By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Don't tar James Hinkle with that "bluesman" brush. Sure, the guitarist and singer is one of the last active links to Fort Worth blues godfather Robert Ealey. Hinkle was just 18 when his mentor, guitarist Freddie Cisneros, pushed him onstage with Ealey at the singer's legendary New Bluebird Nite Club with the injunction, "Play rhythm guitar!"
But there's a lot more to his music than 12-bar shuffles. Like great Texas musicians Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Doug Sahm, Hinkle finds his influences everywhere, and recombines them as he pleases.
Following art studies at the University of Texas in Austin and a succession of his own bands, Hinkle toured with New Orleans-rooted singer-pianist Marcia Ball, absorbing the intricacies of Crescent City rhythm. By the early '90s, he was pounding the boards in the company of genial rubboard player Johnny Mack, purveying a distinctive blend of jumpin' blues, rambunctious rockabilly and second-line spice. In the millennial decade, Hinkle began adding jazz influences to his sonic palette on 2005's Straight Ahead Blues? and 2006's Blues Now, Jazz Later. He also partnered with ex-Joe Ely accordion master Ponty Bone.
Besides being a versatile musician, Hinkle's a big personality. He has unusual hobbies for a musician, like running marathons and making leather guitar straps that are one-of-a-kind works of art. A sly and stylish presence on the set, his "Krewe of Kowtown" Mardi Gras bashes are legendary. Hinkle played benefits and jams at the late, lamented Wreck Room — a colorful rock 'n' roll dump that served as the hub of activity on West 7th prior to its Corridor-ization — reaching across the subcultural divide to rock audiences in a way few Cowtown blues players were inclined to.
More to the point, he recruited younger, rock- and jazz-associated players for his bands, among them bassists Lee Allen, John Shook, Daniel Stone and Dino Villanueva, and drummers Austin Allen, Dave Karnes and Lucas White.
This summer, Hinkle and White spent a few weeks in Europe, touring under the rubric James Hinkle and the Transatlantics and recording the bulk of an album, First Crossing, in just two days. (Additional recording was done at Fort Worth's Eagle Audio.) Joining them in these ventures was a pair of Belgian musicians: guitarist-singer Ed de Smul and bassist Stefan Boret.
The project was originally envisioned as a reprise of Hinkle's 2011 European jaunt, his first in 20 years, during which he performed in a duo, Daddies JuJu, with Austin-based guitarist-singer Chad Pope, and recorded a CD, The Belgian Sessions. When Pope was unable to participate, Hinkle tapped White to make the trip. He'd met de Smul on a visit the Belgian guitarist made to the U.S. in February 2012, and de Smul in turn brought bassist Boret into the fold.
Over the last decade, White has traveled as far musically as he and Hinkle did geographically. He first tested his wings in guitarist Keith Wingate's trio, playing a mixture of Beatles and Steely Dan covers and jazz fusion chestnuts, then came into his own kicking the traps for Confusatron after they'd evolved from a sidewalk-busking trio into a many-headed hydra that threatened to levitate the old Black Dog Tavern in downtown Fort Worth. Then he stoked the engine room for Rivercrest Yacht Club, a trio (later a duo) of jocular white-boy rappers (think Beastie Boys with a gorilla mask). Now, he provides the crisp, propulsive swing and roll at the heart of the Transatlantics' sound.
"I've played with Lucas for four years," Hinkle says, "but it took us going to Europe to have enough time alone together to get into that creative zone. This guy knows where I'm going."
"Which can be any direction on any given gig," White adds. "My favorite thing is when he turns to me and says, 'Let's go.' Or he'll give me a nod, and I'll know it's going to get weird."
The sound of the album is spare and stripped down, with not a note wasted. It was recorded with all the musicians together in one room, and most of the tracks are first or second takes. The immediacy and spontaneity of the sessions are audible. It's a true collaboration, bearing seven songs by Hinkle (who also did the album artwork) and three by de Smul, who gets the honor of writing and singing the opening and closing tracks.
The Belgian ax-slinger is well-versed in Sun Records-style rockabilly, best heard on "Hard Working Man," as well as the rockier side of blues. His rootsy sincerity contrasts nicely with Hinkle's wry delivery.
Guitar-wise, the sonic palette here ranges from slithering slide on the opening "Knock On Wood" (a de Smul composition, not the Eddie Floyd hit), to slick country picking worthy of James Burton or Albert Lee, to the saturated tones of "Keep On Rolling," a rocker that ends with a feedback coda. Hinkle's "Stolen Meters" is a tribute to the masterwork of New Orleans funkmeisters Leo Nocentelli and George Porter Jr., with de Smul wailing on blues harp. "Mr. Johnson" tips its fedora to Robert as Keb Mo' might, with Hinkle's fingers dancing all over his Dallas-built Republic resonator guitar, backed by a loping beat.
"Belgian Rain," "Like A Wave" and soulful ballad "Come With Me" mark the return of Hinkle's Texas singer-songwriter side, dormant since his eponymous 2003 CD. But the most "Texan" sounding item here might just be de Smul's closing ballad, "Still On My Mind."
On First Crossing, they demonstrate how new approaches and recombinations of elements can revitalize classic styles, with inspiration flowing from some unexpected sources. For the Eagle Audio sessions, Hinkle says, "I got out the Marshall stack and every effect that I had, including this Hughes & Kettner organ simulator thing. I was using my Telecaster and Strat and playing this stuff loud, with distortion. It didn't even strike me until we were doing the mixdown that this was [the result of] all those years of listening to Neil Young."
The disc's eclecticism might be problematic to listeners of a purist bent, but Hinkle is unconcerned.
"Our friend Conrad [de Muelenaere], who helped us out with logistics, told me, 'I've listened to your last few CDs, and it seems like you're all over the place. You don't know where you're coming from,'" he says. "And I told him, 'If you're from Texas, and you're going to be a musician, you'd better know country, and you'd better know blues, and if you know country, you're going to have some inkling of Western swing, and that's going to plug you straight into jazz.'
"When I go into a gig, people are coming with me, and I'm taking them on a trip to all the places I've been: East Coast, West Coast, New Orleans, over to Europe. That's what music is. I'm thoroughly comfortable with the blues, but Muddy Waters is dead. Robert Johnson's dead ... maybe. This is contemporary. This is our turn to tell the story."