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Home / Articles / Music / Music Articles /  Hal Cannon: Alone on the Range
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Hal Cannon: Alone on the Range

After decades in Utah bands, the folklorist goes solo.

By Dan Nailen
Posted // February 8,2011 - Hal Cannon’s been preparing for this moment, the arrival of his first album, for his entire life.

Granted, that preparation was perhaps unwitting, as he spent decades working as a folklorist, co-founding the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering and playing in long-running groups like the Deseret String Band and, more recently, Red Rock Rondo.

“I’ve had the experience of being able to interview so many people, as a journalist really, working on the series What’s In a Song? for NPR,” Cannon says. “I’ve been able to talk to lots of songwriters, lots of singers, lots of people who have something to say about a song. And it made me realize how magical a song can be in invoking so much more than just the poetry or the music. Somehow, when you put poetry and music together, you can evoke a time, you can evoke emotion in a way that’s sort of an extraordinary thing. To me, it’s a pathway to magic.”

When Cannon set his mind to creating an album of all-original material a few years ago, though, he found more of a pathway to heartburn than a pathway to magic.

It wasn’t the songwriting that was the problem; the songs filling the self-titled set span a quarter-century of Cannon jotting down ideas and fleshing them out. Rather, it was the recording process, done in the basement of Cannon’s Avenues home, bogging him down. He found that, as the producer of his own songs, he just didn’t know when to say when on a tune.

Enter producer Jim Rooney, a recent recipient of the Americana Music Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award and producer of albums by the likes of John Prine, Townes Van Zandt and Bonnie Raitt, among others. They’d met years ago when Rooney attended the cowboy-poetry gathering in Elko.

“I wrote him last year and went, ‘Jim, I’ve lost control of my own project. Would you consider producing my album?’” Cannon recalls. “He was very methodical and decisive, all the things I was having a hard time being.”

The resulting collection—which Cannon jokes he was recording for three years, “but it really came together in a long weekend”—spans from lushly orchestrated tracks like the opening “That’s How It Is On The Range” to the stark, sparse “The Blizzard,” which features just Cannon’s voice and Flavia Cervino-Wood’s aching violin. Cannon’s Red Rock Rondo bandmate Phillip Bimstein arranged several of the more ornate tracks, and the album is full of Utah musicians recruited to bring Cannon’s vision to vivid life.

“I’m told by a lot of people that first CDs are always all over the map, and I suspect this one is all over the map in terms of styles,” Cannon says. “You’d be hard-pressed to call this a cowboy music CD. You’d be hard-pressed to call it old-time music. You’d be hard-pressed to say it’s like an art-song, Red Rock Rondo kind of a project. But all those elements are in there.”

Cannon credits the cowboy poets he’s been studying for much of his adult life with inspiring him to ultimately want to find his own voice as a musician.

“For so many years, I was so keyed in to tradition,” Cannon says. “The goal was to sound as scratchy and old-time as possible. I’d go out and record these old coots in rural Utah and wanted to sing like them. That’s still part of my voice. I just wanted to bring all those experiences together.”

And now that he has, Cannon finds himself in the uncomfortable position of trying to promote his own work, rather than that of the poets and musicians he’s explored as a folklorist.

“For years, I’ve been really helping my friends, who I think are extremely talented, get their voices out. And I was quite comfortable, because I really believed in it,” Cannon says. “I’m in a weird position because I’m so sensitive about self-promotion, but I really believe in this stuff.”

HAL CANNON
w/ Teresa Jordan
The State Room
638 S. State
Saturday, Feb. 12, 8 P.M.
$15 Advance/$17 Day Of Show
TheStateRoomSLC.com

 
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