November-December 2007

Artist: RAY BIERL

Title: ANY PLACE I HANG MY HAT

Label: GREASY STRINGS PRODUCTIONS GS102CD

Release Date: NOVEMBER 2007

By Dennis Roger Reed

raybierl.jpgToday's world is fast moving and noisy. Pop music often reflects this, so much so that it becomes difficult to find music that isn't fast moving and noisy without succumbing to "easy listening," "new age" or "light jazz."  

Ray Bierl's music is not fast moving or noisy, nor is it "easy listening," "new age" or "light jazz." It's folk, at its best. More back porch music than Top 10 pop.

Though raised in San Diego, Bierl's music is best known in the Bay Area, his adopted home. Ray picked up the guitar in high school, and became enamored with folk music in the 1960s, becoming a regular on the coffee house scene. Bierl provided guitar backup for a variety of artists such as Rosalie Sorrels, Kate Wolf, and Malvina Reynolds. He also dabbled in bluegrass, and eventually took up the fiddle. He took his fiddle to work every day at his civil service job and practiced at breaks, lunch and after work. One hopes his co-workers received hazard duty pay, since the fiddle is an instrument that is difficult to master, and a painful experience for those that get to hear the progress.

But Ray mastered the fiddle, and became a regular at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend every summer. He began taking part in dance music sessions and concert sets with Daniel Steinberg, Kevin Carr and Paul Kotapish. These three had started playing at Bay Area contra dances as the Hillbillies from Mars, and Ray soon joined the band. Ray also does contra dances as a member of Swing Farm, with Charlie Hancock on piano and Steven Strauss on bass.

Any Place I Hang My Hat is Bierl's second recording. Bierl's 1991's release, Cowboy Dancing, is a collection of western songs and fiddle tunes.

Although fiddle has a home on Any Place I Hang My Hat, this is a CD comprised of old time music, string band music, a little bluegrass, some swing and some cowboy tunes. Saxophone and banjo, though not on the same tunes. Laurie Lewis produced, and joins Ray on a few numbers. Any folk record that is named after a Howard Arlen/Johnny Mercer tune portends well.

Any Place I Hang My Hat celebrates Ray's eclectic tastes and talent. The recording starts off with a rocking take on Jerry Reed's Guitar Man, then a few traditional string band numbers before Ray tackles Lonesome Town, a song Ricky Nelson made famous. Ray does a great job with this lonely yet lovely melody. Ray does a song performed by Charlie Rich and written by his wife, Down and Out. He duets with songstress Penelope Critchlow on We Live in Two Different Worlds, usually attributed to Hank Williams and done beautifully here. Throw in On the Banks of the Old Pontchartrain, a great version of the aforementioned Mercer/Arlen standard, and then the CD closes with a song associated with the great truck driving country star Red Sovine. But rather than the C&W approach Sovine took, Bierl plays an evocative fingerstyle guitar accompaniment and tells the tale in a road weary voice, but with optimism that permeates the dialog. A potentially maudlin story of a hitchhiker who gets picked up by ghost driver and rig becomes in Bierl's hands a touching tale of redemption and hope. Ghostly fiddle fades out with the melody...

Ray Bierl is a talented musician and singer. If you're travelling north for the holidays, join Ray at his CD release party at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley on January 3.


Dennis Roger Reed is a singer-songwriter, musician and writer based in San Clemente, CA. He's released two solo CDs, and appeared on two CDs with the newgrassy Andy Rau Band and two CDs with the roots rockers Blue Mama. His prose has appeared in a variety of publications such as the OC Weekly and MOJO magazine. Writing about his music has appeared in an eclectic group of publications such as Bass Player, Acoustic Musician, Dirty Linen, Blue Suede News and Sing Out! His oddest folk resume entry would be the period of several months in 2002 when he danced onstage as part of both Little Richard's and Paul Simon's revues. He was actually asked to do the former and condoned by the latter. He apparently knows no shame.