You want some classic-style Nashville country? How about a Canadian
bluesman’s authentic take on it?
KEITH A. GORDON
hardcore fans of the genre, it’s no surprise that country music just ain’t what
it used to be. Sure, the great Willie Nelson has outlived all his old friends
to become a beacon of light for the “good old days,” but no matter
how one slices it, today’s focus group-created, franken-protooled country
“superstars” like Kenny Chesney, Blake Shelton, the Band Perry and
their ilk are no prize pig when compared to the pioneers of the genre like Hank
Williams, Johnny Cash, George Jones, Patsy Cline, and other Nashville legends.
firmly identified with Canada’s thriving blues scene, in truth, singer/songwriter
Jim Byrnes has more in common with the Band’s Levon Helm than with, say, Muddy
Waters. Byrnes – who was born in St. Louis, but moved to Vancouver B.C. better
than 30 years ago – and the late Helm both draw heavily from across a wide
swath of American musical history, from blues and rock to folk and country.
Both artists pursue a distinctive roots ‘n’ blues musical style and possess
warm, deep, and totally unique voices that wrap themselves around the material.
Byrnes decided to record an album of mostly old-school country music tunes with
his long-time musical foil, producer and multi-instrumentalist Steve Dawson,
the project doesn’t fall as far out of the singer’s wheelhouse as one might
suppose. With I Hear The Wind On The
Wires (Black Hen), Byrnes has a firm handle on what made these songs by Ray Price, Hank
Snow, the Stanley Brothers, Gordon Lightfoot, and others timeless in nature, so
much so that Nashville
songwriters are still trying to capture
that creative lightning in the bottle today.
chose a true honky-tonk classic to kick off I
Hear The Wind In The Wires, Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” a number
one hit for the Canadian singer and songwriter, a song recorded by everybody
from Snow and Willie Nelson to Ray Charles and Elvis Presley. Byrnes plays it
straight down the line, laying his twangy vocals atop a flurry of Scotty Moore-styled
guitar licks and squalls of Chris Gestrin’s funky roller-rink organ riffs,
throwing in a few hollers now and then to lively up the joint. Continuing on in
this vein, Byrnes’ spin on “City Lights” is a little more jaunty than
Ray Price’s original, but if Byrnes’ vocals sound more melancholy than
heartbroken, his anguish is punctuated by Dawson’s weeping pedal steel guitar.
Owens put his Bakersfield
sound to Harlan Howard’s “Above and Beyond (The Call of Love)” in 1960
he scored a 3 chart hit with the tune. Howard, perhaps Nashville’s last great country
songwriter, had a way of stripping a lyric down to its emotional core, and
Byrnes takes the ball and runs with it, hitting every heartfelt note with his
romantic promises, the steel guitar moaning in the background as a lonely piano
rides alongside the mid-tempo rhythm. Byrnes’ take on the song is closer to
Owens’ than Rodney Crowell’s otherwise solid 1989 cover (which did what Buck’s
couldn’t in hitting 1 on the chart), capturing
the original’s winsome spirit with a believable passion.
duet with Colleen Rennison on “Pickin’ Wild Mountain Berries” is
simply precious, the performance skewing closer to the R&B styled,
1960s-era Jo Jo Benson/Peggy Scott hit than to the later Loretta Lynn/Conway
Twitty “countrypolitan” version. Rennison’s sassy, soulful vocals are
a delightful counterpoint to Byrnes’ raspy baritone, the two voices playing
perfectly off each other on what is admittedly a lighthearted bit of fluff, a real
guilty pleasure of a song. On the other end of the spectrum, Byrnes’ cover of
the 1960 Marty Robbins hit “Big Iron” is pure C&W heaven, Byrnes’
voice tailor-made for this rollicking story of an unnamed Arizona ranger with
“the big iron on his hip” who faces down outlaw Texas Red in a
gunfight only one would walk away from. With Dawson’s pleading guitar riding shotgun above
a rich instrumental backdrop, Byrnes unfolds the gripping tale and drives it to
its tragic conclusion.
gears for a moment, “Sensitive Man” sounds like a vintage Ricky
Nelson track, or maybe even modern Threk Michaels, the song’s melodic
undercurrent and rolling heartbeat matched by its James Burton-styled twang ‘n’
bang stringplay and Byrnes’ conversational vocals leading out at the end.
Surprisingly, it’s a Nick Lowe composition, which you can hear elements of in
the chorus and in Byrnes’ delivery, but then again, ol’ Nick always did have
one foot in the Music City even back with the Brinsley Schwarz band. I Hear The Wind In The Wires closes out appropriately
with Hank’s 1952 hit “Honky Tonk Blues,” Byrnes retaining the
original’s bluesy underpinnings even while playing up the song’s more playful,
raucous side as Mike Sanyshyn’s fiddle rages and Gestrin’s organ chimes away
low in the mix.
has always included a fair number of other people’s songs on his albums –
2010’s Juno Award winning Everywhere West,
for instance, offers up great covers of R&B (Lowell Fulsom), jump blues
(Louis Jordan), and straight blues (Jimmy Reed, a major Byrnes influence) alongside
Byrnes’ own rootsy originals, and in the past he’s covered everybody from Mel
Tillis and Irving Berlin to Bob Dylan and Muddy Waters…so it’s no secret that
the man is a masterful stylist and interpreter of songs.
With I Hear The Wind In The Wires, however, Byrnes
delivers a true labor of love, challenging himself to try his hand in
re-creating an era of country music that, woefully, no longer exists. The
results speak for themselves, the performances of Byrnes, Dawson, and band shining brightly from the
grooves of I Hear The Wind In The Wires,
imbuing the material with the same sort of energy and passion that first
generation country music pioneers brought to it back in the day.