Steve Dawson follows up his stellar 2016 release, Solid States & Loose Ends with an all instrumental outing, the excellent Lucky Hand. And the Canadian by way of Nashville keeps everything firmly rooted in Americana while setting the songs against the backdrop of a string quartet, in the process creating a sort of blue collar chamber music that sounds right at home on the porch.
The genius of this approach is that while Dawson is one of those pickers you would feel at home mentioning in the company of say, Leo Kottke, he also has solid song smarts. Many virtuoso players can get lost noodling around on the fretboard. That’s fine for hardcore fans, but often leaves the new listener wondering, “Where the heck is this going?” Not Dawson. He keeps everything pegged to melody and structure keeping sight that these are complete songs, not adventures in naval gazing.
The sounds and textures he creates are magnificent. The record as a whole is cohesive, centered, and downright beautiful. Perfect for a long drive, or watching the sun set from the porch, Dawson has blessed us with a rootsy soundtrack. It reminds me of William Least Heat-Moon’s book Blue Highways in that it serves as a document of fly-over America.
Dawson’s picking is pristine, packed with emotion. The interplay with the quartet is spirited and spunky. Violins and cellos dance a counterpoint to Dawson’s energetic six and twelve-string guitars. Toss in a little mandolin courtesy of John Reischman, sprinkle clarinet, trombone and French horn from Sam Davidson, Jeremy Berkman, and Nick Anderson along with the aforementioned quartet of Josh and Jesse Zubot, John Kastelic and Peggy Lee and you get a fit that is as comfortable as a denim tuxedo.
The album opens with the pastoral “Circuit Rider of Pigeon Forge.” It is cinematic in tone and would make a great soundtrack piece for a film about middle-America. The song soars as Dawson’s fingers cascade over the frets, his notes conjuring the trials and small triumphs of everyday life. This immediately gives way to “Bentonia Blues,” and a nod to Skip James. Charlie McCoy adds some earthy harp playing, giving the song a dirt road cotton field spice.
“Hollow Tree Gap” is a giddy flight on the strings and sets your foot to tapping from the jump. Dawson knows how to get a visceral, physical, reaction from the listener. This one sounds the most Kottke-esque.
Overall, you cannot go wrong with this release. There is something here for everyone. An album that is easily accessible, whether you play it in the background, or want to actively engage what Dawson is doing here, either way you will find it hard to put aside. Me? I’ll be eagerly looking for Lucky Hand Two. www.theflamestillburns.com