Easy Fires: some notes by Barry Alfonso
Craig Bickhardt tells me that the title of his new album came to him in a dream -- and who can argue with messages from the Beyond? Certainly not songwriters.
But "Easy Fires" does carry some irony with it, if you take easiness to imply the sort of quick, off-the-cuff creation that anyone could accomplish.
Make no mistake: you can't simply rub two sticks together and make these kind of artistic sparks fly, metaphorically speaking.
Actually, the songs on Easy Fires are more like the long-smoldering underground infernos that rage in the coalmines of Bickhardt's native state of Pennsylvania.
They burn strong and deep, timeless and unstoppable.
Over the years, Craig has penned hits for the likes of the Judds, Pam Tillis, Ty Herndon and Martina McBride, to name only a few.
His contributions to the soundtrack of Robert Duvall's Tender Mercies were crucial to that classic film.
But much of his best work has gone unheard until now.
Fans of Craig's music have waited a long time for this album to happen.
What's remarkable is the consistency of these tunes, written over a span of decades.
They survey themes that Craig has returned to time and again: love and loss, the quiet drama in everyday life, the intimations of the spirit behind the ordinary.
The song craftsmanship here is exemplary, the lyrics as finely-wrought as the writings of a Robert Frost or a Jimmy Webb.
Time-honored folk and country styles resonate in his music, and a rock edge asserts itself as well.
But this is much more than a collection of songs by a seasoned professional.
Easy Fires is highly personal, sometimes disturbingly so -- there are no easy answers for the lovers, losers and seekers portrayed here (all of them Craig, I suspect, in one guise or another).
The romanticism found on Easy Fires is the hard-won kind, tempered by sadness and defeat, strengthened by heartache.
You can hear it in tunes as different as "Troubled Shores," "The Only Way I Know" and "Where I Used To Have A Heart." For all the sweep and scope of his writing, Craig can turn around and deliver a song as homespun as "One Rose" as if he were kin to the Carter Family.
If he's not quite Everyman -- he thinks way too much to be that guy, for one thing -- he's a master at finding something profound in the everyday, as in his bittersweet ode to parenthood, "Dance With Father Time." Easy Fires is a work of inspiration and passion, the sort of album that arrives only when it's ready to, apart from the pop music fads of the moment.
It's a rare gem that few artists could deliver.
Trust me, Craig Bickhardt only makes it sound easy.