghost Riders in the Sky." Best forget all that and just enjoy the Sons' way with it.

I like this album not only for its obvious performing strengths but also for its straightforward, un-ironic manner, propelled by love of what might be called the rural pop music of another era. All I would have asked for, if the Hannahs had asked me, would be "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away" (1897). That one, too, gets to me every time.

music review by
Jerome Clark

4 February 2017

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