Michael Hurtt and His Haunted Hearts, Come Back To Louisiana (Allons)

Encyclopedic music aficionados take on a risky gambit when they decide to make music of their own. The knowledge that gives them inspiration and a formidable arsenal of ideas can be a burden, clouding the waters with too much awareness of what’s been done before. SST Records’ Joe Carducci once famously said, “Record collectors shouldn’t be in bands,” expressing his suspicion of fandom’s self-consciousness, but Martin Scorsese’s best films are rich in depth because he’s a scholar of cinema—the movie version of a record collector. He can cite specific shots from his favorite films in intricate detail the way a music obsessive can point out every bit of minutia about some obscure garage rock 45 or free jazz side.

So it took some guts for prolific music writer Michael Hurtt (who wrote this month’s cover story) to put himself out there with the Haunted Hearts, knowing that listeners would hold him to a different standard. For a decade-plus, Hurtt helped lead the Royal Pendletons, a retro-rock outfit influenced by rockabilly and garage rock. But that group began before Hurtt was putting his opinions in print on the scale that he does now. The Haunted Hearts are where Hurtt the writer and Hurtt the musician find productive symbiosis, as if reviewing all those records were research.

The proof is in the grooves, and Come Back to Louisiana finds the Haunted Hearts digging deep into the obscure roots music that they love and seek to re-animate. As record collectors and studious followers of this music, they get the details right—the slapback echo on the vocals, James Burton-esque Telecaster tones from guitarist J.D. Mark, John Trahey’s doghouse bass and Hurtt’s acoustic guitar functioning as the drumless rhythm section. The song selection strikes a balance between Hurtt originals and obscure covers that all resonate with the romantic, late night, juke-joint world immediately conjured by the words “honky-tonk.” They swing with the confidence and ease of a seasoned live band, with Mitch Palmer standing out as the group’s secret weapon—his steel guitar solos and fills have a stunt pilot recklessness that adds a touch of danger to the music, having his way with wild pitch dives and always landing on that right note. This takes the pressure off Hurtt vocally, enabling him to sing with an ease that suits the material and his voice ideally.

New Orleans has never been known for having much of a country music scene, let alone honky-tonk, but we’ve certainly been living the life of the genre’s lyrics for a long time, so the time might be nigh for us to get with sounds of drunken romance set to weepy steel guitars. You don’t even have to have the right duds—but it seems to help.