By RON JACOBS
Some days I wake up and the music I hear in my head is the chorus to Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” All day long I hear that lonesome whippoorwill until night finally falls, the midnight train whining in the distance. It’s not that I’m lonely or anything, mind you, yet that haunting chorus becomes the day’s soundtrack.
There’s a band out of southern California that renders music as uniquely forlorn as any Hank Williams tune. The name of that group is, somewhat mysteriously, I See Hawks In LA. Composed of founder Rob Waller on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, guitarist Paul Lacques, former Strawberry Alarm Clock bassist Paul Marshall and percussionist Shawn Nourse, I See Hawks In LA bring experienced musicianship (and many experienced guest musicians) to their work. Echoes of the Byrds and Gram Parsons and even The Holy Modal Rounders inform the music this group makes while its lyrics touch on themes of war, peace, freedom, family and that greatest topic of all, love. Sometimes the lyrics are full of humor and sometimes they are full of sadness. Sometimes they sing of the counterculture and sometimes one hears ironic commentary on today’s commercial culture of brands and empty meaning. Waller’s vocal delivery is a countrified alto that capably evokes whichever emotion the song hopes to convey.
Existing in a country world where the farmers of tradition grow organically and have parents who once called themselves Sunshine, the melodies I See Hawks In LA create are timelessly modern. One of my favorite songs by the group is titled “Raised By Hippies” and appears on their third album California Country. The story of a girl raised in a schoolbus by parents who conceived her in the Haight-Ashbury then moved to the hills of Tennessee, the song’s catchy melody highlights the joy the girl transmits no matter where she goes. More than one of us knows a story like this one.
The most recent album, titled Hallowed Ground (Big Book Records) continues the Hawks’ trend of danceable rock music imbued with country sensibilities. Fiddle plays a prominent role in several of the songs on the disc yet it is the vocals that once again capture my ear. Lyrically, it is a concerned warning about the environmental disaster we are living in. If the song “Last Lonely Eagle” by New Riders of the Purple Sage were to become an entire album, this is what it would sound like. The third song “Carbon Dated Love” warns of an LA doomed to die. “Now all ye hunters and ye gatherers prepare/For wild blue wandering….” The pedal steel and guitar trade licks reminiscent of the best Sneaky Pete Kleinow. The next tune, with singer Rob Waller sounding a bit like an early Waylon Jennings, continues the theme of a parched, sterile and deadly future.
Despite the dystopian outlook that underscores this album, the true spirit is that of a paean to the beauty of the western landscape and sky, Celtic history and life, love, and the hippie nomad. This spirit is quite clear in the song “Highway Down”–an LA cowboy’s song to the countryside he loves and a prayer that it will somehow survive. Even as he digs a grave on the highway down. “Lord knows I love this Valley,” sings Waller. “Though it’s as wounded as an alley.” Like the child raised by hippies, the folks in “The Environmental Children of the Future” is a tribute to those young and old who have taken the best of the counterculture ethos and are trying to live a future where the earth matters as much as the people on it. “The environmental children of the future,” go the lyrics, “Took their elders by the hand” and showed them how to live—after the flood as it were.
There is an overall joy that emanates from the Hawks’ music. Acoustic guitar progressions accentuate Celtic fiddle melodies on some songs while the melodies of others are carried by a rock guitar reminiscent of James Burton’s work with Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. The lyrics display a wry sense of the situation we find ourselves in while remaining hopeful about our future as a species. Other songs display an equally wry approach to the ups and downs of love. This is the music the 1960s counterculture was meant to produce in its brightest hours. The fact that it appears now some forty years later in a world arguably more hopeless is a sign of hope in itself. Despite the echoes of that lonesome whippoorwill, I See Hawks In LA wipes away those tears we are sometimes too blue to cry.
Ron Jacobs is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press.
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