March 1, 2011
Although I wasn’t all that sure what tack Hal Cannon had taken on his first-ever album of original material, one thing I did know, as I waited for it to arrive at my randomly-tended post-office box, was how much fun I could have properly preparing for such a highly anticipated cultural event.
Once word began spreading among the Utah acoustic-music community that such an occurrence was in the offing, out came a decent representation of relevant recordings and before you knew it the ol’ homestead up here in the Heber Valley foothills began hosting a hoedown of sorts.
As both host and sole celebrant, I soon realized that if I were planning to immerse myself in Hal’s new music I’d be best served by fine-tuning my aural chops with a selection of recordings that he had mentioned previously as being important to his early learning curve.
First to raise their hands and volunteer were Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers, a frisky and boisterous string-band outfit who emerged from the north Georgia hills not long after the dawn of "hillbilly" recordings to gain fame for their three-fiddle harmonies and the virtuoso guitar and vocals of Riley Puckett, one of Cannon’s earliest influences.
Then came Uncle Dave Macon, Charlie Poole’s North Carolina Ramblers, and a succession of brother acts featuring the Delmores, Monroes, Bolicks (Blue Sky Boys), and Louvins — all "old-timey" music legends whom I initially became acquainted with during the early ’70s due to the mentoring of Hal and his musical brethren in the Deseret String Band.
A pattern began developing with my days being book-ended by Hal’s singing voice with the "repeat" button engaged. Each morning’s alarm-clock reveille featured his take on "Golden Slippers" from DSB’s iconic early ’70s recording, "Land of Milk and Honey." At night, I would drift off to his quite singular version of "Goodbye Old Paint" from the DSB Bunkhouse Orchestra compilation "The Round Up."
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Several years back, after not having seen him for quite a spell, I ran into Hal at Red Butte Garden while I waited in line for a concert by, if memory serves, the Del McCoury Band. It turned out that the group Hal was then currently part of, Red Rock Rondo, had got the gig to open the show.
Performing their "Zion Canyon Song Cycle" in its entirety as their set that evening, RRR proved to be one of the most intriguing musical acts I’d run across in a very long time. Time has only embellished that initial hypothesis and the group, characterized by some as "chamber-folkies," has gone on to spread its wings quite considerably.
So, of course, with scuttlebutt having the musicians of Red Rock Rondo performing on Hal’s new album, the "Zion Canyon" recording had to also be included in the preparatory hoedown. Sonic-wise, although possibly just a bit more sophisticated than Gid Tanner’s bunch, RRR fit in perfectly.
The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. By the time I finished rubbing my ears up against much of Hal’s own discography and those of his early influences, I finally made it to the P.O. and picked up his new CD, which is entitled "Hal Cannon" by the way.
Well, now, after playing it over and over for the better part of a week, let me just say one thing: It’s a marvel! On many levels! Each subsequent listening provides additional revelations.
As one who’s always been about the truths and traditions of western folklife, it’s nice to see Hal pay respect to his own work in similar fashion. Everything about the album, produced by the legendary Jim Rooney of Cambridge’s Club 47 (and well beyond) and populated by a brilliant batch of musicians, resonates with the West’s broad and intricate exterior and interior landscapes.
Hal, of course, besides being a longtime musician of note in Utah, is also a prolific NPR producer and the founding director, through his Western Folklife Center, of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. As an underclassman at East High School in 1963 he founded the Folk Music Club and has never looked back.
And now this: a most lyrical and melodic labor of love with 12 songs that leave his personal musical bootprint upon the desert and range. Play it loud! Crank it! Especially Flavia Cerviño-Wood’s violin solo that follows Hal’s haunting a cappella vocal on "The Blizzard." I have no doubt Riley Puckett would immediately have added it to his iPod!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for the past 40 years.