Just four years after this Canadian folk singer taught himself, as an adult, to play guitar, he quit his day job and started supporting himself with his music. (The story wound up as the basis for the wistful "With the Grain," the opener of this 2009 release.) Two years later, he won a major songwriting prize at the Calgary Folk Music Festival, and has been winning awards regularly since. This tells you a little bit about the kind of no-nonsense confidence that comes through in Hannam's music, not in the form of arrogance, but as gritty, four-chord-truth-telling. With nods to Hank Williams, Greg Brown, and other small-town storytellers, Hannam pairs simple melodies with lyrics that quietly and unsentimentally illuminate everyday heroes. The abovementioned "Grain" quotes a woodworker's unfussy wisdom: "Everything that means anything I learnt standing at this bench." On the gorgeous "Requiem for a Small Town," he describes life in a down-at-the-heels hamlet, singing, "This town she's a slow lament/Of good ol' days and way back when's." The stirring union ballad "Tonight We Strike" may prompt the listener to wonder about the double meaning of the word "strike." The lyrical high point of the album, "Church of the Long Grass," is a spirited paean to the natural beauty of Hannam's native Alberta, and the transcendence that nature provides.
Fans of Canadian roots music will recognize the lovely backing vocals of Jenny Whiteley, and the expert dobro and National guitar-picking of Black Hen label owner (and this album's producer) Steve Dawson that weaves through the songs. Dawson recorded Hannam and his backing musicians almost entirely live in the studio, with scant overdubs, a method that fosters a palpable liveliness and easy interplay between the players. This joy cuts through the sometimes somber subject matter, almost guaranteeing that Hannam fans will have as much fun listening as these folks did recording.