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Music Review: Charlie Haden Family & Friends – Rambling Boy

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Did you hear the one about the old jazz musician, his triplet daughters, and the famous actor/comedian who doubles as a son-in-law?

If you haven’t, you should. There’s no punch line here, just one fabulous record called Rambling Boy by Charlie Haden Family & Friends (Decca Records, released September 23). And put the emphasis of this masterful collection on family, as in All in the Family, Family Affair, and “The Family that Prays and Sings Together, Stays Together.”

They all apply here. First and foremost is Charlie Haden, a world-renowned jazz bassist (Liberation Music Orchestra, Quartet West) who first teamed in the 1950s with Ornette Coleman, then became a Grammy-winning performer with jazz guitarist (and close friend) Pat Metheny during a prolific career in which he recorded with legends from John Coltrane to Ringo Starr to Herbie Hancock.

Haden poster But Good-time Charlie, who was born in Iowa and grew up in Missouri, has always wanted to return to his Midwestern roots, as in roots music, those old-timey, rootin’-tootin’-cowboy roots. And with his talented family, including his wife and co-producer Ruth Cameron, Haden was able to plant his feet firmly into his past.

With more than a little help from his friends, too, Haden takes us on a historical journey through America’s Heartland, when the country was deeply invested in Family Values in the form of traditional, inspirational and spiritual numbers performed by the likes of the Stanley Brothers, the Carter Family, Hank Williams, and Bill Monroe.

Strong support came from acclaimed musicians and singer/songwriters of down-home, nitty-gritty country, contemporary Americana and one especially hard-working rock ’n’roll superstar from across the pond. New Haden family Among the guest stars contributing stellar lead vocals are Vince Gill (“Rambling Boy”), Bruce Hornsby (“20/20 Vision”), Rosanne Cash (“The Wildwood Flower”), the smooth-as-silk Elvis Costello (Hank Williams’ “You Win Again”) and that surprising good ’ol boy of a son-in-law, Jack Black, who’s miles away from Tenacious D while conjuring up his inner hillbilly in the foot-stomping “Old Joe Clark.”

The musicianship is superb here, too, with some of the best folks available inside (and outside) Nashville. Sam Bush (mandolin), Jerry Douglas (dobro), Ricky Skaggs (banjo, mandolin), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Hornsby (piano) and Metheny (guitar) are among the standouts on multiple tracks, while Bela Fleck leads an extraordinary array of performers through “Old Joe Clark.”

Then there’s those Haden triplets, who have had varying levels of singular success en route to their 37th birthdays on October 11:

• Tanya, who sings and plays cello, was a member of several bands but has had her hands full recently raising her two sons, not to mention her husband, Jack Black.

• Petra, who sings and plays violin, might be best remembered for her a cappella rendition of The Who Sell Out, which was blessed by none other than The Who’s Pete Townshend. He was quoted by Entertainment Weekly as saying, ''I felt transported back to the time we made the original album. I heard the music as if for the first time. I listened all the way through in one sitting and was struck by how beautiful a lot of the music was. Petra's approach is so tender and generous. I adore it.'' Petra went on to perform with the Decemberists and has taken on avant-garde projects such as the recent Hearts & Daggers, her second collaboration with Miss Murgatroid (aka Alicia J. Rose).

• Rachel, who grew up learning the piano before switching to bass (surprise), toured this summer (and will continue throughout the fall) with Todd Rundgren, another never-play-it-safe performer who has just released Arena, a new CD of powerhouse rock anthems. 06_Todd Rundgren in Boulder

Rachel (right, with Rundgren), also one of the founding members of The Rentals, speaks softly but likes her rock loud and hard. During a recent interview on Rundgren Radio, she said she was influenced by Kim Deal (The Breeders) and Mike Watt (Minutemen) but her “No. 1 influence” was her father, and when she saw her brother Josh (also on the album) play in bands, “I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

This sister act emerges as a true triple threat here, providing divine three-part harmonies on the sweet and sassy “Single Girl, Married Girl,” two spiritual numbers – Bill Monroe’s “Voice From On High” and Hank Williams’ “Tramp on the Street” – and Monroe’s heartbreaking “Seven Year Blues,” where a forlorn lover gets the brush-off (“I had waited seven years today/To see your face once more/And if my life could be as long/I'd wait ten thousand more”).

But the highlight is “The Fields of Athenry,” a lump-in-your-throat, goosebump-raising Irish folk ballad that lasts a majestic 7 minutes, 30 seconds. The length of the song allows everyone to shine, with beautiful lead vocals by Petra, exquisite harmonies by her sisters and the exceptional accompaniment from Douglas (dobro), Hornsby (piano), Duncan (fiddle), and Metheny and Russ Barenberg (guitar).

Allowing all of it to come together is Big Daddy, the Man with the Plan. Maybe it’s those 50-some years of jazz that made Charlie such a generous supporting player. He seems content to remain in the background, giving the rest of this diverse and well-rounded cast the chance to take center stage throughout most of the album, which clocks in at a hefty 1 hour, 14 minutes. Talk about unselfish.

There are 19 songs, all worth hearing, and he plays bass on almost every one. And while his presence is felt on “Is This America? (Katrina 2005),” the wrenching instrumental duet with Metheny, and on the opening notes of “20/20 Vision,” he doesn’t completely take over the proceedings until the heartfelt climax.
Old Hadens
A scratchy recording of the Haden Family’s KMA Radio show in Shenandoah, Iowa, introduces us to the “little 2-year-old yodelin’ cowboy, Charles Edward,” the youngest of Carl and Virginia’s four children who indeed yodels enthusiastically through “Row Us Over the Tide.”

It carries us into the present, with 71-year-old Charlie, whose singing career ended when he contracted polio at the age of 15, sounding uneasy but wistful on the concluding “Oh Shenandoah.”

This album is truly a gift, providing a touching tribute to those from his past and a lasting legacy for those fortunate to have known and loved him. Curious newcomers seeking a little country comfort are assured a glimpse into yesteryear, for this is one amazing and satisfying personal musical journey.

In late August, Haden brought “Family & Friends” with him to New York, where they played a concert in the park for free. Maybe he should consider taking this show on the road. If the Carters were country music’s First Family, the Hadens could be America’s Latest and Greatest.

And that’s no joke.

• See a video of the Haden family discussing the project on the Charlie Haden family and Friends website.

• Go to Decca Records to listen to the entire album and vote on your favorite song.

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  • Jim

    So…my main contention with your review is that the only mention of Josh Haden is that his sister saw him “play in bands” and decided it was something she wanted to do. Josh’s main project, Spain, was downright amazing. In fact, when the Haden Family performed on Letterman last week… they sang Josh’s song, Spiritual. And yes, that was Josh on lead vocals…

  • carmen

    Great review. I can’t wait to listen to this. For a family to have so much talent, and for some to play with Townsend and Rundgren is amazing.

  • Thanks for the comments, Mark. I didn’t really know what to expect before I heard the record, but was pleasantly surprised.

  • nice review michael. i agree, this is a tremendous record…and to my ears seems to get better on repeat listens.