Thursday, January 25, 2024

Vocalist Hilary Gardner releases "On the Trail with The Lonesome Pines"

Alaska-raised, New York City-based vocalist Hilary Gardner’s new album, On the Trail with The Lonesome Pines, transports listeners to the nostalgic heart of the American West. The music paints soundscapes of the archetypal cowboy’s life on the trail—of pale dawns, purple hills, and the high lonesome feeling of camping out beneath a vast, star-filled sky. The seeds for the project were sown during the early months of the pandemic, when Gardner, from the confines of her Brooklyn apartment, found herself dreaming of wide-open spaces.

Gardner’s jazz bona fides belie her rustic upbringing: she grew up in rural Alaska surrounded by vintage country music, and her first gigs as a teenager were performing Patsy Cline tunes in dive bars. “I learned so much about singing from Patsy Cline,” Gardner says. “She was a powerful musical storyteller, she was in total command of her instrument, and her time was great—Patsy could really swing.” Since moving to New York City in 2003, Gardner has released three albums as a leader; played Frank Sinatra’s vocal counterpart in Twyla Tharp’s hit Broadway production, Come Fly Away; and is a founding member of the award-winning close harmony trio Duchess, with whom she has released three full-length albums and a holiday EP, performed live (including at Monterey Jazz Festival), and earned Vocal Group of the Year in the 2021 and 2022 JJA awards.

In a return to her roots, Gardner began delving into repertoire from the “singing cowboy” era of the 1930s-40s, discovering a treasure trove of material ranging from atmospheric ballads tinged with melancholy to swing with a sense of humor. “I love seeking out ‘hidden gem’ tunes—songs that, for whatever reason, didn’t become as well known as they should have,” she says. “These ‘trail songs’ have been neglected for decades because they can’t be easily classified as jazz or country or pop or Americana—they're a combination of all those genres, and they inhabit a sonic landscape uniquely their own, too.”

Guided by her belief that no corner of the Great American Songbook should go unexplored, Gardner teamed up with Justin Poindexter (guitars, vocals), Noah Garabedian (bass), and Aaron Thurston (drums), and The Lonesome Pines were born. “The first time we all played together, it was magic,” she recalls. “Musical chemistry is this wonderfully intangible, unpredictable thing, and when the stars align, it’s such a gift. The songs came to life organically as we explored the music as a band.” 

After sold-out shows at iconic Greenwich Village venues 55 bar and Mezzrow, the quartet convened at Figure 8 Recording in Brooklyn, with Grammy-winning producer Eli Wolf (Norah Jones, Willie Nelson, Cassandra Wilson) at the helm. “In addition to being a first-rate producer with incredible ears, Eli is my husband, and we love working together,” says Gardner.

The album opens with the loping, lap-steel inflected “Along the Navajo Trail,” a 1945 composition that Gardner says “encompasses everything this project is about: the freedom to roam and the wistfulness that plays at the edges of solitude. I love the song’s metaphor of nature-as-music: I love to lie and listen to the music / when the wind is strummin’ a sagebrush guitar.” 

“One of the things I love most about this material is that the lines between genres were blurrier back then,” says Gardner. “Many of these songs were written not only by singing cowboys, but also by composers and lyricists that we now associate with jazz standards. It wasn’t unusual for a song to debut in a Western film starring Roy Rogers or Gene Autry, only to be recorded later by a big band or the original hip cowboy, Bing Crosby.”

The tender ballad “Silver on the Sage” is one such example, combining the musical architecture of jazz with an unmistakably Western lyric, in which a cowboy serenades his herd of dogies (motherless calves), exhorting them to sleep and dream of “a range far away.” Originally recorded in 1938 by Crosby, the song was written by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, co-composers of the jazz standards “Easy Living” and “Thanks for the Memory.” Gardner’s version features Poindexter's filigree mandolin stylings and warm vocal harmonies.

The rollicking “Jingle Jangle Jingle (I Got Spurs)” was written by Frank Loesser (best known for writing the hit musical Guys and Dolls as well as a host of beloved standards), and Joseph J. Lilley, a revered orchestrator and composer for Paramount Pictures. “Justin, Noah, and Aaron really cook on this tune,” says Gardner. “You can hear the smile in my voice.”

“Under Fiesta Stars,” written in 1941 by Gene Autry and Fred Rose, features Thurston’s tasteful brushwork and atmospheric accordion accompaniment by special guest Sasha Papernik. Gardner and Poindexter’s plaintive harmonies sing of a love found—and lost—south of the border: The night spoke of splendor / the lanterns were low / I had to surrender / the thrill seemed to grow / The music was playing / we danced until dawn / My thoughts began straying / And then he was gone. 

The Southwest mecca of Santa Fe features prominently on the album. “I’ve spent some time in New Mexico and was gobsmacked by the beauty and grandeur of the scenery,” says Gardner. “You can’t help but fall in love with the place—it’s no wonder so many great songs have been written about Santa Fe.” The foursome put a sweetly sentimental spin on the seldom-heard “Lights of Old Santa Fe,” first performed by Roy Rogers and Dale Evans in the eponymous 1944 film. “Along the Santa Fe Trail,” with its easygoing swing feel, is a musical love letter to both a sweetheart and New Mexico vistas. “Cow Cow Boogie” celebrates a cattle-herding cowboy “out on the plains, down near Santa Fe'' who possesses a “knocked-out Western accent with a Harlem touch.”

While most of the album’s twelve tracks were new discoveries for Gardner, one song was an old friend. She first encountered Johnny Mercer’s 1936 tongue-in-cheek paean to urban cowboys, “I’m an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande),” on Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks’ 1972 release, Striking It Rich, which her parents owned on vinyl. “When I heard the Hot Licks’ version of ‘Cowhand’ I was probably about ten years old,” says Gardner. “I didn’t know—or even think about—whether I was listening to jazz or country or pop music. I just dug it—I still do. Our version was recorded in one take at the end of a long recording session, so it’s got a relaxed, late-night vibe.”

Lovelorn cowboys have their say, too: the band reimagines Jimmy Wakely’s “Song of the Sierras,” adding stacked vocal harmonies, dynamic percussion, and high-energy electric and lap-steel guitar solos. “Call of the Canyon,” a Billy Hill song made famous by Frank Sinatra in 1942 with the Tommy Dorsey band, features Garabedian’s supportive bass and a graceful acoustic guitar solo by Poindexter. And Gardner’s elegant vocal infuses the pensive campfire soliloquy, “Cowboy Serenade (While I’m Smokin’ My Last Cigarette),'' juxtaposing the song’s lush melody with the quintessential cowboy call of “Yippee-ki-yay.” 

The album closes with “Twilight on the Trail,” a 1936 composition that’s been interpreted by Bing Crosby, Nat “King” Cole, Sam Cooke, and Dean Martin, among others. “A lot of these songs celebrate saddling up and wandering,” says Gardner, “but ‘Twilight on the Trail’ embraces the idea of sunset—a contemplation of peaceful rest for the night or, as in the final A section, for eternity: When it’s twilight on the trail / and my voice is still / please plant this heart of mine / underneath the lonesome pine on the hill.”

On the Trail with The Lonesome Pines evokes all the romantic mythology of the American West. Says Gardner, “These songs remind us that the answers to many of life’s big questions can be found in contemplative solitude, the beauty of the natural world, and the arms of a loved one.”

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