Back in the 30s and 40s, crowds flocked to dance halls to hear music that combined big-band jazz with country instrumentation. Though branded "hillbilly," innovators like Bob Wills and Hank Thompson were jazz-quality virtuosos who devised their own sophisticated forms and styles. Hillbilly Pilgrim finds Erelli teaming up with members of Boston's premier country band The Spurs to put a new spin on the tradition.
"Those old Hank Thompson records don't sound so 'old' to me," says Erelli. "They still put a smile on your face and pull you out on the dance floor." He admits, "to some this might seem to come out of left field, but I've always played hyphenated country music-- country-rock, country-folk. For once, I wanted to do something a little more purebred." Pure, but with a twist. Most modern devotees of the genre are painstakingly faithful to the music's pioneers. Much like Lyle Lovett, Erelli immerses himself in vintage twang without abandoning his contemporary sensibility and the heartfelt, thoughtful lyrics more commonly associated with folk music.
"This album is for the optimist in me that needs to cut loose and have fun every now and then," he says. "As a country, we may still be lost in the aftermath of September 11th, but there's more to my brand of music than hitting people over the head with everything that's gone wrong." Still, Erelli's social conscience can't help but break out. He takes a dig at the Bush administration in "Troubadour Blues"; tells the story of a blue-collar guy in a changing world ("A Bend in the River"); and mourns the disturbing last chapter of a town scheduled for drowning ("The Farewell Ball").
Shielded by western swing's clever wordplay, Erelli gets more personal without ever delving into diary territory. "Nobody expects grand philosophical revelations in country music. I find that very liberating," he comments. "Let's Make a Family" justifies his eventual desire for children with the prospect of raising them to play in his band for free. "Brand New Baby" tells the tongue-in-cheek story of how he met his wife "on the farm" (in his case, a well-known folk festival).
Some tracks are pure fun. The playful "Pretend"-- a duet with rising pop star Erin McKeown-- would fit nicely into the Cole Porter songbook. Others combine sadness and joy like the two sides of a clown's face. The narrator in "Troubles (Those Lonesome Kind)" is stuck with four kids and a runaway wife, but the track's rockabilly bounce owes more to Carl Perkins than the blues. In "Ain't No Time of Year," St. Nick drinks tequila with a lonely schmoe while the band gleefully quotes every holiday favorite it can sample. Even the brokenhearted "My Best Was Just Not Good Enough for You" leavens its lament with sleek steel guitar and Erelli's jukebox vocals.
To close the album, Erelli and his band unplug for his first original gospel song, "Pilgrim Highway." Though it's the only acoustic track on the program, it's as much a part of Hillbilly Pilgrim as "Luke the Drifter" was of Hank Williams. It's the Sunday morning to the rest of the album's Saturday night.
Some listeners may be amazed that a native New Englander like Mark Erelli could be so steeped in a western genre's history-- and also effortlessly make it his own. One listen to Hillbilly Pilgrim, however, and it will come as no surprise at all.
Check out the artist's website:
1. Brand New Baby
2. Troubadour Blues
3. A Bend In The River
5. The Farewell Ball
6. Let's Make A Family
8. My Best Was Not Good Enough
9. Fool #1
10. Ain't No Time Of Year To Be Alone
11. Pilgrim Highway