I watch more than my share of documentaries and short films, usually of an environmental or travel-minded bent. I've become kind of a sucker for the folksy songs that often accompany them. When I first listened to Three Cornered Jack, aka Missoula singer-songwriter Ron Dunbar, the song "That Boy and Belle" immediately transported me on the kind of journey these films champion. It's a beautiful track, a story told in a soft voice over an acoustic guitar and some hand drums. It evokes a mood by the sound of the words; I was wistful and moved even before I listened to what the lyrics were saying. It's music to ride along by, to travel to. It is also just the kind of track these films usually employ as background to the story. I felt pretty smug with my assessment when I discovered that his song "Diesel 82" was written about his '82 VW Westfalia, for inclusion in the Damon Ristau documentary, The Bus.
The best kind of music that catches the "folk" or "Americana" tag is exactly what Dunbar delivers. It isn't someone coasting on a trend. It is evidence of a musical craftsman practicing a timeless facet of an often-forgotten oral tradition. All these great trad songs that filtered down out of the hills and hollers of Appalachia weren't just for stomping it up at hootenannies, they were for passing along the histories and heartbreaks of the people who lived there. Guys like Dunbar, with songs about his grandparents, or even an ode to his ride, are the modern equivalent of that. Occasionally adding other local musicians to help express his vision—folks like Travis Yost, John Sporman, Grace Decker and Bethany Joyce—adds to the "let's gather on the porch and play music" vibe of the whole thing. I dig it.
Three Cornered Jack plays the Top Hat Lounge Thu., Jan 2, at 6 PM. Free.