Even though the wind was quiet, the sand did not lie still… That line was a key one in Billy Vaughn’s record “The Shifting Whispering Sands,” which hit the Billboard Top 100 in 1955. It was one of my dad’s favorite records, he who had been born and grew up in the high desert and internalized some of the environment’s loneliness. That kind of sun- and sand-drenched recitation was fairly popular in the America of the 1950s and ’60s. Lorne Green, star of the long-running television western series Bonanza, had several similar hits, and the genre even earned a parody from the great comic Frank Gallop about the hapless Jewish cowboy Irving.
The title track on 3hattrio’s fourth release Lord of the Desert follows in the tradition of the desert-inspired recitation. With words by Hal Cannon and music by fiddler Eli Wrankle, it plays on all kinds of “Lord of the Dance”-type imagery found in different cultures worldwide. Wrankle plays a semi-psychedelic multi-track of violin drones as Cannon recites the lyrics like “I write these words and they paint the desert sand. … I am gone and come again,” with an occasional plucked guitar accent. It’s the last of 13 songs on this generous album, the fourth from this Utah-based acoustic trio, and its most eclectic recording yet.
Working within what could be the limited sound palette provided by banjo, guitar, fiddle, double bass and percussion, these three musicians have created a soundscape as subtly varied as the desert landscape that is their home and inspiration. They call what they do “American desert music.”
Hal Cannon, who plays banjo and guitar and writes about half of the songs, is a respected folklorist and musician, and founding director of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. Greg Istock, who plays bass as well as drums and percussion that he mostly plays by foot, writes the rest of the songs and produces. He’s mostly responsible for the various effects that give this music its particular atmosphere as well as its groove. He’s a visual artist too (he created the album cover art), and he has played and produced lots of music, including jazz, Caribbean, you name it. Eli Wrankle, decades younger than his two compatriots, plays violin in a way that lifts this music out of a traditional stringband sound to something more cosmic. His playing and his ideas seem to be growing by canyon-sized leaps from album to album.
This one’s an open range of a record, with this trio wandering like spirit animals over a landscape that covers cowboy poetry to airy space jams.
On the opening track “Dust Devil” Cannon intones his lyrics in multiple tracks while Istock rattles off spooky high harmonies over a banjo-driven fast shuffle; at one point it’s just Wrankle plucking the fiddle and Istock’s boom-chick percussion. Come to think of it, it’s a companion piece to the title track, an homage to the Shiva-like spirit that animates the desert’s dusty whirlwhind. The next one, “Pilgrim,” is super-psychedelic desert gospel blues, with Wrankle playing an electrified fiddle with pedal effects, Cannon singing lead and Istock scatting vocals around that snaky fiddle line. Snatches of what sounds like sermons or gospel readings loop and swoop in and out of the soundscape on “In Our Hands,” a repetitive meditation set to muscular guitar picking and rhythmic fiddle sawing.
3hattrio takes some steps into world music on this album, too. Istock’s “War” has what sounds like an oud, tabla and more of that psychedelic fiddle; while Cannon’s emaciated trance instrumental “Skeleton Tree” revolves around an Asian-sounding banjo riff and the drone of long arco notes on … well, it’s either the double bass’s highest strings, or the violin’s lowest.
Istock’s song “Faith” juxtaposes his spiky vocals with a languid, almost New Age vibe. And on “Won’t Help,” Istock sounds like he’s been gargling gravel as he sings barely intelligible lyrics juxtaposed with a gentle foundation of Cannon’s nylon guitar pluck-and-strum and Wrankle’s folky fiddle line.
People who don’t know the desert think it looks boring and lifeless, its soil and rocks and vegetation all subtle variations on the same color scheme. But spend some time there and you begin to see vibrant life all around. In the same way, 3hattrio takes the elements of Americana music, the fiddle and guitar and bass that you’ve heard so many times you stop noticing them, and gives them a wake-up call. This is some great music coming out of the American desert. You can get it at Bandcamp and the usual other places.