Instrumental albums can present something of a challenge. Without the benefit of vocals or clearly defined melodies, listeners may not find a means to connect, especially with a lack of lyrical narrative. That said, credit Nick Hornbuckle with creating an album that doesn’t depend on words to mine the accessibility factor. A renowned banjo picker and resident of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island, he’s perhaps best known as a longtime member of John Reischman’s band, the Juno-nominated Jaybirds. As such, he’s a gained an enviable reputation for his masterful finger style technique, an approach that fuses the influences of the clawhammer sound with the inventive efforts of Earl Scruggs and other innovators of an earlier era. In the process, he’s won the praises of another notable banjo picker — that being Steve Martin — who cited him for a sound Martin called “so brilliant and beautiful.”
Happily then, Hornbuckle’s second solo outing merits that profuse praise. It expands on the approach of his 2015 highly acclaimed debut, 12X2(+/-1), which was nominated for Solo Instrumental Album of the Year by the Canadian Folk Music Association. Comprised of all original tunes, and marking his initial effort for his own Ruby’s Slippers Records label, the new album proves equally enticing.
Indeed, its dozen tunes prove quite compelling, and, in fact, capable of enticing its listeners even without benefit of a singer at the center. Zebadiah’s Stomp, Wellesley Station, Hopping Harvey, and The Crooked Man are unceasingly upbeat, engaging and infectious, each guaranteed to get toes tapping and moods soaring thanks to the energy and enthusiasm that comes across with every note and nuance. At the same time, Hornbuckle captures essential emotion on the slower songs as well — among them, A Farewell (to the Cowgirl with the Pigtails), Cleo Belle, and Chausson de Ruby. Sentiment shines through with wordless stories being shared.
That said, the credit doesn’t belong to Hornbuckle alone. He’s enlisted an impressive cast of players that helps him maintain this mantra. So while he can take credit for the tunewriting and arrangements, 13 Or So is actually an ensemble effort, a cohesive combination that provides instant appeal. At this point in fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to find Hornbuckle moving front and center and furthering his own solo career. Why not? 13 Or So provides him with an ideal vehicle for garnering audience appreciation.