A rusty, six-pointed spur sticks out of the monochrome grass, or perhaps newspaper shavings, on the cover of The Rodeo Eroded, the new (2002) album by Tin Hat Trio. The cowboy is upside-down in his grave because the artists of Tin Hat Trio have turned bluegrass on its ear and created an album that is deliciously dissonant in places, and still amazingly listenable. This is not country, this is not western, and it's not quite tango, but it is catchy acoustic instrumental work by classically- and jazz- trained musicians who stil know how to make "artsy" sound good. It is not all accessible on the first listen, but duct tape your CD player shut and listen--or better yet, go about your business with it in the background--and soon you'll feel a shiver run down your spine, like someone walking up and down your back wearing rusty spurs.

Because it is almost entirely acoustic and instrumental, there isn't much to say about the vocals. Oh, except that on the one track that does have them, they're sung by Willie Nelson. Yeah, that Willie Nelson. He sings the fifth track, a wonderfully melancholy arrangement of "Willow Weep For Me" that is rapidly becoming my favorite track on the album.

Other guest musicians on the album include Bryan Smith on tuba, Billy Martin of Medeski, Martin, and Wood on percussion, John Fishman of Phish on percussion, and a host of studio musicians playing instruments like the dobro, harp, and clarinet.

The three members of the trio could probably play you any song you named on anything you handed them from Home Depot. As it is, Rob Burger gets away with credit for playing no less than seven instruments on the album, most of them piano variants like the accordion and prepared piano, but also several flavors of harmonica. Carla Kihlstedt plays bowed strings: violin, viola, and sings in a ghostly soprano over two tracks. Mark Orton plays anything in the guitar family, including dobro and banjo.

They play around with the musical themes you'd associate with the Old West, putting cowboy chords into a tango, and jazz chords against a straight Oklahoma waltz. Sometimes you can hear them steal a few of Danny Elfman's favorite minor chord progressions and take off with them like Edward Scissorhands trying to dance with Dolly Parton--I'm thinking, specifically, of "O.N.E.O." Then they slow it down, and weave long, melancholy phrases together. Throughout the album the spooky, haunting dissonance of the chords and the unique instrumentation combine to make it a perfect late-autumn album.

They don't take the easy way out, and chords never resolve quite like you're expecting them to. Every musical phrase is a bit of a surprise, like turning over a dead leaf on the ground and seeing vibrant green on the other side. Or sometimes, it's like watching the wind ruffling the leaves on a perfectly healthy tree, and then realizing that the branches are made of dry, bleached bones. It's an acoustic experience both rewarding and off-putting, and not to be missed.

  1. Bill
  2. Fear of the South1
  3. Holiday Joel2
  4. Happy Hour1,3
  5. Willow Weep For Me4,5
  6. Nickel Mountain
  7. O.N.E.O.
  8. The Last Cowboy
  9. Maximo's Plunge
  10. Rubies, Pearls, and Emeralds
  11. Manmoth
  12. Interlude
  13. Under the Gun3
  14. Night of the Skeptic
  15. Sweep

(1) Bryan Smith, Tuba - (2) Billy Martin, Percussion - (3) John Fishman, Percussion - (4) Willie Nelson, vocals - (5) add'l musicians

THe RoDeo eRoDeD is © 2002 rope-a-dope records, and was produced by Tin Hat Trio and Hans Wendl.