John Wort Hannam,
Queen's Hotel
(Black Hen, 2009)

Queen's Hotel, John Wort Hannam's fourth CD, is the first I've heard. Prior to this, the whole of my exposure to his music came from a 2006 Smithsonian Folkways collection, Alberta: Wild Roses, Northern Lights, which includes Hannam's "Church of the Long Grass." "Church," which reappears here, struck me as a pretty decent song. The promotional material accompanying Hotel claims that song "has been called by some" -- ah yes, the ubiquitous "some" -- "the unofficial anthem of southern Alberta." Well, why not? (Maybe "Four Strong Winds" covers all of Alberta.) I've never been to Alberta, never had the opportunity to gaze out on its rural landscapes, but "Church" gives me the feeling that I have.

I also learn that Hannam, a former schoolteacher who appears to be in his early middle age, has been playing guitar barely more than a decade, having taken up the instrument after hearing a Loudon Wainwright III record. Aside from the consideration that both play acoustic guitars and write their own material, Hannam doesn't sound at all like Wainwright. For that matter, he doesn't sound like Ian Tyson and Corb Lund, Alberta's two most famous roots musicians, who unlike Hannam are almost entirely focused on cowboy culture. In the fashion of early Gordon Lightfoot and, more recently, James Keelaghan, Hannam has a broader, more geographically and occupationally expansive view of rural Canada. One could also cite, more distantly, the apparent influence of Texas-bred singer-songwriter Guy Clark.

Even so, the opening cut, "With the Grain," recalls John Prine's "Grandpa Was a Carpenter" with its woodworking-as-life metaphor. The song also prepares the listener for what is to follow: stories of ordinary people -- mostly small-town Canadians -- in ordinary life situations, the stories sometimes cloaked lightly in homespun, though never cornball, metaphors. Hannam sings in an attractive tenor voice backed by an elegant, mostly acoustic band which includes string wizards Steve Dawson and John Reischman.

Neither country nor bluegrass, Hotel sits comfortably within Canada's latter-day folk-ballad tradition -- the Scots-Irish background unmistakable -- and represents it honorably. Besides, it's good to know that a song titled "Tonight We Strike" does not mean at the barbarian hordes that need to be bombed until they learn to love freedom. Then again, he's Canadian. One looks forward to more.

[ visit the artist's website ]

review by
Jerome Clark

23 January 2010

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