When I met Jim Hurst for the first time last summer, I was almost surprised to discover he has just two hands. He sure plays guitar like he has a couple of extras, using a blend of flat picking and finger picking to play bass lines, melody lines and support lines all at once.
That how-does-one-guy-play-that approach is on display throughout Jim’s new self-produced CD, Intrepid. For 12 of the 13 songs, it’s just him – one voice and one guitar – laying it on the line. “It’s kind of like a courageous leap of faith,” he told me the other day.
The stripped down production results in music that’s easy to listen to, but that makes you think without being preachy. Every time I play these songs, I “see” myself sitting in the dark, in front of a roaring fire, at my favorite cabin – even when it’s the middle of the day and I’m stuck in the middle of the city a couple of hundred miles away. That’s some powerful stuff.
Many in the bluegrass community know Jim for his longtime sideman role in the Claire Lynch Band or for his inventive duo with bassist Missy Raines, who also played with Claire for a number of years. But, he explained, there was a downside to what he called doing his part “to help the whole to become better.”
“I’ve been doing it for so long, I’ve never really developed my own sound. I’ve never done something for me.”
There are no filler songs on Intrepid. But for my money, the best part of this project is a six-song stretch in the middle of it. It starts with Just As I Am, a hymn lifted by Jim’s vulnerable, almost tender, a cappella vocal.
That’s followed by two instrumentals that show off his mastery of the six-string – Open G Medley (combining Buffalo Gals, Gold Rush and Ground Speed – and Impressions, a song Jim wrote in the middle of the night.
He dials back the guitar work on the next two, Louisa Branscomb’s mournful Long Black Train and Through the Garden, the only song ever written by his parents. His solo vocals shine on both cuts.
Last in this impressive section of songs is Jerry Reed’s Lock on Me.
Almost every guitar part he plays sounds impossibly difficult to replicate, but this one must be especially difficult because Jim acknowledged it “takes a lot of effort.” In other words, mere mortals, don’t try this at home.
The CD closes with the only song that isn’t just Jim. Randy Barrett’s He Makes You Strong features the harmonies of Amanda Smith, Alice Vestal and Shelton Feazell.
It provides just a hint of what we’ll hear if Jim ever pulls together a bluegrass band. But the first dozen songs make it clear that if that never happens, it’s just fine.