A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
February 15, 2008
Cornell Hurd, one of Austin’s premier purveyors of fine honky-tonk sounds, is so prolific it’s hard to keep up with all The Cornell Hurd Band albums he releases. But with his most recent, Beyond the Purple Hills, Hurd shows it’s worth the effort to try.
Like most of his records, Purple Hills is an impressive collection of two-steppers, carrying on the musical traditions of Ernest Tubb and Ray Price and infused with Hurd’s twisted sense of humor.
Hurd’s got a great country band; most of the musicians play regularly with him at his weekly gig at Jovita’s restaurant in Austin. (They rarely play outside the Austin area.) Among the members are Paul Skelton on lead guitar, Howard Kalish on fiddle, Lisa Pankrantz on drums, and Blackie White — sometimes called “the Sexsational Blackie White,” and also known as graphic artist Guy Juke — on rhythm guitar. And, as always, this album has an impressive array of cronies and guest performers, including singers Johnny Bush, Justin Trevino (both of whom are semiregulars), and Maryann Price, a former Lickette with Dan Hicks.
Among this CD’s highlights are “I Can’t Help Being Cool,” in which Hurd starts off singing, “I’ll wear petroleum products in my hair if I want/When I get involved I remain nonchalant”; and the bluesy “You’ve Got to Take Care of Yourself,” featuring baritone vocals by tenor saxman Del Puschert and White. Then there’s “Mom’s Tattoo,” on which Hurd swaps lines with Bush.
The title song is an instrumental that sounds like a theme to some epic Western like The Magnificent Seven. The liner notes, however, say it originally was titled “Come in Krypton” and came from “a vivid dream I had about a musical being rehearsed in Peggy Ashton’s garage.”
Well, there you go.
Hurd writes nearly all the songs, but he always includes some good covers. Here he does “Never Going Back (to Nashville),” a Lovin’ Spoonful tune written by the late John Stewart, and a jazzy little Moon Mullican song called “Moon’s Rock.”
You might say the last song, “Del’s Metal Moment,” transcends the honky-tonk. With Hurd’s sons Vance and Casey Hurd on guitars and Puschert on sax, it’s supposed to be a “heavy-metal” piece, but it actually sounds closer to drag-strip grind.
That’s Cornell for you. He dependably delivers fine country music but loves to throw a curveball every now and then.
Other country albums I’ve been enjoying in recent weeks:
* Holdin’ Our Own and Other Country Gold Duets by Jesse Dayton & Brennen Leigh. This has the feel of a tribute album — celebrating George & Tammy, Conway & Loretta, Johnny & June, Porter & Dolly, Gram & Emmylou, Dewey & Darlene, and other great male-female combos. However, the majority of the 12 songs are written by Dayton — they’re not classic country songs; they just sound that way.
Dayton is not well known. He’s young-looking, though his résumé is pretty impressive, having played with the likes of Ray Price and Waylon Jennings. He has a twisted side, too. He played with thersuckers on their country album Must’ve Been High. And he was commissioned by Rob Zombie to write and record tunes — like “I’m at Home Getting Hammered (While She’s Out Getting Nailed)” — for the faux band Banjo and Sullivan in conjunction with the filmmaker’s slasher extravaganza The Devil’s Rejects.
Leigh, on the other hand, comes from the world of bluegrass. She sounds especially at home on “Somethin’ Somebody Said,” a high-speed, banjo-driven rouser.
The opening song, “Let’s Run Away,” is an up-tempo country-rocker that would have been at home on Southern Culture on the Skids’ recent Countrypolitan Favorites album. “We Hung the Moon” sounds like a Roy Orbison tune. Meanwhile, Cornell Hurd probably wishes he had written “Two-Step Program.”
To be sure, there are several “country gold” songs here: “Brand New Heartache,” “Somethin’ to Brag About,” “Take Me,” “Long-Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man,” and “Back-Street Affair.” That one’s best known as a Webb Pierce weeper, but Jesse and Brennan apparently are following the Conway and Loretta version that graced their classic duet album, Lead Me On.
On that song, as well as the other covers, Dayton and Leigh treat the material with respect but don’t stoop to blatant imitation. All these songs sound familiar yet fresh.
* Live From the Ruhr Triennale by Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez. Speaking of fine country duets, Taylor and Rodriguez have been making some wonderful music together for several years, releasing three studio albums since 2002. Here the two play a 2005 festival in Germany with a band that includes guitarist Bill Frisell and Greg Leisz on steel guitar and Buddy Miller making a guest guitar appearance.
Taylor is best known for writing two huge hits of yesteryear — The Troggs’ sludge-rock classic “Wild Thing” and “Angel of the Morning,” which was made famous by folk popster Merrilee Rush in the ’60s and later by urban cowgirl Juice Newton. “Angel” was extremely controversial when first released. It’s about premarital sex nobody dies or gets pregnant!
But even though those songs are old enough to run for president, Taylor, in recent years, has written some fine, not very well-known tunes. Some of those, like the aching “Must Be the Whiskey,” the mournful “Let’s Leave This Town,” and the rocking “Laredo,” are included here.
Unfortunately Taylor and Rodriguez spend too much time on way-too-familiar cover songs — Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again,” and Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and “The Long Black Veil.” Their versions are listenable but offer little in the way of new revelation.
I’m happy that the duo has included Taylor’s golden oldie hits — especially “Angel.” I’ll take Rodriguez’s slightly hoarse but undeniably sexy drawl over Rush’s or Newton’s voice any day.
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