Charlie Haden – Rambling Boy (2008)

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by Nick DeRiso

We know Charlie Haden as the bass-playing ground wire on scores of jazz’s more important works — not least of which was his late 1950s turn with the shape-shifting improvisational genius Ornette Coleman.

Later, Haden was memorably featured alongside John Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, with his own Liberation Music Orchestra and then the hipster noir band Quartet West.

Those who knew Haden as a child, however, remember him like this: A bluegrass prodigy in a traveling musical group of relatives, performing in the style of the Carter Family across midwestern America over the early part of the last century, singing traditional songs on popular radio programs.

“It was a really a great experience for me,” Haden has said, “being close to my family and devoted to this music. My life was filled with music, and I learned so much about harmony and melody singing from them.”

Haden, even as he became a respected authority in the jazz idiom, never forgot his roots in Americana — and indulges that long-ago reverie on “Rambling Boy,” due on Tuesday from Decca Records. It’s a poignant but still-relevant look back at Haden’s youth — and nowhere is that more true than on the giddyup joys of “Little Cowboy Charlie.” Haden’s precocious performance of the tune as a toddler, included here as the penultimate track, is then married with a contemporary version of “Oh Shenandoah,” newly recorded by Haden in tribute to his parents.

Fans can place “Rambling Boy” as a companion piece with two previous, similarly intimate releases from the Haden catalog, “Beyond The Missouri Sky” (1997, with guitarist Pat Metheny) and “Steal Away” (1995, with pianist Hank Jones). The difference is how far afield he moves from the vernacular we’ve come to associate with Charlie Haden — though you could always hear a certain folksy underpinning in his playing style.

He’s joined by wife Ruth Cameron; son Josh; triplet daughters Petra Haden, Rachel and Tonya; and no small amount of famous people, too. After all, this is Charlie Haden — a three-time Grammy winner, even if he’s stepping out of context with a song cycle that stretches all the way into traditional country. So, invited guests include Elvis Costello, Vince Gill, Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs, Bela Fleck, Rosanne Cash, Dan Tyminkski (of the Alison Krauss band), longtime collaborator Metheny, even Jack Black — among others.

Gill adds his almost heavenly tenor vocals to the title track, while Hornsby appears with a banjo-playing Skaggs on “20/20 Vision” — both traditional compositions from Haden’s youth. Costello guests on Hank Williams Sr.’s “You Win Again,” with Metheny. The guitarist also co-wrote the haunting “Is This America?,” which ruminates on the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. (A joint interview with Metheny and Haden, talking about how these divergent musical styles fit together, is embedded below.)

Josh offers a new take on “Spiritual,” this touching ballad that originally appeared on “Missouri Sky” and was later recorded by Johnny Cash. Haden’s daughters are included on a several tracks, notably on the Skaggs feature. (They have their own musical subplots, too: Petra has performed with the Foo Fighters, Ricky Lee Jones and Sean Lennon; Rachel is on tour with Todd Rundgren; and Tanya is married to Black, the actor/musician.) Ruth, Haden’s spouse, is in the spotlight on the age-old Irish tune “Down By The Salley Gardens.”

The traditional Appalachian tune “Old Joe Clark,” sung in the style of an amped-up Levon Helm by Jack Black, also includes Fleck on banjo. Hornsby sits in on “Is This America?” Ace dobro player Jerry Douglas is a fixture throughout.

Together with the Haden family’s tight-knit vocals, a long-ago tradition is born again. It’s easy to hear how much fun they had, even as Haden introduces a new generation (or two) into the mystery and passion of these somehow forgotten tunes.

Haden never sang again after a childhood bout with bulbar polio. A performance by Charlie Parker, part of the Jazz at the Philharmonic tour in Omaha, Neb., convinced Haden to immerse himself in jazz — and to move out West. That separated him from this genre for nearly half a century, a chasm finally bridged by “Rambling Boy.”

“There is a love and dedication that I felt throughout these sessions and I think that really comes through in the music,” Haden said. “‘Rambling Boy’ is not just my life story, it’s a tribute to my parents and a legacy to my children.”

Haden shows, once more, that you can go home again.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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