Mr. Cannon had the good sense to invite his wonderful musical friends to join him, beginning with fiddler and guitarist Kate MacLeod, who is also half of Kate & Kat and the producer of "Long Time Gone," Duncan Phillips' memorial in song to his father 'Utah' Phillips. Cannon and MacLeod perform as Red Rock Rondo when they join talents with the Blue Haiku quartet.
Blue Haiku are pianist-arranger Phillip Bimstein, bassist Harold Carr, and two members of the Salt Lake Symphony – violinist Flavia Cerviño-Wood, and double-reed player Charlotte Bell. Producer Jim Rooney makes good use of all these fine musicians and more (adding Rex Flinner on mandolin, Tom Carter on banjo, Cathy Foy on drums, and vocalist Anke Summerhill), deploying them creatively in various combinations to turn this album of Cannon's original compositions into a tender celebration held in a dusty village hall.
Here are brief notes on the twelve cuts:
1. "That's How It Is on the Range"
The Blue Haiku ensemble provides a Tudor consort for this opening piece – their English horn, piano, and bass revolving elegantly behind Kate's grace-note backing harmonies. The central image is of looking out from an ancient cave used centuries ago by native people at "a flashing desert rainstorm."
Yes, as in the Stephen Foster tune "Oh, Susanna." But this is an original song that captures a down-and-out veteran's wry sense of humor, punctuated by Kate's dancing fiddle:
3. "Hittin' the Trail"
It was with this song, based on verses by cowboy poet and early Hollywood stuntman Bruce Kiskaddon, that I started copying down images to let them sink in:
4. "Soldier's Heart"
A lovely choral arrangement of a song that suggests PTSD can be "a spiritual condition, rather than a mental problem." It is written from inside the minds of the soldiers affected, and there isn't a jingoistic word in it:
5. "Poet's Waltz"
A "downright Viennese" instrumental performed by Red Rock Rondo. Hal Cannon wrote this for the PBSdocumentary Cowboy Poets. (Cannon organized the first Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada, which he refers to as "herding cats.") The strummed mandola brushes against crystalline piano chords, then the violin joins them, as the oboe and fiddle waltz across the floor in delicate harmony. Beautifully recorded by engineer Michael Greene.
6. "The Blizzard"
A solo reading of a poem by Eugene Ware, who wrote it under the name Ironquill, found on a Colorado ranch in a scrapbook from the 1860s. Producer Rooney had Cannon and violinist Flavia Cerviño-Wood sit facing each other. Cannon declaims the poem to her, about a fiddler improvising a tune to get a high plateau cabin full of card-playing herders through an all-night snowstorm. Then Flavia, hearing the poem for the first time, does exactly that, building slowly and powerfully in her instrument's lower register to a gypsy furor:
7. "Señor Vega"
Hal Cannon's spare yet graceful mandola partners us gently through the verses of this love song toward Kate and Anke's harmony vocals on the recurring chorus:
8. "Just Go"
A song about an old break-up, with more of those lines whose sense comes slowly into focus after you write them down:
9. "Alone Town"
Cathy Foy's Irish-Chukchee frame drum, Hal Cannon's banjo, and a wicked smear of blues harmonica from Phillip Bimstein clear the street for this song about his disappearing home town, made over by gentrification:
10. "Gretchen's Song"
This second instrumental by Red Rock Rondo is an intricate little air, with a rapid-fire fiddle/guitar line, a counter-melody by oboe/guitar, and the piano a tapestry behind them. Cannon's mandola sounds like a balalaika. Further evidence of how remarkably diverse this album is in its range of musical forms and arrangements.
11. "Desert Home"
The range of this song's melody is something of a reach for Cannon's modest baritone. (I say this as one who has also stretched his neck on occasion to reach a note.) This one is a little like a state song arranged for the Sons of the Pioneers. Banjo, fiddle, and country bass maintain a cheerful beat throughout:
12. "Love the Place You Live"
This last one offers quieter advice than "the drumbeat of fear put forth by the newsmongers." I haven't met Mr. Cannon, but I suspect that if I were to describe his album finale as a song from a good-hearted amateur musical, the kind put on at the local Grange Hall by volunteers from area high schools and churches, and managed to say this without irony or condescension, remembering that my own mother actually wrote such a musical, he would be fine with that description.
For my part, let me say that I'm fine with Hal Cannon's work, too. This album is a well-made piece of handicraft, like a riding bit designed to slip gently into a horse's mouth, whose bridle rests securely in the hands of a man who knows how to find his way in the dark."
Rambles.net by Jerome Clark
"When one thinks of Utah folk musicians, one's thoughts turn automatically to Rosalie Sorrels and the late Bruce "Utah" Phillips. Some may recall the Deseret String Band, one of whose albums brought "Mormon Cowboy" -- ever since, among my favorite authentic Western ballads -- into my life. Hal Cannon was a member of that group, as I'm reminded as I listen to this, his first CD of original songs.
Along with his work as a musician, Cannon is a professional folklorist, National Public Radio broadcaster and founding director of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, which meets every year in Elko, Nevada. In short, he's immersed in cowboy and Western culture, not least the vernacular music and songs that are so much a part of it. His new CD is not a sentimental trip down home so much as a plausible evocation of what remains of the old West in the new. Thus, inevitably, this is a rural sound, however urbanized the region has become. Cannon himself lives in Salt Lake City, which is not a small country town.
In some ways the disc will remind listeners with long memories of the sorts of records Folkways released decades ago, with an unadorned voice singing old-time or oldtime-like songs in straightforward fashion, the focus more on storytelling than on distracting production flourishes. In fact, Hal Cannon is at heart a Folkways album -- no bad thing at all, in my opinion -- but transcending that, Cannon has brought in additional musicians. Even classical ones show up here and there, though they're there to add color (which they do very nicely), not to engage in radical experimentation of the sort that English folk musicians Shirley and Dolly Collins performed on their legendary 1969 Anthems in Eden (whose charms have only grown, by the way). Still, the fact of a fuller sonic atmosphere affords the album something of a more contemporary ambience.
In the fashion of some other records I like, this one sort of got better the more and closer I listened to it. Like the range and prairie songsters of another century, Cannon creates songs out of found materials. The lovely and affecting "Suzanna" reworks images from Stephen Foster into commentary on a modern American tragedy. "The Blizzard" is a tune set to 1860s verses by Eugene "Ironquill" Ware and sung, in traditional style, unaccompanied. Others draw on Cannon's experience, observation and imagination, all tied to land and history (and not at all to Hollywood, one adds; there are no gun fights here). Though his range -- the vocal kind -- is limited, he makes the best of what he can do, which is to approach a song with respect and warmth.
Jim Rooney, producer for the likes of John Prine, Iris DeMent and others and a longtime presence on the folk/bluegrass/country scene, does his usual fine job of giving singer and players space to tell the story and to create the mood to carry it. This is an agreeable, gracious album, devoid of pretense, full of heart."
Jon Chandler's Blog www.jonchandler.com
"Hal Cannon’s appropriately titled Hal Cannon is a soundtrack for the West. Not the Wild West, not the New West, but the West proper; the Grand Idea that is constructed from both dreary reality and glorious myth. It’s impossible to listen to Hal Cannon and not have visions of the more elegant aspects of the great Western films flash through your mind. This is an extremely visual collection, as such a grouping should be. It brings to mind dusty clapboard churches, rough gin mills and frontier music halls, all the while incorporating musical and lyric elements that resurrect with flawless accuracy the essence of an era.
Cannon fairly creates a 19th century parlor in several of the songs, its inhabitants dying of cultural thirst and hanging on every note from a group of banded-collared minstrels. In other tunes he goes further, conjuring up images of an eastern-European immigrant violinist or pianist providing a touch of respectability and sophistication to an 1890’s Kansas Opera House, or perhaps even a well-appointed Montana brothel. Musically, Cannon utilizes not only the more familiar aspects of Celtic compositions, but adds diverse period melodies and instrumentation that owe as much to Austrian waltzes or Czech folk songs as they do Irish jigs. Not that he’s ignored the campfire; That’s How It Is on the Range and Desert Homeprovide enough instrumental trail dust to make any cowboy music aficionado happy.
Lyrically, Cannon brings his West alive, full of historical and contemporary people and places, yet focused on stories that define the term Western. His observations can be tiny sermons, really. Soldier’s Heart and Love the Place You Live, while miles apart conceptually, both serve to instruct the listener, to bring the ear closer to the storyteller’s wisdom. The catchy, humorous Alone Town explores the concept of modern day societal evolution while sounding like an 1860’s minstrel banjo ditty, and The Blizzard is an epic, and ultimately frantic, interpretation of a long lost frontier poem. From a personal perspective, the graceful period instrumental Poet’s Waltz has quickly become a favorite used to set the mood while preparing to write.
Produced by the legendary Jim Rooney (Nanci Griffith, John Prine, Don Edwards, Townes Van Zandt), Hal Cannon’s songs are less guitar-oriented than most cowboy/western projects, a welcome development. The generous use of strings and horns, keyboards and woodwinds brings a unique lushness to the recording, and contributes to the historical texture of the compositions, as well. Of course, Cannon’s friend William Matthews provides his characteristically brilliant illustrations and design to the project. Hal Cannon’s absolute love of the West is obvious, and it’s also infectious. His unique take on Americana music is highly recommended. In fact, looking back from a few years down the road after allowing the collection to cure a bit, it may become essential."
The Cowboy Way, Spring 2011
"Here is folklorist and musician Hal Cannon's first album of all-original songs featuring members of Red Rock Rondo and other Utah musicians. Hal has spent his life playing music, including 30 years with Utah's beloved Deseret String Band, and his unique take on the American West is informed, as well, by his work as a folklorist, the Founding Director of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko and a regular voice on National Public Radio. The songs come from deep in the West. "Suzanna" is a tribute to those who served and are havng a tough time, while "Desert Home" takes out to the high desert. A superb "freshman"album from one who doesn't need to prove anything to anybody in the West."
cowboypoetry.com by Margo Metegrano
"Western Folklife Center Founding Director Hal Cannon is often on the road, involved in multiple, interesting projects of importance to the arts and life of the West. Somehow, he found the time for a project of his own, Hal Cannon, and with it, he makes another worthwhile contribution. Listeners are treated to a grand depth and wealth of writing and performances. Outstanding music, vocals, and arrangements come from people with whom Hal Cannon has worked closely for some time, and those relationships make for a beautiful cohesion throughout.
The songs are all Hal Cannon's original compositions and they brim with generous spirit. Among other themes, he celebrates the earth and the "ancients," pays tribute to veterans, writes about heartbreak and hope, and offers a hopeful message in "Love the Place You Live."
The liner notes give insight into the many roads he has traveled and the people, places and things that have influenced his music: Indian elders, the desert, dreams, veterans, poets, friends, and "just folks." The intriguing commentaries sometimes take the reader behind the scenes to rub shoulders with the legendary. He writes about "Hittin' the Trail Tonight," based on a Bruce Kiskaddon poem, and comments, "I taught it to Buck Ramsey and he did such a nice version that I almost quit singing it myself." In telling of "Poets' Waltz," which was written as a theme for Kim Shelton's 1986 PBS documentary, Cowboy Poets (watch it here), he mentions a conversation with Alan Lomax at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering about the negative effect of the Viennese on cowboy music.
At www.okehdokee.com there are audio samples, lyrics, and more. Hal Cannon's blog there lists some of the amusing names his friends suggested for the album, and explains his final decision, made for three reasons: "1. You only get to call one CD by your plain old name once then you have to move on.; 2. All my creative friends can continue making fun of me and my name forever without settling on just one way to mock me.; and 3. Though my parents are gone I'd sort of like to honor them for coming up with the CD title."
In the acknowledgements, he comments, "Music is all about generosity and magic," and both of those qualities are in large supply in this project.
Hal Cannon, with a stunning package design by respected Western artist William Matthews, is available from www.okehdokee.com."
Cowboy Jam Session: Western Culture News & Reviews by
Jeri L. Dobrowski
"Standing head and shoulders above the crowd at the Pioneer, Hal Cannon made his way to the G Three Bar Theater next door for a show that debuted his first all-original self-titled album, Hal Cannon. As Founding Director of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, Cannon is more often found working behind the scenes. On this occasion, he was joined on stage by Kate MacLeod and Phillip Bimstein for an enchanting set of history and mystery, jubilant celebration and soulful melancholy.
The playful tune of “Desert Home” still dances in my head from that evening. As I told Hal, it reminds me of something the Mission Mountain Wood Band might have recorded back in the mid-1970s. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Cannon delivered a tribute to soldiers affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Entitled "Soldier's Heart,” the term was used during the Civil War to describe the changes brought about by the traumas of battle.
There is great depth, vitality, and variety in the album’s 12 tracks, both in terms of the subjects and in the instrumentation. Kudos to Phillip Bimstein for the stellar arrangements which include fiddle, guitar, piano, bass, violin, oboe, English horn, mandolin, banjo, and drums. This is top-shelf Americana/Folk."