'His voice is a little rough-edged, making us feel that the stories he tells us come by way of time and heartache.'
“You disappeared, like smoke, and I still call your name/I dig deep, but then I choke, on my yesterday,” sings Raleigh, N.C.-based Americana singer-songwriter Steve Hartsoe on “Salt and Wine,” the opening track of his new album, “The Big Fix.”
It’s a familiar theme on the 10-song indie effort -- moving forward in life while gleaning what you can from your past.
Throughout the album, released digitally and on CD in September 2016, Hartsoe taps the Americana and British Invasion wellspring that nourished his formative musical years in the San Francisco Bay Area. Delivering a diverse mix of rootsy songs about love, loss and languor, propelled by gritty guitars, strained vocals and groove-tight rhythms, Hartsoe holds nothing back.
A water cooler conversation between Hartsoe and a co-worker about a hardened criminal inspired the title, “The Big Fix.”
“He said, ‘Man, that guy needs the big fix.’ I thought, Yeah, we all do, really, so I wrote it about the impact my wife and my faith have had on me, especially in dark times.”
From the opening rocker “Salt and Wine” to the closing Dawes-flavored modern folk of “SLO (California),” the songs fit together because the writer has been around a while and experienced the crucible of life -- lost jobs, death, wayward family members and birth.
Those experiences translate into a refreshing honesty throughout the album. Or, as one writer sees it: "Steve Hartsoe sings with the conviction of a nomad bleeding his heart dry, performing for anyone from the side of a boxcar," attests writer Richard Murray from POW Magazine in San Francisco.
On the album Hartsoe also covers Tom Petty’s 1985 B-side “Trailer,” (recently re-done by Petty and Mudcrutch, an early incarnation of the Heartbreakers), a tale of young love and lost dreams.
Hartsoe wrote nine of the album’s 10 songs. He handles lead and background vocals, plays electric and acoustic guitars and harmonica while enlisting the aid of several talented friends and family.
Local musician-producer Wahba, who plays electric guitar, bass, keyboards and handles some background vocals, mixed and co-produced the album with Hartsoe. Steady drumming by Hartsoe’s son Eli drives the songs where they need to go, while Nashville ace Dave Ristrim, a member of Luke Bryan’s touring band and an old friend of Hartsoe’s from California, provides banjo and Dobro guitar on “Seven Miles to Wilmington” and blazing B-Bender Telecaster lead guitar on “This Can’t Be Right.”
Guitarist Phil Benjamin, Hartsoe’s former bandmate in California, plays the melodic guitar solo on “Trailer,” while local musicians Kurt Wuerfele (lap steel, guitar solo) and Jennifer Allred (harmony vocal) add just the right notes to elevate the countryesque ballad, “Only God Knows.”
Hartsoe honed his musical skills fronting an alternative rock band in the San Francisco area in the 1980s and ‘90s while sharing the bill with such notable artists as Chris Isaak, Todd Rundgren, Mudhoney, Young Fresh Fellows and, later as a solo artist, with Dan Vickrey (now of Counting Crows).
San Jose-based London Down (later, The Raging Marys) released two critically acclaimed albums, charted in France and toured from Portland to Santa Barbara. After the band's demise, Hartsoe began playing as a solo artist at clubs, cafes and churches around central and northern California.
Along the way he performed at landmark clubs including the Starry Plough in Berkeley and Hotel Utah in San Francisco.
In early 2003, a job opportunity with The Associated Press landed Hartsoe and his family in the Raleigh, N.C., area.
-- Steven McReynolds