Jim Byrnes, who was brought up in St. Louis but who has been based in Vancouver since the mid-70s, is known both as an actor and as a blues singer. His latest album, his best yet, is bound to show up on plenty of 'Best of the Year' lists. The album was superbly produced by guitarist Steve Dawson and features the same musicians who appeared on Fresh Horses, Byrnes' previous album, also on the Black Hen label. Jesse Zubot, Dawson's partner, is outstanding on fiddle, as usual, but so is the whole band, including a vocal trio called the Sojourners.
Unlike the singer's previous albums, House of Refuge consists mostly (but not exclusively) of gospel material, although half the tracks were written by non-gospel artists such as Justin Rutledge ("Lay Me Down Sweet Jesus"), Nick Lowe ("The Beast in Me," the closing track), and David Wall ("Fortify Me"), not to mention Byrnes himself ("Running Out of Time"). Byrnes also co-wrote a few songs with producer Dawson ("Of Whom Shall I e Afraid?") and "The Death of Ernesto Guevera").Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust," which he recorded for his mom, seems a little incongruous in the middle of the album, but the arrangement and instrumentation, which features ukulele, Mellotron, Dobro, xylophone, and pump organ, nonetheless makes it a memorable track. House of Refuge is a classic album that's indispensable to blues and gospel fans.