3hattrio’s Dark Desert Night

cover artI’m a huge fan of southern Utah, home of Zion, Arches, Canyonlands and Bryce national parks. And I’m a newly minted fan of this outfit called 3hattrio, which is based in the Zion area and makes music that matches the region’s lonely grandeur.

3hattrio is Hal Cannon, who plays banjo and guitar; Greg Istock on double bass; and Eli Wrankle on violin. Both Cannon and Istock contribute songs and share in the singing duties. In these 11 songs you can feel the desert summer sun and the dry winter chill, taste the dust, smell the sage and experience the solitude of these lands. The characters in these songs for the most part are lonesome, sometimes desperate, their lives perhaps made tolerable only by the beauty of the environment, even though it sometimes turns on them – as it does in the opening song, “Get Back Home.” Istock sings in his gravely tenor the tragic words of people lost in a flash flood, set to a lovely melody. The sad but beautiful refrain, “We all wait wishing for light, now there’s only more rain,” sets the tone for what’s to come.

What’s to come includes Cannon’s “Nothing,” the starkly arranged interpretation of an origin myth sung in Cannon’s deep, dusty baritone. The song could double as metaphor for the mystery of artistic inspiration, as we see in the last verse: “Before the start we came from nothing / And nothing brought the first sweet breath. Music’s kind touch, it had no structure / That was day’s caress, that was day’s caress.” Or there’s “Off The Map,” sung by Istock, the ballad of a cowboy fleeing the memory of a love that ended in jealousy and maybe violence, simple words that sketch a powerful and gritty tale. “White Pressing Down” finds a solitary character on a winter’s drive to Wyoming, haunted by memories that Wrankle seems to pull out of his fiddle as Cannon sings in a voice of deep exhaustion, “The window is frosted / I’ll be drivin’ all day / Drivin’ all day …” Cannon also sings of the smothering power of the desert in “Sand Storm,” and plays a beautiful instrumental “Crippled Up Blues” on what sounds like a baritone banjo played claw-hammer style. Here’s a live version of “Sand Storm” from the 2015 Moab Folk Festival.

Istock’s “Western City Nights” comes off like a Tom Waits song, the words unclear as to whether he’s singing of his love for a woman or a city, or maybe both. And his “Get On The Bus” is the best of the lot, a rambling vision of coming and going, leaving and returning, remembering and forgetting, revolving around the symbol of the bus.

Add in a couple of old traditional songs, both from the John Lomax collection – one from an old British murder ballad, the other of a Texas trail drive – and you’ve got a fine collection of songs that takes the American folk music tradition into the desert Southwest as well as I’ve heard it done. From out there in the windy, dramatic landscape of Virgin, Utah, 3hattrio is putting its stamp on the singer-songwriter genre.

They’ll be featured performers in January at the 2016 Cowboy Poetry gathering in Elko, NV. You can learn more at their website.

(Okehdokee Records, 2015)

Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

More Posts