Turning of the Wheel
Todd Hoke's second CD, 'The Turning of the Wheel', features a fresh batch of songs that stretch across a wide range of moods, sounds, and topics. There's a toe-tapping grin for spring's arrival and a slump-shouldered sigh as autumn fades into winter. There's a leisurely stroll down Main Street in Mayberry (attention Andy Griffith Show fans) and a brassy sashay down barlined 6th Street in Austin, Texas. There's a piano lounge jumper for love of a 'genuine' woman and a back alley howl for a gambler on his way down. There's even a sing along on Townes Van Zandt's 'Heavenly Houseboat Blues.' With tasteful arrangements and polished production, this is a recording that will stay in your CD player for some time. Here's a rundown of the talented folks you'll hear on 'The Turning of the Wheel' (and what you'll hear them doing): Christine Albert (harmony vocals), Michael Austin (clarinet), Richard Brock (harmonica), Glenn Fukunaga (bass), Chris Gage (acoustic & electric guitars, keyboards, and harmony vocals), Ron Knuth (fiddle), Marty Muse (pedal steel), Paul Pearcy (drums and percussive gadgets), Tom Pittman (banjo), Kym Warner (mandolin), Wendy Wentworth (lead whistler). Chris Gage engineered and mixed the CD at Moonhouse Studios with Todd lending a hand as co-producer. Says Todd: 'All the folks involved really put forth their best efforts - I'm mighty proud of this CD and hope everyone enjoys it.' Here is an excerpt from a review Lyman Grant wrote for the webzine, damnintellectuals.com: '...But there is more than shock and awe in this state. Some of us survive by singing our own local kind of blues, a Texas version of the singer-songwriter tradition. Famously, this tradition has produced a great number of artists. Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, Iris DeMent, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams, Townes Van Zandt and scores of others have somehow created something palliative and uplifting from whiskey, broken hearts, horses, beer, ancestors, highways, tomatoes, fishing, tequila, front porches, sunsets, and dogs. Todd Hoke's music grows from this rich tradition. In 2000 he released his first CD, 'Headed West on 10,' produced by Ray Wylie Hubbard. He has just released his second, 'The Turning of the Wheel,' produced by Chris Gage. The producers have certainly left their individual marks on the two disks. Comparing them we can hear how Gage has relocated Hoke's songs from Hubbard's open-country campfires to jaunty, swagger-filled roadhouses. Gage strips away the mandolins and dobros of 'Headed West on 10,' and adds piano, steel and electric guitars, and drums. Nor should I forget to mention Christine Albert's witty background vocals. The CD's first notes from the first song, 'Spring Days,' foretell the contents of the following eleven songs-a fiddle spritely leading a two-step, joined by bass, guitar, harmonica and a barroom piano. Hoke rolls out a cast of characters-Maggie, Uncle Tyrone, Else the wonder cow-and adds the iconic images of spring-lemonade, crickets, fireflies, and owls. In the chorus, he sings, lordy them spring days they drive my blues away with honeysuckle mornings and junebug afternoons The best moments on the disk are those in which Hoke sings about the simple joys-cups of coffee, early morning walks, neighbors saying hello, the unadorned beauty of his wife. I think he must be deep down a happy man. He is also a bit of a mystic, that odd, unexpected kind of Texan, of which there are a surprising number congregated in Austin, who takes volumes of William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Rainer Maria Rilke to the fishing hole. Hoke isn't telling us to 'Shut up. Be Happy.' Nor is he telling us to 'Drink up and forget.' He is telling us, instead, that if we look closely at that dragonfly and think about what we are looking at, we just might remember that there is more to life than our empty bank accounts. When Hoke writes and sings the blues, I suspect and hope that they are more like exercises in sympathy and compassion than expressions of his own dark nights of the soul. His portraits of down on their luck gamblers, drunks, abused women, the lonely and discarded are moving and sadly beautiful. But they are portraits sketched by the confessional priest, not the penitent himself. (So Hoke doesn't quite take us to those places that Townes Van Zandt does.) For this we should be happy and glad. After all, we do not wish for there to be more sufferers, but we do wish that the fortunate hear the sorrow of those less fortunate. This is not an example of George W. Bush's bizarre oxymoron, 'compassionate conservatism,' but of that simple, old-fashioned and unmodified compassion. As Hoke sings in 'Mayberry,' his tribute to The Andy Griffith Show, 'let's all spread us a little kindness. Unleash it upon the world and changes, changes shall be wrought.' That's a kind of liberation we can all live with! My favorite song on the disk is the second to last, 'My Own Day,' in which Hoke describes what the world would be like if he had a day made as he would wish: no nation would be at war the guns would go dusty we'd forget what they were for the generals would go fishing we'd close the Pentagon if I had a day all my own To my ear this is one of those classic songs that people will be singing for decades. I feel the same for the song 'Short Time Here' from his previous CD. In both, Hoke has sunk his roots deeper than the immediate influences of the Texas singer-songwriter tradition into the even richer traditions of classic folk music, at least into Woody Guthrie, perhaps as deep as the old Scotch Irish songs and ballads. So if you wonder what some Texans do during those late nights after suffering the stupidity, greed, and hubris of the Bushes and the Enrons, we listen to singers like Todd Hoke: when the dark has finally passed cling to the morning glory like the dew upon the grass' Lyman Grant damnintellectuals.com October, 2003.