Not long ago, guitarist and singer-songwriter Ryley Walker came across John Hulburt’s deceptively named Opus III in a record-store bin. Made in 1972 and released only on Hulburt’s private label, the deceptively named album was Hulburt’s only solo recording. Thankfully, this happenstance has led Tompkins Square Records to reissue this lost folk gem for the digital era.
When Hulburt is remembered at all in the U.S., it has been mostly as a key (though not a founding) member of the 1960s Chicago garage-pop band The Knaves. According to liner notes from the band’s Gene Lubin, the group recruited Hulburt not for his guitar playing but for his singing.
He was, however, a very skilled acoustic guitarist, with a deep-folk sensibility. On only a few tracks of Opus III does he sing, offering a glimpse into his musical soul from another angle. The preponderance of instrumental pieces shows how important his “wooden mistress” was to him.
Taking inspiration especially from John Fahey, Hulburt crafted a set of finger-style guitar compositions rooted in folk and blues that show off his agility at layering melodies and chords. In the low-key acoustic-music scene of Chicago, long known as a stellar electric guitar town, Hulburt honed his skills. Then, instead of finding his way to a folk music hotbed like Greenwich Village, he took his limber fingers and wooden mistress to Paris, where he settled for most of his remaining years, traveling to give concerts oceans away from his homeland but rarely returning to the U.S. He died in 2012.
Though many of its 20 tracks run less than two minutes, Opus III casts a spell, aiming not for fireworks or trippy jams but a center lane of pure musicianship. The songs flow like a stream of clear water over multicolored rocks and mud. There’s the smoky contemplative mood of the gloriously titled “Evil Olive Waltz,” the Jorma-esque “Hallelujah I’m On Parole Again,” and the gentle playfulness of “Coffee House Theme.” There’s the country-fool riffage of “Guitar On My Knee,” the Spanish-leaning “In Search of the Muse,” the experimental “Polydiom No. 2,” and the bluesy “Inside & Otherwise.” There’s the full-fledged folk song “Inner Garden” with its piping recorders, and even a couple of technically impressive ragtime numbers.
For fans of Jorma Kaukonen, Paul Simon, Ellen McIlwaine, Leo Kottke, John Fahey, and acoustic guitar mastery in general, discovering Opus III will be a treat as well as a rewarding time capsule (timeless capsule?) too. It comes out August 28 on LP, CD, and digital. Click on the link below the audio stream to pre-order.