Looking at the work of many young Texan singers who loudly and constantly cite them as inspiration, one could be forgiven for thinking that the repertories of Willie Nelson and Robert Earl Keen focus exclusively on beer- and burrito-fueled road trips, the thrill of being from Texas, and how much their babies love them when they're stoned. Among rowdy anthems like "Beer for My Horses" and "Merry Christmas from the Family," however, lie rich, layered compositions like "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth?" and "Mr. Wolf and Mamabear," Nelson's and Keen's respective criticisms of current American foreign policy and governmental corruption, that are characterized by piercing, reflective intelligence. Similarly, within the pack of Nelson/Keen acolytes, most of whom seem content to pen boozy shoutalongs that sound like shopping lists being read aloud, can be found songwriters like Eric Hanke,' thank God. Hanke, a Dallas native who counts not only Nelson and Keen but Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, and Woody Guthrie among his heroes, has on Autumn Blues created eleven songs suffused with those artists' most important legacies: unfailing empathy and a pitch-perfect sense of detail. Autumn Blues sees Hanke trying to put himself in the shoes of a broad array of peopleâ€'an opponent of the Iraq war whose brother becomes a soldier in it, an unrepentant outlaw on his deathbed, a morose Everyman stirred by the message on a panhandler's signâ€'and making nary a misstep doing it. As producers, Hanke and percussionist Merel Bregante (Loggins & Messina, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) wisely resist the temptation to let the talented backing players (Keen sideman Rich Brotherton, Dylan collaborator Cindy Cashdollar, et al) run amok. Consequently, Brotherton's soaring, incendiary lead work during the instrumental breaks of "The War" underscores the defeated drone of the verses instead of upstaging it, conveying a fuller picture of the narrator's anguish as he swings between resignation and rage; and Cashdollar's spectral lapsteel solos on "Ride Away" highlight the calm intransigence of it's dying criminal (who could be a distant relative of Sam Peckinpah's Pike Bishop), lending him an ironic dignity as, alone and ready for Hell, he looks back on a life of mostly harm done. Of course, being young, good-looking, and 6'8", Hanke also knows how to show everybody a good time. "Where You Goin'?", a paean to teasing and being teased, grooves like mad, it's playful midtempo beat assuring us that the narrator's titular question to the for-now-unattainable object of his affection is answered by a flirtatious smile; the irresistible "Smoke Through The Screen Door" will elicit a been-there chuckle from anyone who has ever been stoned enough to fully appreciate it's metaphor for the transience of not-quite-love; and the achingly beautiful "Flora" shows that, for all the fun to be had losing the girl, there really is no substitute for keeping her. By the standards of any genre, Autumn Blues displays rare eloquence and depth, and on it Eric Hanke pays ample tribute to his influences while carving out a niche all his own. As stylistic ancestors, Keen and Nelson and all the rest could not ask for more.-Leo McKinney.
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