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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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November 2017

1
JW Roy & The Royal Family
80 pts.
A Room Full Of Strangers
Royal Family Records
EM,BH,RST,LK
2
Chris Hillman
79 pts.
Bidin' My Time
Rounder
BP,FS,HD
3
Turnpike Troubadours
46 pts.
Long Away From Your Heart
Bossier City Records
HM,TK
4
Jolie Holland & Samantha Parton
36 pts.
Wildflower Blues
Cinquefoil Records
TJ
5
Eilen Jewell
34 pts.
Down Hearted Blues
Signature Sounds
 
6
Lucinda Williams
31 pts.
This Sweet Old World
Highway 20/Thirty Tigers
BR,MW
7
JD McPherson
29 pts.
Undivided Heart & Soul
New West
JS
8
Mark Martyre
26 pts.
Rivers
Independent
FC
 
Tom Russell
26 pts.
Folk Hotel
Frontera Records-Proper Records
SP
10
Anna Tivel
25 pts.
Small Believer
Fluff And Gravy Records
MG
 
Margo Price
25 pts.
All American Made
Third Man Records
JB
12
Fred Wickham
22 pts.
Mariosa Delta
Thirty Days Records
RK
 
Joe Henry
22 pts.
Thrum
Ear Music
HVB,PJ
 
Whitney Rose
22 pts.
Rule 62
Six Shooter/Thirty Tigers
 
15
Dick LeMasters
18 pts.
Incompatible Things
Longneck Road Music
HDB,JJ
 
Jim White
18 pts.
Waffles, Triangles & Jesus
Loose Music
LM,SZ
 
Peter Gallway
18 pts.
Feels Like Religion
Gallway Bay Music
CVL,DHO
18
Thomm Jutz
17 pts.
Crazy If You Let It
Mountain Fever Records
 
19
Kris Delmhorst
16 pts.
The Wild
Blue Blade Records
 
20
Daniel Crabtree
15 pts.
In The Shadow Of His Wings
Independent
 
 
Jeremy Pinnell
15 pts.
Ties Of Blood And Affection
Sofaburn Records
 
 
Julien Baker
15 pts.
Turn Out The Lights
Matador
EZ
23
Amber Cross
14 pts.
Savage on the Downhill
Independent
 
 
Chris Blevins
14 pts.
Better than Alone
Horton Records
 
 
David Rawlings
14 pts.
Poor David's Almanack
Acony Records
 
 
Grainne Duffy
14 pts.
Where I Belong
Independent
GC,RW
 
Jeff Crosby
14 pts.
Postcards From Magdalena
At The Helm Records

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