By Jef With One F
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By Charne Graham
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.
But as Hurd stresses over lunch one day with longtime associate Skelton: "I can never overstate that if you don't enjoy doing this with the people you're doing it with"
"You'd better stay home," interjects Skelton.
Yes, The Cornell Hurd Band does it for the original reason many people started playing rock and roll in the first place (or at least before it became a career choice rather than rebellion from convention): the sheer fun of it. Proof of that can be found in the fact that three of the current members -- Young, White and Gordon -- all started with the group by sitting in.
The players stay around because the experience is great. White, who has played with Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, as well as with his wife, Jo Carol Pierce, says that The Cornell Hurd Band is by far his favorite of anything he has played in. "And by far the best. It's good music, and they play it well." But for him it's also "the humor and the wit and the mind of the band" that wins his loyalty.
He also asserts that being in the band keeps their inner child alive. "It also molds character, kind of like being in the Boy Scouts. I'm a better person for being in the band."
Says Hurd: "A lot of this stuff is who you like playing with." Hurd spent time leading his previous bands on the California scene in the '70s, as well as touring the country. After a hiatus from music in the early '80s, he landed in Florida, and he put The Cornell Hurd Band back together when he found himself living near his childhood pal and longtime bassist Frank Roeber (who returned to Florida a few years back but is still a member in absentia).
Eventually Hurd knew he needed to relocate from the Sunshine State to make the music he wanted to. "I was at that age in my late thirties, and I said, 'Man, if I am going to do showbiz, I am going to do the thing that I want to do. I am no longer going to worry about anything other than playing the kind of music I want to do.' There was only one place to do it, as far as I was concerned. We talked about Nashville, Los Angeles, New York City and Austin, and it was never really a contest."
Since hitting Austin in the early '90s, The Cornell Hurd Band has released five excellent CDs, which of late have not gotten the local media attention enjoyed by lesser Austin acts.
So in the end, it all comes down to the music and the pleasure the band members have in making it and sharing one another's company. "I consider myself fortunate that I don't have to depend on music for a living," says Hurd.
Says Skelton: "I don't know if I'd want to. I don't know what I'd do if I did music for a living. What would I do all day if I didn't have a job. Sit around all day? Mow my lawn? I don't think so. I need something to do."
Hurd cites an observation he once heard by Cyndi Lauper to justify his motivation. "She said, 'Do not ever do this for the money. If you do this for the money, you will be so unhappy. You have to do it because you want to more than anything.' "
Skelton agrees that fame and fortune are, in the end, not the goal. "I can't understand that motive. If music is your primary purpose, you just do that, even if you are playing for your dogs."
It can still sometimes rankle Hurd to be making such quality music while not enjoying the bigger buzz that often surrounds so many other acts in Austin, bands that haven't anywhere near the heritage Hurd has developed and might someday be long gone while Hurd and his group are still at it. But then there are those small, special moments of recognition, such as when he and Skelton are handed Sharpies during a recent meal at Hoody's and are asked to add their autographs to the restaurant's wall of fame.
"People say music is your hobby, and I bristle at that," Hurd says. "It's a part of your personality, your psyche, your identity. It's a personality disorder. I like playing with good musicians. I like playing for people."
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