Over the last decade James Hyland has had it so musically good as the central singer and songwriter of the popular and lauded South Austin Jug Band. So what to do for an encore? Go back to the solo career he set aside when it birthed SAJB. And in the same spirit, do it with the magical musical assistance of his old Jug Band cohorts. And at the same time enhance his own artistic brand that, as Performing Songwriter raves, "possesses a hypnotic power and an intensity that is emotionally captivating."
And Celestial Navigation is just the sort of mesmeric album to firmly make that mark, rich with the above qualities among many other Hyland musical merits. And as an indication of just how captivating his voice, songs and vision are to Hyland's many devoted admirers and followers, the recording of Celestial Navigation was financed through contributions from fans who truly value his work.
The album is marked by what one might call a "Lowcountry Sound," from the title of Hyland's lovely and loving homage in song to his South Carolina coastal roots. Praised by East Bay Express for creating "a kind of joyful noise that seems made of pure sunlight and moonshine," on Celestial Navigation Hyland weaves his spell this time out from the moods and vibes of twilight and nighttime. The result recalls Neil Young's classic rural music rumination Harvest and the sepia-toned Americana of The Band, and also plays as if Nick Drake were from the American South or Elliot Smith might have made a roots record. Yet just as Hyland did with the South Austin Jug Band, the album's sound blends genres and inspirations to become something all its own.
Drawing from his life on the road for the previous decade, Hyland waxes romantic on "Lancelot & The Lady of Shalott" (inspired by a painting he saw in a London art museum), "Girls from Lake Pontchartrain" ("Their love tastes like sugarcane") and "Paint a Girl" ("Paint a Van Gogh sky, with hidden ladies' eyes"). He travels through heartache ("More Than I Let On," the one full acoustic number in the SAJB fashion on the album), longs for the Colorado Rockies ("Snowy River"), declares the power of his love ("Come to Me") and invites us into the band van to marvel at the sights, adventures and mishaps found on the road ("21 Days 21 Towns"). From its opening lament on the current state of the airwaves ("Radio City") to his haunting closer, "American Son," which recounts the experiences of an American soldier who served in Iraq with cinema-verite realness, Celestial Navigations casts a series of shifting musical spells that take the listener on an irresistible and rewarding journey.
The album was produced by Stephen Doster, a veteran most valuable player on the Austin scene whose background includes serving as musical director for Nanci Griffith and collaborating with the late James Honeyman-Scott of The Pretenders, and has recently made critically acclaimed albums with Austin talents like Uncle Lucius and Kevin Higgins. Among its players are SAJB's Dennis Ludiker on fiddle and Willie Pipkin on electric guitar, drummers/percussionists Rob Hooper and Robb Kidd, and honorary Jug Band member Kim Deschamps on steel guitar and Dobro (whose talents have graced Blue Rodeo, Charlie Robison's Enablers, and the Cowboy Junkies' classic The Trinity Sessions) alongside such top Austin players as bassist Chris Maresh, keyboard player Chip Dolan and Doster.
Back in early 2000, Hyland was a budding Austin singer-songwriter who had just recorded his first album, produced by Marvin Dykhuis (Tish Hinojsa's longtime bandleader) with such Austin favorites as fiddler/guitarist Champ Hood and singer Toni Price on it. He had a weekly Sunday residency at the club Momo's with Champ's son Warren Hood on fiddle and guitarist Willie Pipkin behind him. For one show he invited his bass-playing friend Will Dupuy to join them, and Dupuy brought along his roommate, mandolinist Matt Slusher. The five of them had so much fun making music together and Hyland was so delighted by their talents as players that he immediately shelved his solo album and career.
"I had always wanted to be in a band with players who were that good," explains Hyland. "There was this immediate camaraderie and brotherhood. It was magic and it worked, and people liked watching us enjoy ourselves making music together." Taking part of their name from a Muppets movie ("Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas"), they became South Austin Jug Band — an ongoing source of some confusion as the group never had a jug — and took over the Sunday gig.
Playing a bohemian blend of bluegrass, acoustic country-folk, Texas roots and more with a wide-ranging beatnik sensibility, the Jug Band quickly became a weekly live music phenomenon that packed in audiences. A limited-edition live album, Pickin' and Grinnin', helped stoke the buzz, followed by three critically acclaimed studio albums: South Austin Jug Band (produced by Lloyd Maines, known for his work with The Dixie Chicks, The Flatlanders, Robert Earl Keen and others), Dark and Weary World (produced by Dykhuis) and Strange Invitation.
Playing Hyland's songs along with other originals written with and by band members as well as covers by everyone from George Gershwin to Jimi Hendrix to Beck alongside traditional numbers and instrumentals, all of it marked by the gifts of SAJB's accomplished stringed instrument players, they created a multi-genre sound all their own. And at the center of it all was Hyland, "whose gently rolling voice was exquisitely tuned to all six instruments, never showy, always poised for the right turn of musical phrase," observes the Austin American-Statesman.
SAJB became favorites on the North American club and festival circuit and won fans overseas on two tours of Europe, and appeared five times at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in their hometown (just down the hill from the band house the group originally shared). They won the Best New Band competition at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Best Bluegrass Band in the Austin Music Awards for three years running as well Indie Acoustic Project's Best Alt-Country CD of 2008 for Strange Invitations. Hyland was also a winner in the 2007 International Songwriting Competition in the Americana category for his song "Chicago."
Over its 10 year run, SAJB morphed through seven different configurations and covered countless road miles, winning devoted fans as well as high critical acclaim like the Austin Chronicle's praise for their "superb musicianship [and] enticing songsmithing." For Hyland, whose one goal in life had been to do something he loved for a living, the band's distinguished decade of making music was a gift indeed.
After the Jug Band called it a day, Hyland spent the next year writing songs drawn from his time and travels with the group. "The album reflects on the experience of all that and all the little themes you absorb but you don't realize that your subconscious is grabbing," he explains.
"I want to put my personality into the music," he says of his solo artistry. Yet at the same time, he sought to retain and refine the distinctive sound he and his SAJB bandmates created. "Those guys really are some of my heroes. I look up to them because they are amazing musicians. Their style is definitely a part of my sound, and I tried to bring a lot of that over to this record."
Hyland's musical career has been a delightful surprise for him. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lived until his family moved to Corpus Christi, TX when he was in third grade, he was weaned on the Motown sounds that his father enjoyed.
Then, around the time he was 10 years old, Hyland caught Bob Dylan playing "Like a Rolling Stone" on a David Letterman prime time special from Radio City Music Hall. "I loved the sound," he recalls, "and when I saw that, I was like, who the hell is that? I couldn't understand a word he was saying, but I loved the sound he was making."
After his high school years during which his primary interests were "Led Zeppelin and basketball," Hyland enrolled at the University of Texas with the ambition of writing for film and television. "I just wanted to write," he explains. He started venturing out into Austin's thriving live music scene, and what he heard inspired Hyland to buy an acoustic guitar and a Willie Nelson songbook and teach himself how to play. Soon he was writing songs and playing his own club gigs.
He describes the style he has developed as "the love child of Beck and Bob Dylan's band at a Tom Waits party while Willie Nelson's ‘Sad Songs and Waltzes' plays on the jukebox." His aim is to take the music and artists that have inspired him and create from it all his own organic approach as reflected in the Celestial Navigation title of his new album.
"There's this beautiful thing Bob Dylan wrote after Johnny Cash died where he described Cash as being the North Star from which all the other artists would guide their ship. I loved that and it always stuck in mind," says Hyland. "It's the tack of positioning yourself among the stars or celestial bodies that guide and inspire your music, and this is where I am, where my sound is at this point."
The fact that his fans from not just across Texas but California to Colorado to New York and even Europe contributed thousands of dollars towards recording Celestial Navigation "was really touching," he says, "particularly during this recession. Nobody has money to spend on anything, but they gave for music." As a result, "I really wanted to step up to the moment on this album. I want to make them proud to be a part of it." And in appreciation for the support of those who enjoy his music in not just financing this new album but throughout his time with the Jug Band, Hyland is offering Celestial Navigation as an online "choose you own price" download — from totally free to whatever the buyer feels it is worth.
After all, it's small thanks to give, considering what his career has done for Hyland — allow him to do something he loves as a career, and will continue to in live performance with The Joint Chiefs, which features a rotating cast of his Jug Band brethren. And he doesn't take that lightly. "Nothing is going to keep me from playing music other than death or paralysis," he concludes. "If I'm still playing music I feel great."