Hands of Time
Howling Dog Records
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
Though nowhere near Los Alamos, the acoustic newgrass band Hired Hands, a group out of Taos, New Mexico, is bursting with the energy created by the release of their latest CD, Hands of Time. Don Richmond, Eddy Lee Bullington and Jim Bradley are three grown men, gigging on a schedule teenage rock bands would envy, tantalizing dance crowds throughout the region with foot-stomping rompers. These tunes are pure roots, boots and boogie! |
Like the band members themselves, wisened, colorful and multifaceted, the songs on Hands of Time demonstrate an understanding of the world that comes only with maturity, without lacking enthusiastic musical electricity, on mostly all acoustic instruments (Bradley plays an electric bass).
About Burning up the Night, the rip-roaring opener, Bullington admits, "I was just playing secretary to my brain. I woke up one day, and all the words were just... there." Amping down a bit, Deeper Well, along with Me and the Eagle, a Steve Earle tune, take a more introspective turn, with the Hands making a distinctive impression of their own on the song with their compelling opening. From the Beatles' White Album, Mother Nature's Son, with a theme of finding self in nature, continues the easy flow, followed by Old Girl, a ballad based in real life, first recorded by Albuquerque Contemporary Christian artist, Fernando Ortega. She Just Wants to Dance, originally sung by Keb Mo as a sort of blues-y shuffle, is done here by the Hands as a Texas swing-style jitterbug, with Richmond's tenor handling lead vocals. Bullington co-wrote the two-steppin' Bitter Creek Blue Northern with Rick Fowler, featuring Richmond on banjo. Life moving on while feeling left behind is a common theme in love-lost songs, and Keeping Time, is no exception, this time highlighting Richmond's skill on dobro. Her Spirit Moves Me, is easy to sing along with, as is the rousing rendition of Jamie Walker's, Suicide at the Wishing Well.
Don Richmond, an Alamosa, Colorado native, is the Hands' instrumental backbone, chief sound engineer, and all-around creative genius. He once told me that it's an artist's job to be a bridge between heaven and earth for others, and that's what the second verse of the title cut Hands of Time is all about: trees have roots deeply planted in the ground, while reaching for heavenly realms. He said he believes in order to be effective, musicians need to be firmly grounded while reaching others with their gifts, but that balance is hard to maintain.
But delicately balanced it is, and like the aging of a fine wine, Hands of Time, took over a year to record. The songs reflect a depth of meaning in lyricism, while emphasizing the three men's rich vocal harmonies. Varied instrumentation, textured story lines, backed by the strength of their respective picking abilities reveal the group's true appeal. Hired Hands prides itself on being, "no actors, no costumes, no makeup, all real," said Jim Bradley. The result is pure acoustic musicianship of the highest order.
Although they often play in country venues, and two-stepping crowds all over the Southwest throng to their dance floors, this is not country music. Combining the best of folk traditions sometimes with Celtic and rock influences, or even Texas-swing or bluegrass, Hands' music typifies that genre-less classification that has come to be called 'newgrass' or Americana, in recent years, or Alt.country, in some circles. The point is, they are doing their music and other songs they like, their way. And their way seems to be working. Like the title from their first CD, this is definitely Stuff that Works.
Singing of eagles soaring, "mountains and mesas, valleys and peaks," Hired Hands has found expression for an abiding sense of place in time. Having matured past the immediacy of a sought-after moment on Top 40 charts, they sing of things that matter. They're not seeking record deals in Nashville, and their gauge of success isn't necessarily the number of CDs sold. They believe that success is doing what you love. They love to sing, (you can hear it in their every note), and they love the part of the country they happen to live in, so in my book, they're successful every time they get up on stage.
Even the album's cover art, designed by Alamosa artist, Dave Montgomery, depicts a uniquely southwestern motif. The print of a petroglyph, which appears in real life on a rock in the middle of the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado, has his hands outstretched, thumbs pointing in the same direction, as if he's giving directions, or in some way saying that we're really all going the same place. Bradley says, "And we are. We thought of those hands as the 'Hands of Time,' and the song along with the album title, were born." And, as if unwilling to let go of the image, the CD ends as the title track trails into a haunting rondo, voices lifted in seemingly never-ending refrain, followed by the simple strains of a fiddle duo, played to perfection by Richmond and fellow Colorado fiddler, Gordon Burt.
These are the Hired Hands. Hands that hold guitars like a long-lost love; Hands coaxing mandolin music and banging banjo with plucky energy, for audience after toe-tapping audience. Hands of Time, is the hottest thing to come out of the Southwest since Hatch green chile!