TITLE: COWBOYS ON THE SKYLINE

ARTIST: J. W. McCLURE with THADDEUS SPAE

LABEL: THREE DAMP DUCK MUSIC

RELEASE DATE: 2011

By Jackie Morris

JR_McClure_-_Cowboys_On_The_SkylineI recently “discovered” the already long discovered, multi-award-winning songwriter and humorist, J.W. McClure, when I was hosting a showcase at the 2011 FAR-West Folk Alliance Conference in Eugene, Oregon. From the minute I heard the first few measures of his popular new cat song, Blue, I knew I was hooked. And my McClure “addiction” has only gotten worse since then.

McClure plays an irresistibly smooth and engaging blues guitar, seasoned with an old-time jazzy sound. Better still, in his third album, Cowboys on the Skyline, this rhythmic, acoustic styling is accentuated by the brilliant multi-instrumentalist, Thaddeus Spae. Spae brings a big 6-string guitarron – played as an upright jazz bass – to 12 of the 14 tracks. In addition, he adds a variety of lead guitar, harmonica, back-up vocals, trombone, banjo and tuba to the album. That’s right, tuba. As I am about to tell you, this album is big fun.

But before I go into the quirky and catchy, witty and spontaneous, tongue-in-cheek and playful delights of this album, I think I should give you a little background on J.W. McClure. A longtime resident of the Pacific Northwest, where he still lives (in Stanwood, Washington), McClure started his career on the east coast – in the 1960s coffee houses of Washington D.C. He made his mark early. By the late 1970s, he was playing at such famous and infamous D.C. clubs as the Cellar Door and Childe Harold, opening for such legends as Tom Paxton, Dave Von Ronk, Tom Rush, The Drifters, Chris Smither, and numerous others.

In the 1980s, he performed and recorded with a number of excellent musicians. The vintage performance by Three Damp Duck: Live at Folklife 1981 (featuring McClure, Rick Tuel and Mary Litchfield) was recently released in 2009, as were 15 vintage recordings with Sam Morgan and Zan McLeod entitled, Living Off of My Friends.

Today, after a long hiatus for family and work, J.W. McClure is back writing and playing. He has rearranged a number of his earlier songs for Cowboys on the Skyline, as well as adding some brilliant new ones (including Blue, Passenger #2, and End of the Day).

But no matter when they were first penned, McClure’s songs have a unique character to them. His voice contributes to this originality. Full of personality and a down-home quality that hides a wealth of sophisticated timing and phrasing, his voice reminds me a bit of Jimmie Rodgers. (He even yodels on the title track!)

Also running through most of these songs is a river of humor. Often, it’s like an underground stream, surfacing briefly to flash some sparkling wit or wry observation, as in the opening track, Let a Bird Go Free, or the environmental satire, Passenger #2. Other times, it gushes forth continuously, as in the “drunken” parody, You Can Cry in Your Beer; or in the banter of Need a Lazy Woman, with its comically stretched-out trombone accompaniment.

This is not to say, however, that the album is not without some unabashedly heartfelt numbers. The nostalgic title track, Cowboys on the Skyline, and Hello Babe, a love song tinged with melancholy, are memorably poignant, as is End of the Day, a tribute to the great folk heroes of the past. And you have only to listen to the line from I’m Like a Tree, “I love you in a way that is way out of style,” to know that, like many seriously funny people, this singer-songwriter is also quite serious.

His new song, Blue, about his family’s rescued cat, remains my favorite song on the album, though. It takes a loving, humorous look at the fierce independence of an old tomcat …and combines it with a reluctant admission of our own human need for nurturing in the face of life’s storms (especially as we get older). Not surprisingly, this song made the finals of this year’s (7th Annual) International Acoustic Music Awards IAMA.

But perhaps the greatest endorsement I can give this album is that it continues to charm me. Enhanced by Thaddeus Spae, as well as by over a dozen other talented musicians, J.W. McClure has produced a unique, richly nuanced album – both musically and lyrically – that is filled with humor, wit and wisdom.

A New York transplant to the tiny town of Carpinteria, CA, Jackie is a freelance writer by profession and a singer-songwriter by passion. Her newly-released third album of original Folk/Americana songs was among Top Folk Albums of 2011 on the Folk Music Radio Airplay Charts. Jackie is also an active member in such acoustic music communities as SummerSongs, SongMakers, and FARWest Folk Alliance.