Michael Hurwitz & the Aimless Drifters,
Chrome on the Range
(Meadowlark, 2010)

Backed by his country-folk band, the Aimless Drifters, Wyoming-based guitar picker Michael Hurwitz releases a fine CD of the sort that encourages repeated listening, every few years or so.

Most of the songs are set in the West, where Hurwitz has spent the bulk of his life holding down a variety of occupations, including cowboy, bronco buster and tourist guide. He is also, of course, a longtime working musician who, having absorbed assorted rooted influences (most deeply, old-fashioned folk balladry for the darker stuff and Western swing for the lighter), has fashioned a personal style out of an engaging perspective and an attractively weathered baritone with which to give it voice.

As a cowboy-culture songwriter Hurwitz is the equal of anybody this side of Ian Tyson. As performer of mostly older non-originals (Chrome on the Range features a stellar reading of Elizabeth Cotten's "Shake Sugaree"), he informs listeners reared on singer-songwriters what a first-rate interpreter can do with somebody else's material. He and fellow Western-circuit rider Gary McMahan (composer of the revered "The Old Double Diamond") exchange verses on McMahan's "Real Live Buckeroo." "Buckeroo" seeks to be everything that the Sons of the Pioneers would never have sung about -- "the kind of cowboy song you didn't want to hear," we are told at the conclusion, if unnecessarily at that juncture. Though assuredly not for the squeamish, it is funny.

If few performers are as wittily attuned to life's absurdities as Hurwitz is, none of this feels at anybody's expense but his own. In his songs the man is refreshingly free of contempt, even for the preacher who, unsolicited, warns him of the dire eternal consequences of alcohol and lust in the rueful "Out of the Frying Pan," done in the splendid company of Tracy Nelson. "Cowboys Gone Wild" takes the last two words of its title, obviously, from a series of notorious soft-porn DVDs and -- I presume -- its inspiration from "Cowboy" Jack Clement's "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys." The difference is that Hurwitz's song is about actual cowboys, always to be preferred, in my estimation, to coke-snorting Nashville musicians, who are the "cowboys" of Clement's dreary, dopey opus. "Love Song," a droll comic masterpiece, chronicles a marriage of a man and a woman utterly unsuited to each other, possibly even to civilization itself, but united -- so it is implied if never stated crudely outright -- in a bond of, let us say, sexual compatibility.

As is his custom, Hurwitz throws in no throwaway cuts. Listeners will choose for themselves which ones they like most amid the 14 selections. Personally, I am taken with "Roy Rogers in Japan," less about the onetime singing star than about reconciliation between nations, the message delivered, as a good writer does, sans sledgehammer. Beyond that, in his strongest ballads Hurwitz often evinces a near-medieval sensibility. He conjures up the harrowing and the terrible while still riveting your attention and supplying full aesthetic pleasure. In "Edith," from decades-ago true events in his region of Wyoming, Hurwitz recounts an episode that over time encompasses murder, corruption, madness and suicide. The story opens with this odd and striking image:

In a box faded of faded pictures
The old man left to me
Was a woman playing fiddle
While sitting in a tree.

The unsettling narrative that follows brings to mind nothing so much as a blood-soaked Child ballad.

On the lovely closing cut, "Minnie Sang the Blues," Hurwitz evokes the pleasure of hearing records by Memphis Minnie, a favorite of his mother's. His own song isn't a blues -- who would want to go up against Minnie even in a tribute? -- but a meditation on the passing of time and the undying sway of great music on one's life. With me, and still with me, it was the Johnny Cash albums I heard in high school.

All of which is to say that Hurwitz, master of laughs and tears out on the range, has done it once again.

music review by
Jerome Clark

4 September 2010

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