Hal Cannon,
Hal Cannon
(Okehdokee, 2011)

When one thinks of Utah folk musicians, one's thoughts turn automatically to Rosalie Sorrels and the late Bruce "Utah" Phillips. Some may recall the Deseret String Band, one of whose albums brought "Mormon Cowboy" -- ever since, among my favorite authentic Western ballads -- into my life. Hal Cannon was a member of that group, as I'm reminded as I listen to this, his first CD of original songs.

Along with his work as a musician, Cannon is a professional folklorist, National Public Radio broadcaster and founding director of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which meets every year in Elko, Nevada. In short, he's immersed in cowboy and Western culture, not least the vernacular music and songs that are so much a part of it. His new CD is not a sentimental trip down home so much as a plausible evocation of what remains of the old West in the new. Thus, inevitably, this is a rural sound, however urbanized the region has become. Cannon himself lives in Salt Lake City, which is not a small country town.

In some ways the disc will remind listeners with long memories of the sorts of records Folkways released decades ago, with an unadorned voice singing old-time or oldtime-like songs in straightforward fashion, the focus more on storytelling than on distracting production flourishes. In fact, Hal Cannon is at heart a Folkways album -- no bad thing at all, in my opinion -- but transcending that, Cannon has brought in additional musicians. Even classical ones show up here and there, though they're there to add color (which they do very nicely), not to engage in radical experimentation of the sort that English folk musicians Shirley and Dolly Collins performed on their legendary 1969 Anthems in Eden (whose charms have only grown, by the way). Still, the fact of a fuller sonic atmosphere affords the album something of a more contemporary ambience.

In the fashion of some other records I like, this one sort of got better the more and closer I listened to it. Like the range and prairie songsters of another century, Cannon creates songs out of found materials. The lovely and affecting "Suzanna" reworks images from Stephen Foster into commentary on a modern American tragedy. "The Blizzard" is a tune set to 1860s verses by Eugene "Ironquill" Ware and sung, in traditional style, unaccompanied. Others draw on Cannon's experience, observation and imagination, all tied to land and history (and not at all to Hollywood, one adds; there are no gun fights here). Though his range -- the vocal kind -- is limited, he makes the best of what he can do, which is to approach a song with respect and warmth.

Jim Rooney, producer for the likes of John Prine, Iris DeMent and others and a longtime presence on the folk/bluegrass/country scene, does his usual fine job of giving singer and players space to tell the story and to create the mood to carry it. This is an agreeable, gracious album, devoid of pretense, full of heart.

music review by
Jerome Clark

21 May 2011

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