Songs For Betty
Jason Hatfield’s group, Star Hustler, goes the trad-country route, with mandolins, dobros, banjos, and slide guitar, bringing in the rock element for good measure. Their marvelous formula is similar to that of country troopers like Son Volt and Wilco, as well as younger guns the Pernice Brothers and Beachwood Sparks. But these comparisons are not entirely accurate. Star Hustler is not as straight as the no depressionists and not as out-there as Beachwood Sparks. They are firmly rooted in country rock but have more of an indie slant than most who’ve gone before them. Hatfield’s indie-cred is certain. Besides having a famous sister who sings backup on the disc, he performed briefly in a band that later became Helium, and in addition, the musicians filling out Star Hustler have equally impressive pedigrees. Star Hustler’s via media to country rock may help the genre, in some small way, to re-energize itself. Hatfield’s penchant for catchy tunes is undeniable. It’s encouraging to see the influence of Gram Parsons and the Burrito Brothers shine through on Songs For Betty. Like these forerunners, Hatfield knows how to add just the right mix of pop to country (though it’s sometimes more on the pop side as on “Once in Awhile”). One of the most poetic and affecting tracks, “Dogs,” is a perfect mix — a dark waltz one moment, morphing into an ambling rock tune the next. The more traditional, rustic tracks like “Stargazing,” “Even Still,” “Cool December Street” and, especially, the slide guitar fest “Lily” are, hands down, the best songs on the record. As a bonus, Star Hustler does a slowed-down cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner,” one of that legend’s best tunes. The Van Zandt connection is genuinely fitting. Just as Beachwood Sparks gave country music a new lesson in Parson’s California Country, Star Hustler are equally adept at channeling spirits from country music’s past. For Star Hustler, it’s not only Parsons but, rather, the influence of Van Zandt that makes them so interesting. Without a doubt, this record will appeal to all no-depression folks who are ready for something new, yet strikingly familiar.
Dirt Records, Knickerbocker Station, Box 1053, New York, NY 10002; http://www.dirtrecords.com.