The latest offering from Toronto singer-songwriter Matthew Barber is a collection of twelve original songs that were written for a musical play entitled Haunted Hillbilly. Inspired by the cult novel by Derek McCormack about a Hank Williams-esque country singer and his mysterious manager and tailor Nudie, the theatrical adaptation (written by Graham Cuthbertson) debuted in 2009 in Montreal to rave reviews and has received multiple Montreal Theatre Critic’s awards (MECCAs) including “Best Production” and “Best Sound,” as well as being a hit at Toronto’s Summerworks Theatre Festival.
Songs For The Haunted Hillbilly brings all the numbers from the darkly comedic show together on record for the first time, sung by Barber and backed by multi-instrumentalists Joe Grass and Julian Brown who also make up the live band. In addition to the core musicians, there are some notable guest vocalists including Julie Fader, Doug Paisley, Justin Rutledge and Oh Susanna. The result is a rollicking trip through the back alleys of Nashville circa 1950 complete with cautionary tales about booze, religion (lost and found), love, lust, betrayal, fame and fashion. In the stage show, the songs weave in and out of the dialogue and are sung by the actors who play the various characters which include the hero Hyram Woodside, his rival country star Erskine Mole, the villain Nudie, Hyram’s wife Audrey and his girlfriend Bobbi. The album simply presents the songs all sung by the songwriter and thus plays out like a country concept album with recurring characters and a unifying narrative.
Produced by Barber (with help from Grass and Brown) and recorded by Ken Friesen (who recorded Barber’s Juno-nominated Ghost Notes as well as records by The Sadies, Hawksley Workman and many more) the songs were captured live-off-the-floor to tape in Almonte, Ontario as a 3-piece band with all the lead vocals sung live. Minimal additional instrumentation (including fiddle by James McKie) and guest vocals were added in a later session in Toronto. Barber and Friesen mixed the record in Almonte, and it was mastered in L.A. by Gavin Lurssen (hand-picked for his work with T-Bone Burnett). His seventh album to date, Songs For The Haunted Hillbilly can rightfully be considered Barber’s first country record (signified most clearly by Joe Grass’s soaring pedal steel). But the country here is more akin to Gram Parsons or Dylan’s Nashville Skyline than what would conventionally be considered country music today. Barber’s voice never gets too twangy, and the production embraces an honest love of old-time country music without trying too hard to replicate a specific sound. The album may have been made on the banks of Ontario’s Mississippi river (truth), but Barber is not trying to fool anyone into thinking he’s from the deep south. Songs For The Haunted Hillbilly will go down as a refreshingly unique collection of music written and performed in style that departs from Barber’s trademark introspective voice, giving a captivating cast of characters a vivid life beyond the page and the stage.
Matthew Barber singing, guitar, piano, percussion, banjo