My Walking Stick
By Jim Byrnes
Review by Douglas Heselgrave
There aren’t many albums like My Walking Stick being recorded today. Then again, there aren’t many singers like Jim Byrnes around anymore either. Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Byrnes has had a long career as an actor and voice over performer in his adopted home in Vancouver, Canada, but regardless of what else he’s had to do to make ends meet, his real love has always been singing the blues.
As anyone who’s followed the music knows, it’s not an easy thing to make a living as a blues performer these days. The music has been so diluted and distorted over the years that it’s been all but submerged under the weight of its own clichés. In fact, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that the blues was once a vital and contemporary art form that did not only appeal to a specialist niche market as it does today. The blues originated in the rural south at the turn of the twentieth century as African American musicians wrote and performed songs that reflected the hard luck stories and cultural values of their community. The genre’s scope gradually expanded and maintained its credibility as the subject matter of the songs began to express the reality of urban black people. Unfortunately, by the early nineteen sixties, the blues began to diminish in popularity among its original audience as the more contemporary sounds of rhythm and blues and soul music captured the imaginations of a younger generation.
Around this time the blues torch was passed to a younger generation of British artists like John Mayall and Eric Clapton who were attracted to the gritty quality of music performed by artists like Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. They created their own original songs based on the structures of these founding artists and introduced a whole new generation of mostly white music fans to the sounds of the blues. For this generation, the blues universe populated by back door men, good time girls and tales of cold blooded murder was like music from another world, and aging first generation performers like Mississippi John Hurt and Howlin’ Wolf revitalized their careers as they played before new audiences in North America and Europe. But, by the end of the sixties as groups like Cream and the Allman Brothers morphed blues themes into a heavy rock context, the genre had just about played itself out for the second time. In the eighties, artists like Bonnie Raitt and Robert Cray tried to revitalize the blues by bringing it into the mainstream and writing songs that more accurately reflected the concerns of a modern cosmopolitan world. As honourable as their intentions were and as necessary as these innovations may have been, the music created by blues artists during this time was often all but bloodless. As a result, the art form began to die as performers divided into two camps – the blues preservationists who still played like it was Mississippi in 1935 and the blues apologists who tried to fit a square peg into a round hole by making their songs radio friendly.
For most of his career, Jim Byrnes’ music has shifted uneasily between these two extremes. As a younger performer, he recorded albums that had their foundation in the blues, but the purity of the music he wrote was often compromised by the desire to sell records and have a presence on the radio. As a result, many of the songs that were captivating to hear in a live setting had their rough edges smoothed away in the recording studio in order to satisfy the dictates of the pop music industry. In an effort to be radio friendly, much of what was appealing about Byrnes was lost and for many years his essence was never successfully captured on tape. Like many other artists, Byrnes became a singer whose magic could only be truly experienced live in a club or concert hall.
All of this began to change in 2004 when Byrnes met Steve Dawson, a young Vancouver roots performer and producer who understood how to create music that sounded fresh and contemporary while still evoking the timeless feel of the blues. The two men hit it off right away and set to work on what became ‘Fresh Horses - an acoustically driven rootsy blues album that played to all of Byrnes’ considerable strengths. On it, Byrnes played a mixture of originals as well as nailing down versions of songs by artists ranging from Bob Dylan to the Mississippi Sheiks. With ‘Fresh Horses’, the sound that had long eluded Byrnes in the studio gelled, and after decades in the music business, his recorded output began to walk in step with his natural talent. The two men followed up with ‘House of Refuge’ in 2006, an even stronger album that paid tribute to the connections between blues and gospel and gave Byrnes a chance to really flex the soul embedded in his voice.
‘My Walking Stick’ doesn’t stray very much from the formula established by Byrnes and Dawson’s last two outings; rather it extends their working relationship into deeper territory to create what may be the best sounding album in Byrnes’ career. Like T Bone Burnett’s work with BB King and Bruce Cockburn, Dawson’s production style is instantly recognizable, yet unlike other distinctive producers such as Daniel Lanois, he has the ability to surround a veteran artist with rich and full sonic textures that complement rather than distract from the songs. The sound Byrnes and Dawson created for this album is deep and textured, yet the music resonates with roots music integrity. Every instrument is crisp, clear and carefully placed within the mix. There is nothing superfluous in any of the songs with treatments and effects kept to a minimum. Where the aforementioned Lanois often has a tendency to over-produce and create music that is swampy and thick, Dawson supports Byrnes with a sound that is sculptural, yet loose and nimble at the same time. This is a collection of songs that never forgets to put on its dancing shoes.
It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to assert that My Walking Stick provides a blueprint of how to make a blues album for the twenty first century. The vibe that Dawson creates forms the perfect bedrock for Byrnes’ songs as he conjures sounds that evoke the ambience of old dirty blues 78’s and 1950’s Chess Records singles. Using state of the art recording techniques that somehow maintain the warmth of an analogue recording, My Walking Stick sounds vintage and contemporary at the same time in much the same way Dylan’s most recent albums do.
Byrnes accompanies himself on acoustic guitar throughout the album, and the musicians that support him sound completely at home playing his music. Though Dawson has enlisted the help of some of the best west coast studio musicians to bring the project to life, they never sound like hired guns. They play with an ease and authority that sounds as if they’re a band that’s been playing together for years. The rhythm section consisting of Matt Chamberlain and Steve Hodges on drums with Keith Lowe bringing up the bottom end on bass, create a propulsive rumble that is just perfect for the textured acoustic sounds that swirl around Byrnes’ voice. Add to that the funky sounds of Chris Gestrin’s organ and keyboards and the multitude of strings – dobros, crunching guitars and galloping country blues picking – played by Steve Dawson and it’s hard to remember hearing a better sounding blues album.
Of course, the whole album is grounded by Byrnes’ smooth, easy and confident vocal delivery. His supreme naturalness always makes the lyrics sound true as he carefully chooses songs that are easy for him to inhabit emotionally. He sounds perfectly at home singing gospel-tinged numbers like ‘What are they doing in Heaven today?’ On this track and several others such as ‘Looking for a Love’ Byrnes is reunited with the Sojourners – a gospel trio whose thrilling back up vocals made ‘House of Refuge’ such a powerful album a few years back. Together, they continue to gloriously explore all of the places where the blues and gospel intersect. To hear Byrnes and the Sojourners sing together is almost enough to divert the crustiest of old heathens off of the wicked path of sin and onto the path of righteousness. Other highlights include ‘My Walking Stick’, the bizarre title track which Byrnes manages to pull off without the slightest touch of camp or irony. It’s often difficult to choose the best track on an album, but for my money, the slow burning version of ‘Ophelia’ is a strong contender. On it, Byrnes unearths layers of erotic despair embedded in the song that the Band only hinted at.
As I remarked at the beginning, it’s hard to make a credible blues album in today’s musical environment. Yet, with ‘My Walking Stick’ Byrnes has crafted a collection of songs that can stand up anywhere. It is an instantly likeable album full of musical integrity and dynamic performances. After more than four decades in the music business, it sounds as if Byrnes is just hitting his stride.