Monday, November 2, 2009
The Honky-Tonk Genius of Cornell Hurd
Oort Cloud favorite Cornell Hurd has everything it takes to ensure his obscurity. Leader of the Cornell Hurd Band, one of the finest honky-tonk and Texas swing bands in the known world -- to borrow a phrase from American Idol's estimable Randy Jackson -- Hurd has little in common with today's country hitmakers, pop music celebrities, or even the celebrated legends of country history.
Besides being very un-Kenny Chesney-like in the young and pretty category, Hurd wouldn't make it out of the freak-showcase rounds of Idol competition, based on his technical limitations as a vocalist. And funny as he is, the subtle, self-deprecating humor of his songs and of his mentally-unstable persona, would lack the gut-punch spectacle the show thrives on creating at the expense of some of the show's truly mentally impaired contestants.
While these qualities guarantee Hurd will never be a popular artist -- even in Austin, Texas, a town certainly friendly to Hurd and neo-traditional honky-tonky and Texas swing -- they also certify his genius.
To prove the point, The Oort Cloud will quote T.S. Eliot, a reference that might be out of place in the country ethos, as well as in Hurd's songs, but wouldn't be lost on Hurd himself, a UC-Berkley graduate and honky-tonk intellectual of the first order. In his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Eliot said something to the effect that true genius shows its individuality via finding a voice that evokes its artisitic ancestors.
Hurd's "You Only Kiss Me When We say Goodbye" or "I've Still Got My Mind" speak a familiar honky-tonk language, through the song's lazy shuffle, mournful wails of the pedal steel, the twangy nudge-wink of the lead guitar, and the seamless match between the lyrics and the vocal delivery.
In "I've Still Got My Mind," Hurd plays with the country conceit of tragic-comic failure in which the honky-tonk anti-hero has lost everything, and he sings about it with the exhibitionist's conflicted sense of shame and shamelessness. Like so many bad luck songs in the country and blues traditions -- today's hits notwithstanding, which are always about winning and never being ashamed -- Hurd sings about his ex-wife getting his car and the house and everything else.
But, unlike the cliched hard luck songs that accept failure with a pun, Hurd's persona sings in naive triumph that he's actually gotten the best of her, because, despite everything else, he's "still got" his "mind."
But not really. Hurd invites us to to scrutinize his hero's conclusion, and upon closer inspection, we discover that our singer is, of course, wrong: he's lost his mind too. What casts doubt, among other clues, is the madman laughter that accompanies his declaration of victory, the last act of a desperate man.
We hear some of that same comedy of failure in George Jones' vocals. Not that it's nowhere else in the honky-tonk pantheon, but here it doubles as an enactment of failed denial, the mask of the truly sad. This mask can be more moving than the nakedly earnest failure, because it shares the emotional complexity of enduring pain, the psychological roadblocks to admitting defeat, and of having to consider the likelihood that if she she ever loved you it wasn't because of your looks, good judgment or confident self-awareness.
For another example of Hurd's take on the tradition, check out "I cry, then I drink, then I cry." It's a drinking song that plays off of the romantic portrayal of the drink-to-forget hero. In this YouTube video, Hurd prefaces the song with the ironic announcement that "nothin says fun like hopeless alcoholism." The band of course, DOES make it fun, Cornell makes it funny, and we're reminded all the while that the gesture of heroic alcoholism is always bookended by two parts crying. The song triumphs because its ironic stance embraces the emotional complexity of the confession without stooping to a sanctimonious disavowel of the drunken hero or the intimation that he and his audience lack the depth to understand the whole morass.
To really appreciate Cornell Hurd, you must attend Jovita's in South Austin on any Thursday night. Every show is full of shameless comedy, dark pathos, brilliant musicianship and the truth with a capital Honky-Tonk.