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Jim Hurst is a bluegrass true believer

Courtesy photo
The 2012-13 Woody Hawley Series season begins Saturday with singer/songwriter Jim Hurst. Opening for him is local musician Chet Lowther.

WANT TO GO?

Jim Hurst, with Chet Lowther

A Woody Hawley Series concert

WHERE: Clay Center Walker Theater

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

TICKETS: $18

INFO: 304-561-3570 or www.theclaycenter.org

 CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Jim Hurst doesn't listen to much country radio anymore, and when he does, he can't really make heads or tails of it. Country music, he thinks, has lost its way and forgotten where it came from.

The acclaimed guitarist and singer/songwriter, who opens the Woody Hawley Series at the Clay Center on Saturday, said, "If you listen to mainstream country music radio, you don't hear Loretta Lynn, Merle Haggard or Willie Nelson. It's really sad. All the artists sound the same. It's the same demographic, the same age group, the same kind of sound."

Country music, he said, isn't interested in any kind of real diversity. The labels turn all their artists into basically a variation on the same theme -- and that's boring.

Hurst has a hard time figuring out why anyone would want to listen to that. The good stuff, he said, is on AM radio, on little college radio stations.

"That's where you have to go to hear the people who really started country music," he said.

Hurst came up through country music. He played in Holly Dunn's Rio Band in the '80s and toured with Trisha Yearwood in the early 1990s, playing electric guitar. But by the middle part of that decade, his interests had changed.

He switched to bluegrass and joined Claire Lynch's band. Before long, he and Lynch's bassist, Missy Raines, began performing as a duet on the side. In 2010, Hurst left the Claire Lynch Band to pursue a solo career.

"It's been a great opportunity for me to grow as an artist," Hurst said. "I'd been a side man for so long."

Bluegrass is a better fit for him, he said, although he acknowledged that that's not entirely what he does.

"When I do a show," he said, "I might do three or four songs that are bluegrassy, and then do some songs that completely aren't."

But he loves bluegrass. He sees it as more dynamic. Unlike country music, which seems stagnant and superficial, he believes bluegrass is evolving while remaining reverent to its roots.

He said, "The great thing about bluegrass radio is you can still hear Bill Monroe. You can still hear Flatt and Scruggs and Jimmy Martin and Done Reno and Red Smiley. You hear the new stuff, too, but they don't play it really any more than the older stuff."

Modern bluegrass, even the progressive stuff played by people with purple hair and electric instruments, remembers the artists who came before, he said, which helps keep the music alive.

"What's great about that is you might come in listening to Nickel Creek or Alison Krauss, but through them, you can discover Bill Monroe or Del McCoury and become fans of theirs, too."

A lot of the time, it's just him on the stage with his guitar. Hurst likes controlling the action, setting the pace and leading the audience on his own.

"For me, it's almost like a ride at an amusement park," he said. "Sometimes you want your head to snap around and sometimes you just want to take it easy, like on a riverboat."

Still, while he's been busy with his solo career, he hasn't quite given up on playing in bands. Over the past year or so, he said, he's played some as part of a trio with David Grisman (Old and In the Way, Earth Opera) and his son, as well as exploring other musical ensembles.

Hurst said, "I've also been doing some work with Rob Ickes, who won the International Bluegrass Music Association award for Dobro Player of the Year. He and I have been doing some duets. We might record something. We'll see. I guess who knows what tomorrow brings?"

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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