As well as Leo Kottke-like guitar playing, a string quartet and buckets full of talent, Dawson always remembers to include some fine tunes.

Label: Black Hen Music
Time: 10 tracks / 45 mins

There are just two endorsements on Steve Dawson’s web page: from Joe Henry and Bruce Cockburn. I have covered both of these expert musicians on this site over the last couple of years and they have rightly recognised the talents of this multi-Juno-award-winning session musician.

Although he comes from above the border in Canada, Dawson is the sort of guitarist you might ask to compose a soundtrack to a Western, as titles like “Old Hickory Breakdown” and "Hollow Tree Gap" testify. His nimble finger-picking and slide work even gets enhanced by Charlie McCoy’s blues harp on a couple of tracks, which fits the guitar like lemon suits meringue.

One of those is the splendid cowboy-evoking "Bentonia Blues" which, alongside “Hale Road Revelation,” shows a somewhat Southern and bluesy side to his music.

Playing a National guitar helps that mood, but he also plays acoustic, twelve-string and Weissenborn. In the middle of the set, he slows it down and breaks it up with the ukulele track “Little Harpeth.”

His technique very much evokes Leo Kottke, and like Cockburn, you wonder when listening whether you are hearing him play one guitar or whether a second has been overdubbed.  

What sets this disc apart are the several tracks with a string quartet added. Largely, this enhances the tracks, but on “Bone Cave” and "Old Hickory Breakdown" I would be just as happy without them, as I’m not convinced that they always pull in the same direction as the guitars.

Sometimes they alternate lead lines in an almost call-and-response manner; they work well as fills and emphasis on “The Circuit Rider of Pigeon Force” (don’t you just love the titles that get attached to instrumental tracks?); and they are more elaborate and very well suited in “Lonesome Ace.” Otherwise, while Dawson’s style is intricate, the strings work in a more “blocky” way, playing chords behind his picking for emphasis, as in the title track, which also benefits from Sam Davidson’s subtle clarinet.

(And if you like games, there’s also French horn and trombone in there somewhere, but however often I play it, I just can’t find them. It’s like a musical ‘Where’s Wally?’ I must be enjoying the rest of the music too much.)

And all this is for the benefit of the listener, as Dawson thankfully remembers the need for strong tunes as he showcases his impressive, agile playing.

Derek Walker