Review: Zachary Lucky, “Songs For Hard Times”

Zachary Lucky, “Songs For Hard Times”

After sampling Brittany Kennell’s brand of new-country, and the Spaghetti Western-themed alt-country of Vikki Gilmore, we wrap up our ‘country music themed week’ with a trip to the Canadian prairies, and the latest album (out today) from Saskatoon, SK artist, Zachary Lucky.  Often referred to as the laureate of the lonesome song, “Songs For Hard Times” sees Lucky reinterpret traditional folk songs and other popular recordings in his own unique style.  As always, Zachary remains his unapologetic old-school country troubadour self, and delivers this 23-minute, 7-track collection with nothing more than an acoustic guitar and his husky, baritone voice.

“Songs For Hard Times” was recorded over two days back in May 2021, in a small cottage on the shores of Halls Lake, nestled away in the Algonquin Highlands of Ontario.  Halls Lake is said to possess the deepest waters in Haliburton County, which itself is quite fitting, given that Lucky too digs pretty deep to uncover and reimagine this selection of tunes, some of which date back almost 100 years.  A single Ear Trumpet Labs microphone was used to capture the sounds here on this stereophonic recording, adding a true sense of authenticity and timelessness to the album.  Self-produced and engineered by Lucky, the final touches come courtesy of Scott Franchuk (Corb Lund, Del Barber), who mastered and mixed these songs at Riverdale Recorders in Edmonton, AB.

Opening with “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” Lucky’s first few guitar riffs alone paint a pretty convincing portrait of what lies ahead.  Zachary takes the reigns of this Oscar Isaac composition – in similar fashion to the live cover of this traditional tune by The Tallest Man On Earth (available on YouTube) – and makes it his own. “Hang me, oh hang me / I’ll be dead and gone / Hang me, oh hang me / I’ll be dead and gone / Wouldn’t mind the hanging / But the layin’ in a grave so long, poor boy / I been all around this world.”  This latest interpretation can be found equally at home on a dimly lit bar room stage, as it would around an intimate fire pit – the bottom line is that Zachary quickly captivates and earns your attention.

Revisiting Zachary’s ‘digging deep’ sentiment from earlier, he includes a pair of Bascom Lamar Lunsford compositions that date back to the 1920s.  “A lot of the albums that I love and hold dear are ones where all you hear is a voice and a guitar,” Zachary shares. “I’ve always loved solo records and have always wanted to make one myself.”  Covering both “I Wish I Was A Mole In The Ground” (popularized by Woody Guthrie) and “Goodbye Dear Old Stepstone,” Lucky not only captures and honors the traditions of these vintage tunes, but in doing so brings endangered and almost extinct music from Appalachia and beyond to a new generation of listeners.  “Goodbye dear old stepstone, goodbye to my home / God bless those I leave with a sigh / I’ll cherish fond memories when I’m far away / To roam o’er this wide world alone.

Zachary Lucky

For this particular listener, some of these tunes are not quite as unfamiliar as I would have anticipated.  Take Lucky’s cover of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott’s “Leavin’ Cheyenne,” for example, itself rejuvenated recently by fellow Saskatchewan artist Colter Wall on his 2020 “Western Swings & Waltzes” album.  Ditto for “Rex’s Blues,” the 1977 Townes Van Zandt track that has seen numerous covers over the years, including prominent Americana artists James McMurtry and Steve Earle.  And I’m sure that bluegrass fans will take delight in the addition of “Damned Old Piney Mountains,” composed by the old-time string band musician Craig Johnson, and popularized by fiddler Bruce Molski – and more recently, The Lonesome Ace Stringband.  A little more contemporary in his interpretation, Zachary convincingly raises his game – commanding your attention with a little more emphasis on those guitar strings, and with plenty of gravel and grit in his voice: “While they sold off skidders to the scrap-iron yard / Oh woman, don’t you weep for me / I moved down Virginia when the times got hard / You damned old piney mountains / And I lost my fingers to the steel bandsaw / Oh buddy, sing a sad, old song / My fiddle just hangs, un-tuned on the wall / Lord, and my time ain’t long.

The closing track, “Wild Mountain Thyme,” is an interesting inclusion, as Lucky expands his search for traditional music further afield than the North American continent.  Also known as “Purple Heather” and “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go,” the lyrics and melody are a variant of “The Braes of Balquhither” by Scottish poet Robert Tannahill (1774-1810) and composer Robert Archibald Smith (1780-1829), but were adapted by Irish musician Francis McPeake (1885-1971) into “Wild Mountain Thyme” and first recorded in the 1950s.  “Oh, the summertime is comin’ / And the trees are sweetly blooming / Where the wild mountain thyme / Grows around the blooming heather.”  The list of artists that have recorded and/or performed this tune reads like a who’s who: Marianne Faithfull, Rod Stewart, James Taylor, Ed Sheeran – and for us Canadian music fans, The Bombadils.  “Will ye go, lassie, will ye go? / And we’ll all go together to pick wild mountain thyme / All around the blooming heather / Will ye go, lassie, will ye go?”

This is an interesting COVID-19 project from Zachary Lucky, who successfully strips everything back to just the basics for this recording: one man, one guitar, one microphone, all heart.  Indeed, in this age of instant gratification and search for the next ‘big’ music culture icon, this short 23-minute journey is a much-needed escape from that rat-race and very worthy of your time.  In a world where many artists are battling for any advantage to push their brand first past the finishing post, measured by ‘likes’ and ‘streaming’ metrics, we are fortunate to find a courageous few motivated by their love of the music of their past.  With “Songs For Hard Times,” Zachary Lucky is only too happy to bring traditional folk-country music to the next generation of listeners. “After spending a year and a half at home and off the road away from my band, it felt like the right time to make that solo record I had been wanting to make” he adds, in closing.

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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