Hilary Gardner's Pandemic Record of Cowhand Tunes

For all its insidious ferocity, the COVID ordeal also spawned a new musical genre: pandemic records. Stuck indoors like everyone else, some musicians found ways to express their creativity at home, often exploring new repertoire. While some of the resulting albums were myopic and indulgent, others—McCartney III for example—confirmed that artists who need to create will find ways. Trapped indoors, New York singer/actor Hilary Gardner found her musical muse wandering toward an unexpected place. "The songs I was initially drawn to—because I'm in this one-bedroom apartment in downtown Brooklyn—were about life on the trail, out in the natural world, generally being alone," she told me in a recent Zoom call, recalling the claustrophobia of that time. "They were songs that either embraced that feeling or were kind of rolling around in the melancholy of solitude. I wanted that thematic thread of being on the trail to connect all the tunes."

The desire for endless vistas eventually led Gardner to research sheet music from an unjustly neglected corner of the Great American Songbook: the rich vein of swinging tunes from the accomplished pens of Johnny Mercer, Frank Loesser, and others, written in the 1930s and '40s for the singing cowboys of stage and screen. It's a body of work the great k.d. lang has occasionally made her own. Learning from sheet music instead of recordings gave Gardner an uncommon edge: "The songs kind of took shape on their own, because I wasn't encumbered by what someone else had done."

The result of her exploration of Western music is On the Trail with the Lonesome Pines, her new album on New York City– based Anzic Records label. What caught my attention was a pair of songs, "Along the Santa Fe Trail" and "Lights of Old Santa Fe," that celebrate the New Mexico city where Stereophile was located in 1996, when I assumed the post of music editor. "It's one of those places where the landscape is so singular, if you see it, it never leaves you," Gardner says. "It's a really special place."

Alternating between swing tunes and cowboy ballads, the mix of tunes that makes up On the Trail includes two songs, "Silver on the Sage" and "Twilight on the Trail," made famous by Bing Crosby, one of Gardner's favorites. She says her inspiration for another classic Western number, "I'm an Old Cowhand," came not from sheet music nor the famous Sonny Rollins version but from the Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks album Striking It Rich (1972), which she encountered as a teenager. The imagery of the 1936 film and the even earlier song, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, was the inspiration for the band's name. Since moving to New York

City in 2003, Gardner has released three albums as a leader and played Frank Sinatra's vocal counterpart in Twyla Tharp's Broadway production, Come Fly Away. She is also a founding member of award-winning close-harmony trio Duchess. With a career mostly based in jazz and stage music, Gardner assembled a band for On the Trail that includes an old friend in Noah Garabedian ( bass) and a roots music–oriented guitarist in Justin Poindexter. Finding a drummer was a trickier proposition, filled by Aaron Thurston. "It had to be the right drummer. It couldn't be a big spang-alang-alang jazz kind of a thing," Gardner says with a smile. "You wanted someone who could swing but who also had to be creative and open."

Once in the studio, everything was played live with all the masters coming from early takes. "Early in my career, someone told me, if you can record fast, it will always work. You might get a cleaner version seven takes in, but all the spark is going to be gone. I believe that all the music is in the early takes."

At Figure 8 Recording in Brooklyn, where the album was made, Gardner had a secret weapon in husband and producer Eli Wolf. Formerly of Blue Note Records, Wolf has worked as a producer on recordings by Herbie Hancock, Norah Jones, and Willie Nelson, among others. A fan of vintage studio gear, Wolf recorded Gardner's voice using a Neumann U67 reissue microphone as well as a vintage RCA 44-BX mike; the latter, Wolf says, added texture to her vocal sound. Everything went through the studio's 1978, 30-channel Neve 5316 board running into Pro Tools. An EMT 140-plate reverb infused a sense of spaciousness. An attractive feature of Figure 8: The large plate is housed above the studio in a hallway of the studio owner's apartment. Lily Wen, the engineer who tracked the album, used outboard effects, while Teddy Tuthill, who mixed the album, used additional outboard effects and plug-ins. Not surprisingly, the sound of On the Trail is dynamic and compelling.

Part of the charm of this eclectic collection is that tunes like "Jingle Jangle Jingle (I Got Spurs)," "Call of the Canyon," and the closer, "Twilight on the Trail," conjure an archetypal vision of the American West. In her liner notes, Gardner alludes to this dreaminess in describing this beguiling body of work: "Silver stars, purple hills, slumbering shadows, and the lights of Old Santa Fe glinting in the distance. What heaven, to saddle up a reliable horse and wander, unworried and unhurried, under a vast Western sky!"

This is not the historical American West, but it's a powerful fantasy implanted in our collective imagination by such personalities as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. "It's a portrait of the West that is very malleable, very porous," Gardner reflects. "It's like a Rorschach. What does it mean to you?