Tony Furtado doesn't like to stay in one place for too long. That applies not just to the places he's called home - ranging from Pleasanton, Calif., in the East Bay, where he grew up, to D.C., Boulder, Portland and now L.A. - but also to his restless artistic spirit. After making a name for himself as a 19-year-old banjo prodigy, Furtado, finding the instrument too limiting for his rapidly expanding sensibility, developed himself into an equally skillful slide guitarist. Later, he realized he had more to say than he could fully express by manipulating strings with his fingers and bottleneck, which has led to his surprising reinvention as a full-blown singer/songwriter - and this is one extreme makeover that seems utterly natural.
The initial evidence of Furtado's stunning metamorphosis is These Chains (released July 27 on Funzalo Records). While his previous LP, 2003's Live Gypsy, was totally focused on performance, the new LP is all about songs, with Furtado's engaging tenor featured on 12 of the 13 tracks. Previous Furtado albums have featured occasional vocals, but until recently they weren't sung by Tony. Allison Krauss sang the Beatles' "I Will" on his second effort, 1992's Within Reach, and on later records he turned to blues artist Kelly Joe Phelps before finally introducing his own voice on the traditional "Cypress Grove," which turned out to be a highlight of 2001's Tony Furtado Band. The subsequent American Gypsy (2002) and Live Gypsy contain a handful of Furtado vocals, but never before in his 15-year recording career has he sung his own material. Better late than never, it turns out.
The album boasts no fewer than nine Furtado-penned songs - his first-ever compositions with lyrics - revealing Furtado as a writer of considerable stylistic breadth and emotional depth. The material includes collaborations with legendary songsmith/artist Jules Shear, country auteur Jim Lauderdale and longtime NRBQ guitarist Al Anderson. These Chains is rounded out by the original instrumental "Doc's Bogg," an interpretation of the traditional "Bet on the White Horse," a cover of "Brand New Goodbye Song" (which, as Tony explains in the lyric sheet, he learned for a Waylon Jennings tribute show) and a poignant duet with Shear on the Bob Dylan classic "One Too Many Mornings."
Fundamentally, these songs and performances seem to draw on the legacy of the Southern California-based singer-songwriter movement of the early '70s, which, like Furtado's own creative impulse, was a personalized outgrowth of traditional folk music. This connection is most readily apparent on "Need a Friend," the Lauderdale collaboration, on which Furtado manages to simultaneously play the roles made famous by Jackson Browne and his brilliant accompanist, David Lindley (a musician with whom Tony feels a kinship, since both started as banjo players before becoming slide specialists). Furtado's scintillating bottleneck work on the track dramatically displays his transition from fleet-fingered picker to song-serving player.
Other highlights include the cinematic "More and More," the rousing drinking song "The Good Stuff," the road-weary "The Prisoner" (co-written with Anderson), the shimmering art-pop of "Standing in the Rain" (the Shear collaboration) and the propulsive "These Chains," inspired by the prison work songs recorded for posterity by archivist Alan Lomax.
The album's most intensely personal song is "Oh Father Mine," which Tony penned after learning his dad had been diagnosed with cancer. "I didn't know if he was going to live or not," he recalls, "and that song just sort of popped out. Writing it was definitely cathartic for me." Happily, Furtado's father made a full recovery. He's joined on the track by the acclaimed neo-folk duo eastmountainsouth.
The Furtado original "Swayback Jim," about an old nag who dreams about beating the great thoroughbred Man o' War in a race, sounds just as ancient as the equestrian-themed folk song "Bet on the White Horse." Like the earlier "Cypress Grove," "Swayback Jim" is a stripped-down rave-up featuring just Tony's acoustic slide and drums, and it rocks as hard as anything the White Stripes have come up with while telling a captivating tale. He uses the same down-to-the-bone setup for "Brand New Goodbye Song." "I wanted something on the record that had another dimension to it," he explains, "something that was like what I was doing before, but also what I do in my solo shows."
Furtado had some expert help in bringing the songs of These Chains to life. Producer/bassist Dusty Wakeman (Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam, Anne McCue) assembled a killer crew consisting of drummer Jim Christie and guitarist Doug Pettitbone of Lucinda's current band, veteran keyboardist Skip Edwards, percussionist Michael Tempo (Bonedaddies) and backing vocalist Gia Ciambotti (Badly Drawn Boy), and they match Furtado's urgency note for note while locating the essence of each song. The music wasn't fussed over - fussing isn't in the makeup of either Furtado or Wakeman - with the bulk of the album cut straight off the floor by the full band.
This project was a long time coming - a lifetime, in fact. Furtado grew up listening to FM radio at a time when eclecticism ruled - he has indelible memories of riding around in his mother's Mustang as a 5-year-old with the radio cranking rock, soul, blues, folk and even some jazz - so he assimilated a wide range of styles early on. "I've always been into playing a lot of different types of music," he says. "When I was mainly playing banjo, I would study everything from old Charlie Parker records to traditional Irish music to trying to figure out ways to play blues on the banjo."
After being blown away by Ry Cooder's 1974 classic Paradise and Lunch - which led him to Delta blues artists like Blind Willie Johnson and Fred McDowell - Furtado took up the slide guitar, which made its first recorded appearance on his 1997 album Roll My Blues Away, featuring mostly original compositions in the classic acoustic Mississippi style. But he wasn't finished absorbing and assimilating - not by a long shot.
"When I started playing slide guitar," Furtado says, "I realized that I didn't have the knowledge of rock and pop, as well as the real traditional stuff. So the same time that I was woodshedding on slide, I was buying tons of albums and finding out exactly what I loved. I remember buying a bunch of Jackson Browne albums, David Lindley bootlegs, a lot of Tom Petty, John Hiatt. I was also listening to Richard Thompson and Bruce Cockburn, really good singer/songwriter/guitar players. It took a long time for it to start to internalize."
But internalize it did, as These Chains makes abundantly clear. There's no telling where Furtado's nomadic muse will lead him from here - who knows, she might try to convince him to settle down for a spell in the fertile territory he's just claimed - but either way, this wide-ranging artist will be hard-pressed to top his latest accomplishment.