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James Hyland and the Joint Chiefs: Celestial Navigations

                   The release of a new single, Place I Call Home, is an excuse to look back at the album it’s lifted from and to celebrate a quite beautiful piece of music-making. Call it country, call it folk, call it Americana – we slap these labels on to give ourselves a clue as to what we’re about to hear but none of that matters when you’ve got songwriting and playing as literate as this. James Hyland had ten years as the front man with the South Austin Jug Band who developed a devoted audience for their high quality music making. When that came to the end of the road he kind of went back to the solo career he was meant to be working on, and this album is the first result of that fresh start. “Solo album” is, of course, a ridiculous notion even in the context of one voice and one guitar. If, like James Hyland, you surround yourself with players of the highest order such as Kim Deschamps, Chip Dolan and Warren Hood (all names I’ve come to welcome when they appear on album sleeves), then the front man becomes just one part of something that adds up to considerably more than the sum of its parts.

                  The opening track here, Medicine Man, is an absolute stunner. The lyric takes the viewpoint of the marijuana farmer, forever running the risk of a raid from the DEA. It’s a nuanced song, taking a political stance about marijuana for sure, but also getting beyond simplistic polemic or romanticisation. For instance, he makes the point that many pot growers are against legalisation because they have a cultural antipathy to the business ending up in the hands of Big Tobacco. Lyric aside, the music is glorious: the rhythm comes like a slow wave, James’ voice is plaintively mournful and the bass slithers sinuously until it touches some core emotion. Solo sections from violin, pedal steel and guitar weave into the music seamlessly, with the acoustic guitar solo being particularly intense – it’s the intensity of a quiet person whose few words always carry a lot of meaning, and you feel kind of wrung dry when you get to the end of this song.

              The rest of the album is lighter in mood; songs about love, about life on the road and about his homeland (the beautiful Low Country Sound) all have a sweetness undercut by the inherent wry sadness you can hear in James’ voice and by intelligent lyric writing that addresses the muddled complexity of life. I love the line in Come To Me where he’s trying to attract the attention of someone new; he’s been burnt before, it seems, and he sings “I’ve been on my own so long/ There’s been no-one to betray (long pause) me”.

             James Hyland’s voice and his writing are both great, of a quality that has you itching to track down everything he’s done, but if there’s one thing that really has me drooling here, it’s the presence of Kim Deschamps and his pedal steel. James Hyland clearly loves the sound as much as I do and Kim plays it with a strong sense of all the history of the instrument, evoking memories every time he appears. There’s a wonderful moment at the start of Lancelot and the Lady of Shallot, where the pedal steel comes in loud and swooping – it sounds to me like a knowing reference to old country clichés, rescued from cheesiness by its sense of irony. And if he didn’t mean it that way, I don’t care, it sounds great, anyway.  Two old bandmates from the SAJB, Willie Pipkin (electric guitar) and Dennis Ludiker (fiddle) also play a huge part in making this a really good album, the work of a bunch of musicians who really know how to make music together.  

John Davy

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May 2018

1
John Prine
67 pts.
The Tree of Forgiveness
Oh Boy Records
JJC,MB,SP,RM
2
Levi Parham
58 pts.
It's All Good
Continental Records
CRS,JB,TK
3
Jeb Barry and the Pawn Shop Saints
55 pts.
Texas, etc...
DollyRocker
HDB,CVL,DHO
4
Michael McDermott
54 pts.
Out From Under
Continental Song City
JDO,LK,BK
5
Sam Morrow
48 pts.
Concrete and Mud
Forty Below Records
MA,JBO,HB
6
Caleb Caudle
39 pts.
Crushed Coins
Cornelius Chapel Records
 
7
Western Centuries
36 pts.
Songs From The Deluge
Free Dirt Records
MF
8
Carter Sampson
34 pts.
Lucky
Continental Song City
 
9
Charley Crockett
30 pts.
Lonesome as a Shadow
Son of Davy/30 Tigers
 
10
Courtney Marie Andrews
28 pts.
May Your Kindness Remain
Loose Music
JV
11
Ed Romanoff
27 pts.
The Orphan King
Pinerock Records
 
 
Joan Baez
27 pts.
Whistle Down The Wind
Proper Records
HD
 
Pharis and Jason Romero
27 pts.
Sweet Old Religion
Lula Records
SZ,LM
14
Gretchen Peters
24 pts.
Dancing With The Beast
Proper Records
KG
 
Old Crow Medicine Show
24 pts.
Volunteer
Columbia Records
GF
 
Will Stewart
24 pts.
County Seat
Cornelius Chapel Records
 
17
Ben Reel
22 pts.
Land Of Escape
B REEL Records
GC,FC
 
Birds Of Chicago
22 pts.
Love In Wartime
Signature Sounds
 
 
Emily Herring
22 pts.
Gliding
Eight 30 Records
RST,RH
20
Jenny van West
21 pts.
Happiness To Burn
Independent
PJ,FS,JJ
 
Mary Gauthier
21 pts.
Rifles And Rosary Beads
In the Black Records
 
22
Sarah Shook & The Disarmers
20 pts.
Years
Bloodshot Records
FCE
23
David Starr
19 pts.
South And East
Independent
HM
24
Cold Tone Harvest
18 pts.
After You
Independent
 
25
Grant Peeples
17 pts.
Settling Scores vol. 2
Continental

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