Sunday, November 8, 2015


We know the stories of Rodriguez and Charles Bradley, but an even more unlikely tale is that of Ted Hawkins, a brilliant singer-songwriter who died back in 1995. Born impoverished in Mississippi, he spent much of his early life in reform school and jail, where he picked up music. He developed his own blend of country and blues, with a distinctive, rough voice and wrote songs that were simple yet powerful, full of life's pain, and occasional humour. He was famously discovered, more than once, busking on the boardwalk in California's Venice Beach, where he did most of his playing, between jobs and jail.

At least, that's how the American version of the story goes. In Europe, he was far better known, and lived there for stretches, playing far better gigs, doing BBC radio sessions, having a respectable career. But he had flaws that followed him his whole life, and crime and addiction continued to show up, plus a contrary attitude. Even with record deals and opportunities, he would prove erratic, and end up busking on the boardwalk again.

Hawkins seemed to finally get the break he deserved with the release of the album The Next Hundred Years in 1994, on Geffen Records. Lots of people were hearing his music for the first time (me included), at a time when roots music was really starting to gather a large following. But just as soon as the records and shows were selling, Hawkins died at 58, of a stroke.

While his death didn't inspire the same sort of interest in his music as other such as Jeff Buckley and Elliot Smith, here fellow musicians get together to celebrate a remarkable group of songs. Because they remain largely unfamiliar, this set doesn't have to struggle with the problem that usually wrecks tribute albums; that the originals are done better. Most won't know them. Also, except for the Geffen album, Hawkins could never afford to have a band back him, so again, these don't suffer from comparison. What you get is a batch of fantastic songs, with his Southern background shining through.

Hawkins had a way with language that cut through all pretense or ego. He'd just put emotions out there simply, and sometimes shatteringly: "I was cruel, mean and selfish," he sings in the hidden bonus track here, Great New Year, a story about a man wishing all his family was with him at Christmas, but eventually letting us know all the kids are with their mother, whom they choose to give the love he foolishly ignored in the past.

The main album though, is an excellent set of tributes from artists in the roots field, with some familiar names (James McMurtry, Kasey Chambers, Mary Gauthier) and several more obscure (Even Felker, Shinyribs). The best cut of all is from Sunny Sweeney, a country singer out of the Austin school, putting a good twang into Happy Hour. For anybody who misses country songs like Dark End of the Street or Ode to Billy Joe, this stuff will be a revelation.

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