At the Cowboy & Hobo Days Festival earlier this month, I came across two of the better local albums of 2007. One is the debut from Bill Shaffer, a young bluegrasser worth keeping an ear on; the other is a collection from Johnny Jay Huhta, a veteran of many genres who is still going strong.
Shaffer, the 23-year-old guitar-playing son in the Shaffer Family, shows he knows his strengths on "Leavin' Me Colder." Three of the 11 tracks are pure instrumentals and the others are all pickin' showcases. This is the stuff that regularly earns him mid-song bursts of applause at festivals.
Shaffer knows how to carry out his vocals to fit the music. I like the slightly rough feel of the album, which he recorded in his rural Brainerd home studio.
Thematically, Shaffer plucks the same string repeatedly in his songwriting: That old bluegrass standby - the woman that done him wrong.
LISTEN: » Bill
shaffer - Three songs from his album "Leavin' Me Colder"
Multiple stages of grief are on display. "Your Memory Won't Be Found" sounds pleasant as it slams the ex in question: "It seemed to me we'd be married/And love each other till we grew old/But then you strayed and dear I paid/And you wrecked our happy home."
On "The Devil Wears High Heel Shoes," Shaffer shows that fast picking and genuine lyrics can share the same space. And on the title track, he demonstrates impressive lyrical gymnastics: "But I can't get over/You leavin' me colder/Than I thought anyone could do."
If you spin
Artist: Bill Shaffer
Album: "Leavin' Me Colder"
Highs: Shaffer's pickin' skills are undeniable and he knows how to use his voice. He crafts new lyrics that sound like old standards.
Lows: There's really only one theme on display: The heartbreak of love lost. How 'bout a murder ballad next time?
Artist: Johnny Jay Huhta
Album: "A Road Well Traveled"
Genre: Old-school pop
Label: Blue Swan Records
Highs: The versatility of Huhta's vocals and songwriting within the three-minute pop song format is remarkable.
Lows: Huhta's older stuff took aim straight at the radio, so don't expect a lot of depth.
Where to buy 'em
Bill Shaffer's CD is available at Bridge of Harmony in Brainerd and www.myspace.com/billshaffer.
Johnny Jay Huhta's CD is available at www.johnnyjayhuhta.com.
From start to finish, Shaffer lives out the fantasy of sticking it to his ex through song. While this will be cathartic for some listeners, others might find the songs too similar. For even better future records, Shaffer should mix things up a bit.
Rural Baxter's Huhta certainly covers a lot of ground on "A Road Well Traveled," a career-spanning a 15-track collection. Of course, while Shaffer's disc represents one recording session, Huhta's represents 50 years with different genres, songwriting topics and recording studios.
This is an eclectic batch of two- and three-minute oldies. The sugar content is high, but sometimes your ears deserve a treat. Those who discovered Huhta with last year's excellent country-rock album "Back in the Game," might enjoy exploring his rather different roots in pop hitmaking.
Huhta's singing voice has changed so much through his career you'd hardly know it's him on all of these tracks. On "Let Me Keep You Company," he's a teen heartthrob doo-wopper; in "The Bartender Song," he sounds like Johnny Cash.
LISTEN: » Johnny
Jay Huhta - Three songs from his album "A Road Well Traveled"
He does his best Chuck Berry impression on the saxophone-tinged floor-fillers "I'm Gonna Keep It" and "Sugar Doll." On the musclebound "Buck $2.80" and "Reasonable Facsimile Thereof," he's arming himself with catchy phrasing as he takes aim at the airwaves.
Along with the made-for-radio love songs, the joys and perils of alcohol emerge as a theme. The advantages of losing yourself in a bottle are outlined on "When the Blues Come Along" and "Rosy Glow." The latter serves up a simple, effective punchline: "I'm in the rosy glow/In the rosy glow/You'd never guess my baby left tonight."
Huhta, whose alcoholism contributed to a career drought in the 1980s, appropriately closes the disc with "Brown Bottle," a sunset tune about the troubles that can result from drinking. But it's still a great song to enjoy a beer to, with choice lines like "Oh, brown bottle/You go so good with blue."
Regardless of what's in your glass, "A Road Well Traveled" is a collection worth toasting.
JOHN HANSEN, entertainment editor, may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5863.
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