NEWCOMER'S SOUND IS SHEER POETRY
Grayson Hugh's music, lyrics are stirring.
I don't want to get your hopes up about Grayson Hugh. Don't want to oversell him so you put 1988's Blind To Reason or the new Road To Freedom in the CD player and expect light to flow forth, healing cancer and removing cataracts. But ask me about him straight up and I'd have to answer you this way:
Have I heard any newcomer in the last decade who excites me more than this guy?
Have I heard any newcomer in the last decade who excites me as much as this guy?
Your next question is obvious as the chin on Leno's face: Well, what's the guy sound like? And therein lies a problem, because while there are a lot of obvious comparisons, none gives a complete picture.
He's the thoughtful singer-songwriter type, like James Taylor or Paul Simon, but there’s more pure soul in him than that comparison would imply.
Well then, how about Marvin Gaye, Rod Stewart or Sam Cooke? Yeah, he’s got the requisite gravel and rasp and anguish in his voice. But there’s more poetry and grace in his lyrics than theirs.
Bruce Springsteen? The introspection’s there. The fist-cranking Born To Run adrenaline rush isn’t.
So what does he sound like? Like everything you’ve heard before. And nothing you've heard before. No risk-taker or barrier-breaker like, say, Prince or R.E.M or Nirvana or Me Phi Me. But yet, a haunting sound, a rock ’n’ soul groove, greasy with Hammon organ, spangled with guitars, it’s melodies framed by understated piano accents, it’s choruses and bridges braced with harmonies as plaintive as a train whistle at midnight.
PICTURES IN LYRICS
And his lyrics! If you love words, if you’re one of those people for whom heaven is a rainy day and a good book, then know this: Hugh doesn’t write words — he writes pictures.
Like "Forever Yours, Forever Mine", which speaks of “steep September daylight when the shadows fall at four” and “eyes just staring down the college street strewn with the paper of sycamore leaves.”
Like "Road To Freedom", which offers a breathtaking view — “over the tops of mountains over the western snow, watching the river wander, just a vein of silver far below” — and adds a hard observation certain to strike a chord with any Native American or African American — “They take away your money, and they take away your name, and they take the ground that you’re standing on but never, ever take the blame.”
And then there is the stark, painful ballad called "For The Innocent". Hugh wrote it for his grandfather, Dr. Frank Rawlinson, a missionary in Shanghai who wal killed during the Second World War. Hugh sings: “In trees and fields the snowflakes fell, gently on the gravestone of one I knew well. Cut down before his time on some rocky road, caught in someone else’s war for some cause of old. He was a writer and a peaceful man, never held a rifle in his hand.But upon that fateful day, a bullet from a gun sought him out as if to say, I’ll find the meekest one.”
Hugh, a thirtysomething native of Hartford, Conn., who quit school at 15, says, “I remember the English teacher said, ‘You should really consider being a poet.’ I didn’t want to hear it. [But] I read from when I was 14 on. Every poet I could get my hands on. James Joyce, Faulkner, James Agee, Dylan Thomas, Archibald MacLeish. I read voraciously. I quit high school and just kind of educated myself.
“I was lucky enough to have parents who said “That’s cool if you want to do that. You’ve just got to get a job.” One year I had something like 55 jobs — a lot of odd jobs. Then I discovered I could make money playing in bands.”
During those years, Hugh’s family was moving around, alighting in South Carolina, Louisiana and Maine. Musically, he was moving around a lot too.
“I played organ and piano [for a black church in Hartford]… That was really my introduction to [gospel], a form of music I love to this day. I sort of got into that and combined that with my rock roots.
“Then there’s a lot of other music that I grew up with. My dad is a classical DJ in Connecticut and he always had an extensive record collection, all different kinds of music — classical, jazz, rock, folk. I grew up with a lot of different inlfuences.”
Asked to describe the sound those influences have fostered in him, he’s at a loss.
“I don’t know what you call it. My girlfriend half-seriously said “When people ask you what you play, say country gothic.”
Why not? Works about as well as anything else.
Hugh’s debut album Blind To Reason was the result of a chance meeting with producer Michael Baker in the elevator of a New York apartment building.
“I was carrying a keyboard, we started talking…I was going to my manager’s apartment; we asked him in, played him the tape, and he introduced me to the people at RCA.”
RCA sent Hugh into the studio with Baker, and the result was Blind To Reason. There are some great tracks on that disc, including the raw-dog blues of the title number and the old-school, Sam Cooke soul of Talk It Over.
Hugh says now it was a little too smooth, a little overproduced for his taste. “I felt I was being pigeonholed… I needed to branch out.”
Four years later, he’s branched out to MCA Records, where veteran R&B producer Bernard Edwards took the helm on Road To Freedom.
“Basically, it’s much more raw,” Hugh says of the new album. “And it’s really the way I always was. Basically, I always was a real rocker. All my bands were pretty hard-edged.
My producer, Bernard Edwards, encouraged me to just be myself in the studio. We laughed a lot. It was real easy working with him…he kept it fresh. It’s kind of the way I approach my writing.”
It’s always risky business to play fortune-teller in this game — especially when dealing with an artist eight out of 10 record-buyers have never heard of. And your humble music writer here has a great track record of proclaiming superstardom for acts that never even get out of the starting gate.
So, tempting as it is, no predictions here.
Except one. You’ll enjoy Grayson Hugh.
- Leonard Pitts, Jr., The Miami Herald, Oct. 19, 1992