By John Nova Lomax
Sloan sings like an angel and fiddles like that demon who kicked Charlie Daniels's ass on this all-too-short collection of twangy styles ranging from cowboy jazz ("If We're All the Same") to brooding, reverb-heavy Appalachian rock ("Valley of Shadows") to Sinéad O'Connor-ish Celtic-tinged dirges ("Midnight on the Stormy Deep"). When Sloan's dark, as on "Midnight...," she's really dark, and when she dances, she does so like nobody's looking, as on "Devil and the Deep Blue Sea." There's also an elegy to Rachel Corrie, the American activist crushed in the West Bank by an Israeli bulldozer. And "Hard Luck Town" is a cantering waltz to which anyone who has clocked a few years on this city's music scene can relate: "If I could get out of this town / oh Lord I'd find me a place where I could settle down," she sings in her honeyed alto, "Stop drinking and running around / if I could get of this town / this heavy and hard luck old town." This disc is a triumph, people.
By JOEY GUERRA
For The Chronicle
Hilary Sloan says she felt "a responsibility" to write and record Hard Luck Town, a gorgeous collection of bluegrass, country and acoustic peace songs.
The South Carolina native started Suzuki violin lessons at age 4 and has lived in Houston since she was 10. Music has always been her lifeblood, and it — along with current events — shaped her direction.
"There is so much socially conscious in the music that I grew up with, but it's not being expressed on country radio," Sloan says. "There's really a need for people from a rural, Southern background to say, 'These things are happening. They're not OK, and I don't accept them.' "
Sloan began writing Hard Luck Town around the beginning of the Iraq War. It wasn't a coincidence. The tunes touch on poverty, societal pressures and a country at odds with the rest of the world. There are also "urban-inspired, rural laments of the working class."
"It's progressive, socially conscious bluegrass-country," Sloan says. "It's really an expression of a lot of things that I've been feeling for a long time. Frustrations with things that are going on in the world."
Once assembled, the songs took the form of a concept album. Hard Luck Town, then, is the story of a soldier who returns home to find the life he used to know destroyed.
The disc includes seven of Sloan's original tunes, a solo fiddle take on Nina Simone's Images and the tumultuous Midnight on the Stormy Deep, famously sung by Bill Monroe.
"The story line emerged . . . whether I was really wanting it to or not," Sloan says.
"It just adds another dimension. You can enjoy the album in a different way because you have this character to imagine doing these things."
Hard Luck Town was recorded at Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church in The Woodlands. The disc was produced by Marco Saenz and features bassist Ben Collis, guitarist Randy Lindley and drummer Chris King.
An audience of family and friends attended the recording, but you won't hear their approving applause on the disc.
"It has that live sound, that live feel, that live energy. But it doesn't have the clapping and the normal things you have a lot in live shows," Sloan says.
Every one of Hard Luck Town's stellar tracks rings with urgency and emotion. If We're All the Same is a clever call for equality, and Some Things They Can't Take Away is a tear-stained waltz that urges listeners to remember life's treasures.
The haunting Rachel Corrie is dedicated to the American peace activist who was crushed by an Israeli army bulldozer in March 2003. Corrie, a member of the International Solidarity Movement, was trying to prevent the vehicle from destroying the home of a doctor in the Rafah refugee camp.
"She has affected me deeply," says Sloan, who managed to get a copy of the song to Corrie's family.
In the end, Sloan is optimistic that her Hard Luck journey will have a positive effect on all listeners.
"It calms me down, which I hope it does for other people, too," she says. "It makes me feel like, 'Yeah, things are happening, but it's OK.' "
• Podcast: Listen to Joey Guerra's interview with Sloan, Nick Gaitan and Patrick Wheeler along with clips from the new album..
• More information: Chron.com's Houston band database