Roundabout Way

Cornell Hurd finally finds his musical niche

Cornell Hurd has explored different aspects of his musical personality during his many years as a bandleader. First, there was the El Rancho Cowboys. Then, there was the Mondo Hot Pants Orchestra. But his latest outfit, The Cornell Hurd Band, is the truest reflection of his creative ambitions: a group that allows his vision to flourish within a democracy of talented players.

"I was once on a trip with my old girlfriend," Hurd says, "and I had this vision that [what] I wanted to do was have an act that you could go into the club, and you could bill yourself as three different bands. And you would change clothes and play completely different material. One of those bands was a real country band, like the El Rancho Cowboys. One of them was a '20s swing band kind of thing. That was the Mondo Hot Pants Orchestra. I never really put this concept together, and I forgot what the third one was."

Perhaps the third one is the latter-day nine-piece Cornell Hurd Band. Although the group enjoys a left-field, cultish popularity, it is probably the finest -- and certainly the most entertaining -- honky-tonk and western swing band in the Lone Star State. With a lineage that goes back to the days of the very first "alternative country" movement of the late '60s, its membership is a unique mix of primarily middle-aged (but still youthful) men and two young women. The band's sound is composed of the type of artistry that slices through many decades, from the country swing of Bob Wills to the later hippie country of Commander Cody to the pure country revival arising in Austin over the last ten years or so to a whole lot more.

But as sharp-dressed cats like the Derailers and handsome young bucks like Bruce and Charlie Robison and pretty things like Kelly Willis have all been anointed by the hipsters, The Cornell Hurd Band has simply been making music that's more substantive, smart and accomplished than that of its well-heeled peers. Its music is also truly cool.

Hurd is a bandleader in the classic form as well as a writer who has penned one of the best collections of ex-wife songs in the country tradition. Backing him up are at least three players of genuine instrumental brilliance: guitarist Paul Skelton, who can reference everything from gypsy jazzer Django Reinhardt to the theme from The Flintstones; steel guitarist Herb Steiner, whose résumé includes work with everyone from Linda Ronstadt to Michael Martin Murphey and Alvin Crow; and fiddler Vanessa Gordon, a classically trained artist from South Africa. Following close behind in expertise are pianist Cody Nicolas, guitarist Blackie White and drummer Karen Biller (dubbed "the Venus of the Traps" by Hurd). It's a band that can inject strains of many different types of music into material to keep the dance floor hopping. The band plays with an enthusiasm and tightness that are unrivaled anywhere in Texas.

Yet at the same time, this monstrously talented and amusing outfit is a tribute to the adage "Don't give up your day job." One of the band members is an executive headhunter and former private eye (Hurd), another's a noted visual artist (White, who is known in the art world as Guy Juke), another's a restaurateur and the unofficial "Mayor of South Austin" (rubboard player Danny Young), another's a deputy director for the state agency that regulates security guards and private detectives (Nicolas), and another's an expert guitar builder (Skelton, who works for Collings Guitars, perhaps the world's finest six-string luthiers). But if there were any justice in the musical world, The Cornell Hurd Band would be selling albums, touring America and living the lifestyle bands far less talented and enjoyable do.

Instead, the band has put out discs on its own label, Behemoth Records, that match the band's stage shows in entertainment value for your hard-earned dollar. The band's last two sets, Texas Fruit Shack and At Large, contain a whopping 21 and 24 tracks respectively. The guest stars on the albums include Texas music legend Johnny Bush, dieselbilly guitar genius Bill Kirchen, Wayne "The Train" Hancock, Asleep at the Wheel veterans Floyd Domino and Lucky Oceans, accordionist Ponty Bone, and Austin roots talents Justin Trevino and The Texana Dames. The material within mixes Hurd's cheeky originals with songs from the likes of Tom T. Hall, Duke Ellington, Jerry Lee Lewis, Wanda Jackson, Marty Robbins, Jimmie Rodgers and others.

The Hurd Band's annual "South by South Austin" party held every Saturday at Young's Texicalli Grille during the city's South by Southwest music and film festival is one of the unofficial high points of the annual entertainment industry gathering. Hurd's show features guest stars such as Kirchen, Bush and Doug Sahm, among many others. So why is The Cornell Hurd Band not as celebrated or successful as it deserves to be? No doubt because its average age is well past today's country music prime, and the guys in the group are hardly pretty boays (although the women, Gordon and Biller, are both as beautiful as they are talented). "My band looks like the cast of a B Western," says Hurd. And finally, the band happens to make music for the sheer joy of doing so, and not with any commercial or financial goals in mind.

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