Time Trial

A snap decision led Ed Hamell to name his act Hamell On Trial. One day, three years ago, he would learn how fateful that moniker would become. While he was driving through Erie, Pennsylvania, on the way to another gig, an errant vehicle forced his car off the road, where it flipped over a couple of times like a Hot Wheels tossed aside by a toddler. A bleeding, broken and battered Hamell had to be cut out of the wreck and choppered to the ICU, where he lingered for a time on the verge of death. He spent the next nine months in a body cast.

So is it any wonder that Tough Love, his latest CD, finds the fortysomething acoustic guitar rocker singing about God and heaven? Indeed, at times, Tough Love, Hamell On Trial's fourth CD, plays like a man pleading for his life before a stone-faced hanging judge.

"I didn't do that intentionally," he swears in his amped-up way. But maybe he did.

"At the time I was unquestionably calling in favors, when I was in the car with my brains just about in my lap," he says. "I was going, 'Naw, not now, don't take me now. I have a son.' Maybe that makes me think about spiritual matters a little bit more."

And even when he's not encased in plaster from head to toe, Hamell On Trial still serves as a fitting description for Ed Hamell's career quandary: What's an aging and as yet unsuccessful rocker to do in order to keep playing?

The many merits of Tough Love certainly make the case for Hamell's being one of those original and compelling artists for whom age should be no factor, a performer who needs to be heard. With his vintage Gibson tuned down a step to give it a bass-and-drums punch and drone, Hamell sings his topical songs with a keen and often wisecracking knack for relevance. Like an electrified beat poet on a high-voltage rant, Hamell broods in song about stuff that provokes and even matters: mortality, murder, 9/11, pop star idolatry, his love for his wife, Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepard, and yes, God. While his music is acoustic, it still rocks hard. Hamell On Trial could easily be mentioned in the same sentence with Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Elvis Costello, yet his music remains utterly his own.

Ed Hamell went On Trial after years of playing in bands in Syracuse, where he tried to eke out a rock and roll existence as the Rust Belt crumbled around him. His last group had broken up and he was finally writing his own songs when he was cajoled into playing a benefit show for an ailing local scenester.

"So as a joke, since every other musician was going to be there scrutinizing my first ever solo performance, and to differentiate myself from the James Taylors of the world, I said, 'I'll call it Hamell On Trial," he explains.

It was followed by a realization that comes with age: On stage, it's better to be yourself than to ape the greats. The coolest guys are the ones who didn't learn how to be that way. They just are.

"In many places in the United States -- upstate New York and Ohio are two that immediately come to mind -- the kids that were going to be Keith Richards or now the Strokes are balding and doing boogie covers in a bar band. And you look at it and go, 'Jesus, this is fucking sad,' " Hamell moans.

"Instead of trying to be like Johnny Thunders or Keith Richards, both of whom are my heroes and are cool and brooding on stage, and then I'd go down to the dressing room and I'd start being Lenny Bruce and my other heroes, I thought, 'Wait a minute. Why don't I utilize that in the act and stop trying to deny it?' I'm never going to be fucking Marlon Brando. I realized this could be really creative and that it could be rock and roll, even though it's a guy with an acoustic guitar."

That way lies the closest thing to a fountain of youth in the music business. "You never looked at Muddy Waters and went, 'Oh, he's really old.' You never looked at Bill Monroe and said, 'Oh, this is embarrassing.' These are guys that created their own genre and then they could play until the day that they died. So that was the battle plan," Hamell explains.

After moving to Austin, Hamell found an audience and an indie record deal and released Big As Life. It got picked up by Mercury Records and Hamell moved to New York City, where he promptly made an all-too-common big-label misstep in search of a hit with The Chord Is Mightier Than the Sword. He got dropped by the major, whereupon he made his own indie release, Choochtown, a Kerouac-like musical movie about the sleazeballs and scammers that frequented the dive bar where he used to sling drinks in Syracuse (with a loving tribute to Houston boy Bill Hicks tacked on the end).

So he had something of a career going when his car did the flips. Maybe too much of one.

"I was probably burning the candle at both ends touring," Hamell notes. "I had hit a ceiling. I worked as hard as I could every night, and I'd get 80 people in the club. And I'd get press and I'd have a new record out and I'd go back and there would [still] be 80 people in the club. It was really frustrating. I really thought, 'Man, I don't know if I have an audience in this country.' So it gave me time to reflect."

And maybe there is a god, at least for Hamell. Choochtown won a five-star review and record-of-the-month honors in the tastemaking English magazine Uncut. "And bingo! I had a European career." As soon as Hamell was out of the body cast, he "ended up touring Europe 13 times in about 18 months."

After he wrapped one important piece of unfinished business, that is…"When I got out of the body brace, first thing I did was take it off, put it under the wheels of my wife's car and run it over, because I hated the thing. I said, 'Lynn, come here, I want you to see something. I'm going to kill this thing.' "

He was also offered a record deal on Righteous Babe by its owner, Ani DiFranco, for whom he opens in Houston this week. A few years back, mutual friends brought DiFranco to a Hamell gig at Manitoba's in New York's East Village. She was taken enough to start offering him opening slots, and a while later, after Hamell's accident and recovery and the birth of his overseas fame, she invited him to join the Righteous Babe stable.

Hamell doesn't want to be famous. He just wants to make a living in music, and there's a difference. He readily admits he was "tired of being unsuccessful." But the equation for him is different from that of many other climbers of the rock ladder.

"I make money to continue to play," he explains. "Most guys play so they can make money."

And why is playing so important? "That's the only time that my back pain is gone. That's the only time I'm completely free.

"I think my dreams are realistic and humble," Hamell asserts. "I look at a guy like Tom Waits and I go, 'Now there's an admirable career.' There's a guy who puts out what I think are great records. He sells a good amount of them. He tours when he wants to. He's in these great movies and he hangs out with Jim Jarmusch. He's got a fucking great career."

Hamell has already attained something close to that ballpark in Europe, where 500 people come to see each of his shows, and especially in Ireland, where double that number come out. America remains another story. "I said to Ani after she had signed me -- at three in the morning on a bus somewhere outside of Paris while on tour with her -- that there's a good possibility there may not be an audience for me in our country. Which is a weird thing to say to the president of your label. To which she responded, 'You're wrong, and I'm going to prove it to you.' Which is nice."

Nice is one thing, but right's another. In America, the jury's still out on this Trial. <

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Rob Patterson