CD Review: Jane Hawley and Aunt Betty’s Band
I’m behind on my album reviews, but maybe that worked out for the best because right now there’s all kinds of hoopla over the fact that Western Canadian cowpunk/country rock band Jr. Gone Wild has reunited and that they’re playing a series of shows over the next month. Jane Hawley, former member of the band has been playing for them, so check them out if they show up close to you.
I hung out with Jane back when she was recording this album in 2008. We sat in the comfy control room at Sundae Sound Studio in Calgary, talking about her career while producer Tim Williams tweaked tracks and played bits and pieces for us. She’s one of those people who makes you feel comfortable right away, and we discovered we had lots in common: we had both lived in Toronto, but preferred Alberta; we’d studied at York University; we both had brown hair…
The similarities ended, though, when she told me about her real country music education, when she took off for Yellowknife and Whitehorse and honed her chops playing bars every night to an, erm, interesting set of characters. (men in grey beards and long red underwear and the like.) A natural talent on fiddle and piano, Hawley had grown up immersed in the best music education Toronto had to offer, but let her aptitude for extracting the right emotion out of whatever she was playing lead her away from classical and into country, folk, and rock.
After her time in JGW, Hawley and her husband, a former bull rider, settled into rural Alberta to have kids, and she continued with a solo career. That was augmented by stints in some of Calgary’s most storied bands, like Beautiful Joe and Sorrow Bound; meanwhile everybody was asking her to sing backup on their own records thanks to her distinctive vocals.
Aunt Betty’s Band is Hawley’s fourth album. One benefit of taking forever to do album reviews is that I get a chance to listen to them more, and this is one that gets better every time. Hawley skirts genre categorization by using unexpected instrument combinations, like the clarinet and banjo collaboration on “For No One” and covering Hendrix’s “Wind Cries Mary” alongside Jimmy Webb’s “All I Know”. Then “Big Sky” has a tinge of mariachi in Al Muirhead’s trumpet solos.
My favourites on the record are Hawley originals, though. While you’d think the repetitive riff of “I Always Fall for You” could amount to too much, both her gentle delivery and the song’s brevity only leave it as a pleasant memory. My personal favourite is “Big Sky”, not only because I’m so bloody prone to nostalgia for any evocation of home, but also because its arrangement is carefully constructed to enhance the picture painted by the words. Local virtuoso and longtime Hawley collaborator Tim Leacock’s steel turns add just the right dose of country longing to the song.
Hawley’s joined by other Calgarian regulars: aside from producing, blues singer-songwriter Tim Williams adds guitar, banjo, and percussion to the record, while pianist Ron Casat joins in on several tracks. Cedric Blary, probably Calgary’s best-known clarinettist, appears on the bass version on a couple songs too. But the highlight is Hawley’s singing and songwriting: one of my favourites on the album, “Givin’ In”, is a resigned contemplation on how hard it is to stick it out when the going gets tough.
It’s a concise little album; nothing is overdone and the songs are perfect little packages. You can find the disc on CD Baby and head to a Hawley/JGW show in the near future if you can. Meantime, I’ll leave you with a couple clips: one of Jane on her own and another of her with Beautiful Joe.