Musical stories: Valley native's new album feature Vigo County dateline
By Mark Bennett, The Tribune-Star | 1|14|2010

TERRE HAUTE — In journalism, some stories hold happy endings. Some end in pain. In almost all, interesting stuff happens along the way.

David Hanners has earned a living, and a Pulitzer Prize, telling those stories in newsprint. But he also turns stories into songs, using his voice and guitar instead of a computer keyboard. Hanners first album, 2004’s “Nothingtown,” impressed critics with its “new folk” style. Comparisons to John Prine and Steve Earle came with it. His new album “Traveler’s Burden” features 12 tracks with datelines from Casey, Ill. (where he grew up), to Vigo County (where he attended college, at Indiana State), Texas (where he won his Pulitzer, at the Dallas Morning News), Minnesota (where he lives and works now, at the St. Paul Pioneer Press), and several points in between.

It’s an entertaining, shocking, sad, funny and wistful ride. Just like life, sometimes.

Hanners delivers the tales with blunt, yet poignant lyrics set to foot-shufflin’ folk music, with hints of talkin’ blues and bluegrass. The instrumental mix around Hanners’ rugged voice is subtle, deft and engaging.

The backing sound — composed of guitars, mandolin, violin, harmonica, bass, cello, fiddlesticks and even a Middle Eastern oud (appropriately chosen) — carries the stories through peaks and valleys like a rhythmic train.

The pain and yearning reaches its deepest point on “Someplace Else.” An abandoned husband and then a hard-working waitress struggle with the realities of lives ripped apart or wasted, while assuming “grass is always greener on the far side of the hill, we seldom see the proof but we believe the lie, still.” Hanners’ vocal is joined on the chorus, in stark contrast, by Amy Brockman’s angelic soprano.

The disc captures the drama of crimes, too, including the I-70 killer on the title track, murder in two deceitful love triangles on “The Price Was Too High to Pay” and “Tex Thornton.”

In “Westfield Blues,” set in the vast farm prairies of Hanners’ native Clark County, a meth cooker narrates his bleak existence. The true-life “The Ballad of Mohamed Saleh” packs sad irony, explaining how a Somali immigrant came to America to find freedom, and wound up killed in his cab by a robber.

The instruments are paired with the words like wine and food. The oud — a fretless, pear-shaped, stringed instrument — is used on “The Ballad of Mohamed Saleh,” and would be familiar to Somalians. “Tex Thornton” includes harmonica riffs as wicked as the cheatin’ oil-firefighter and the drifter couple he picks up in his ’48 Chrysler. The couple, Evald and Diane, are no Jack and Diane; Tex makes a move on her, and ends up dead.

There’s post-traumatic stress disorder (“When My Demons and I Come Home”), a horrible hospital fire (“The Ashes of St. Anthony’s”) and insects (“13-Year Cicadas”). But when it comes to tragedy, “Fontanet” shakes the listener hardest. By chance, on a visit to Terre Haute, Hanners learned about the 1907 duPont powder mill explosion in which “27 souls were left dead or dying, and many more maimed on that god-awful day.” He finishes the song by telling the tycoon owner — Alfred duPont — “he can take his money, and he can go to hell.”

There are touches of hope, too. “The Red-Winged Blackbird’s Tale” inspires a deep, happy exhale. The winged creature offers advice to a restless soul: “Boy, you can roam this whole wide world, you can tell yourself you are free, but freedom comes from knowing true love, and you can take that from me.”

The collection concludes with “Bare Trees,” a longing for a Minnesota winter and old ghosts to finally let go. “But the spring shines new hope on everything, it seems,” Hanners sings.

“The Traveler’s Burden” isn’t a cure for the winter blues. Instead, it’s a musical reminder that surviving the rough stuff eventually brings us to spring. Share beers, or cups of coffee, as it plays, then zip up your jacket and stand up straight before you head out into the cold.