The Calgary Herald
Rare is the case an end result even hints at the love and the joy that went into it.
But a scant few moments into I Hear the Wind In the Wires, the latest release from Vancouver-based bluesman Jim Byrnes, and you just know with absolute certainty that heart, soul and sincerity were the key ingredients added into this collection of cover songs.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do for the longest time,” the veteran Byrnes says from a day off in Nelson, B.C. “The hardest part was not making it a six-CD box set.”
Doubtful even that would even have distilled the sentiment behind performances of timeless, predominantly early country or Americana material from such artists as Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Buck Owens and Gordon Lightfoot.
But while those names may initially conjure the sound of simple twang, the St. Louis-born Byrnes and his friends — including producer and multi-instrumentalist Steve Dawson, mandolin player Jim Reischman and the lovely female vocals of Colleen Rennison and sister duo One More Girl — give them a treatment that transcends any tag you may associate with the work or even his past, rich catalogue.
They’re simply great songs performed greatly.
“Too many people pigeonhole music so much these days. Everything is hair metal, post-goth or whatever,” he says with a laugh.
“And everybody knows me as a blues singer, I’ve been doing that forever. But the crossover, with people who come from down where I come from, all this music just came out of one big bag.”
He points to one of the songs on the album, Big Blue Diamonds, which he’d originally heard in 1962 as an R&B hit from Little Willie John and was later was reminded of when a West Coast friend performed a bluesier version. When Byrnes was assembling the setlist for Wind In the Wires, he looked into the history of the song and discovered it was originally written by Earl (Kit) Carson in 1950 and in the half-century following had been performed by an eclectic list of artists that included Red Foley, Tex Ritter, Ernest Tubb, Jimmy Dean, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, Willy DeVille, Van Morrison and Percy Sledge.
“That’s exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about,” Byrnes says. “If you listen to a Percy Sledge tune or an Otis Redding tune and you change the instrumentation from organ and horns to pedal steel guitar you have a flat-out country song.
“I wanted to explore some of that material. . . . I wanted to find some of that territory and mine it.”
He pauses. “Having said all that, it really just comes down to loving this stuff and I wanted some people to have as much fun listening to it as I have playing it.”
And while most of those songs on the album do have a history, there are a pair that stand out for their more contemporary nature, including a version of Nick Lowe’s Sensitive Man and Tom Waits’ song House Where Nobody Lives.
But while on paper they may stand out, when placed in the context of the album and given the same loving treatment as those classics, they’re a welcome addition to the list.
“We thought it would be fun to connect the dots, and the arrow that points into the future, there’s still people writing good, fun songs that are uncomplicated and particularly the Nick song fit into that,” Byrnes says of the song which was actually released on Lowe’s 2011 release The Old Magic.
“And then the Tom song, I know Tom, I’ve done stuff with him, and I don’t know, that song, the lyrics to it just spoke to me, and I think it’s a beautiful sentiment and something that I wanted to express. At the same time, often when you listen to Tom performing his own tunes, he’s so much of a stylist that sometimes you hear the style and you don’t really hear the words to the song. . . .
Or to put it another way: sometimes because of that “style,” perhaps there are some people who don’t want to hear the song?
He laughs. “Me, too. Like I say, I know Tom, I testified in Federal Court for him to help him win $2 million from Frito Lay (over Waits-sounding song featured in an ad), and at the same time I really find some of his tunes get lost in him imitating himself. And I mean it in the best way.
“But I find that song it just really touches me, it really moves me. And it also has that country, pure flat-out honesty — there’s no double agendas or hidden meanings to that song, which so many old country tunes, that’s what I love about them.”
Honesty is another word that’s very much associated with Byrnes project, including how it was recorded, which was Vancouver’s Warehouse Studio — Byrnes is quick to acknowledge how helpful Bryan Adams and Bruce Allen were with making the session happen — and the equipment they used, which was as classic as the material and captured on tape.
And Byrnes’s longtime collaborator Dawson oversaw things with an ear to allowing the songs and performances to breathe, and that sense of passion and fun to fill the spaces.
“Steve is such a force,” he says. “Not only being the virtuoso string master that he is, just anything he picks up, but his production skills I’d place up next to anybody. I put him up with T Bone Burnett or (Daniel) Lanois or Rick Rubin. . . . He has an amazing understanding of the studio and how (music) should be presented.
“Working with him is a dream.”
That won’t be the case during Byrnes’s current tour, which has him hitting the Palomino for a show Sunday night. While Dawson is otherwise engaged, Byrnes’s longtime friend and former Prism guitarist Lindsay Mitchell will accompanying him as he hits this neck of the woods — an area which he’s intimately familiar and one he acknowledges in the packaging for Wires.
Inside the sleeve is a picture that Byrnes took personally of the rustic sign just outside of Stavely, which is a nod to his late mother-in-law who lived in the small southern Alberta town for most of her life as well as a special tip of the hat to the region itself.
“It’s beautiful country,” Byrnes says simply.
Jim Byrnes performs Sunday at the Palomino.