How refreshing in the age of the singer-songwriter to hear a CD's worth of interpretations -- good ones, too -- of other writers' material. On I Hear the Wind in the Wires the Canadian (once American) Jim Byrnes, a veteran of the north-of-the-border roots scene, takes on 13 songs, mostly country familiar and unfamiliar, and does them in the way of a music pro. Nothing sounds precisely as it did in the original recording, and even if you know your Buck Owens and Marty Robbins (Byrnes covers two each of their hits), you'll find the listening fresh and pleasurable.
Byrnes' style -- an amalgam of blues, r&b, folk and rock -- informs his treatment of traditional country. His producer, the busy and intelligent Steve Dawson, is as likely to employ organ as pedal steel, not to mention obscure instruments (slide mandotar, phillicorda), to fashion something creative out of the ordinary. The arrangement of the Stanley Brothers' beautiful gospel "Harbor of Love," which owes nothing to the bluegrass original, is a particular standout.
The opening "I'm Movin' On," perhaps Hank Snow's most famous song, takes on something of a hard-blues edge that would have been beyond the reach of Snow himself, forged in the Maritimes folk-ballad tradition. Tom Waits's heart-ripping "House Where Nobody Lives" may lead a listener to suspect this is how Waits wishes he could sing it. Byrnes' reading of "Ribbon of Darkness," one of Gordon Lightfoot's batch of memorable early classics as well as a chart-topping Robbins hit in 1965, takes on new depths of romantic despair, while Little Willie John's "Big Blue Diamonds" (written by Earl "Kit" Carson) returns Byrnes to his r&b comfort zone.
In short, much to be enjoyed, not much if anything to gripe about. Well, there's this: The old Buck Owens number "Above & Beyond" was penned by the late, legendary Nashville composer Harlan Howard, not "Howard Harlan." Maybe, on the other hand, that's what happens when your name consists of two first names.