THE BACKSTABBERS' LUMP OF COAL CHRISTMAS PARTY featuring BOB HANNAN at the Canadian Corps Hall (201 Niagara), Saturday (December 17), 10 pm. $10. www.thebackstabbers.org.
Gregarious frontman Colonel Tom Parker may be the brains behind the Backstabbers Country Stringband, but it's thumbpicking guitarist and vocalist Bob Hannan who is really the soul of the group, even though Parker's soft-spoken sidekick would be loath to admit it.
He's a man of few words and would rather not be the centre of attention, which explains why it's taken so long for Hannan to release his solo debut, King Of Fools (Run Mountain). When you listen to his sensitively rendered take on Carl Story's I Overlooked An Orchid or one of his own neatly crafted originals, such as the album's title track which sounds like it's coming straight off a truck-stop jukebox in 1962 it becomes apparent that Hannan is the Backstabbers' real connection to their foggy mountaintop forebears.
What's most interesting is that it doesn't come across like Hannan's merely acting out some throwback hayseed role. He's more like an open channel tuned to the ancient past. That may have something to do with the fact that, unlike many of his contemporaries, he started out listening to the Carter Family and worked forward, instead of listening to contemporary music and then digging deeper into the past. At the very least, it helps explain why four of the 11 songs on the disc are Carter Family numbers.
"It's almost a Carter Family tribute album, isn't it," he chuckles. "Well, I guess there are a couple of reasons for that. Mother Maybelle Carter is the reason I play guitar today. From the moment I first heard the Carter Family's 1935 version of Wildwood Flower at 16, I was bit. I didn't know who it was or where it came, from but I loved the sound of that guitar and wanted to learn how to play that song. So I went to the library and read up on the Carter Family and started buying any of their records I could find.
"There was something about the twang of Mother Maybelle's guitar, how she stated the melody, and her unique rhythm scratch that made it seem like she was playing two guitars that created this magical mystery sound that's always been close to my heart. Because my autoharp-playing buddy Tim Sisco happened to be in town when we were recording back in March of 2004, I thought the time was right to do some Carter Family songs. As it turned out, Tim died shortly after the sessions, so the CD is dedicated to his memory."
At the time of Sisco's passing, Hannan was a heartbeat away from joining him in that great angel band in the sky. He now jokes about planning a King Of Fools posthumous release, but a serious heart condition severe mitral valve prolapse actually made that a distinct possibility.
"Just after we finished recording I got my cardiac prognosis, and it wasn't good. I'd known about my leaky mitral valve for about 10 years, but it had come time to fix the problem. So I went in to see heart specialist Tyrone David, and he was able to repair the valve instead of replacing it. They say it usually takes about a year to recover, but I'm feeling much better now."
No doubt Hannan's lengthy convalescence contributed to the Backstabbers' lower profile this past year and to Hannan's low-key approach to spreading the news about King Of Fools, which is currently only available at the Cameron House and Backstabbers gigs. Self-promotion is not one of his strengths.
"I actually played a few gigs at Graffiti's and Statler's Lounge, but we were billed under the name the Three Dollar Bills, so I'm not sure whether anyone would've known it was me. There were only a couple hundred copies of the disc made, so if we get through those, maybe I'll get a second run done up with a barcode sticker so they can be sold in stores.
"If I ever tried going solo, I'd probably last about 12 minutes before missing the other voices. There's something about us singing together around a single microphone that makes me really happy. We've been at it for eight years now and it still feels great, so hopefully we'll be able to continue for at least a couple more years."