Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
There are plenty of tragic music business stories to go around, but the sad tale of Ted Hawkins ranks right up there as one of the most heartbreaking. The talented and unique singer/songwriter was a devotee of Sam Cooke (some hear more than a little Arthur Alexander, too), and while there is plenty of smooth soul in Hawkins’ low key strum, there is just as much country, folk and blues. Many biographies detail the artist’s often self-imposed troubles (heroin addiction, multiple jail stints, “erratic” behavior), but the broader story is that, although he enjoyed some European success, he was largely ignored in the States. That was about to change after his first major label effort was released in 1994. But his untimely death on New Year’s Day 1995 at age 58 was the final piece of bad luck on a resume filled with them.
Regardless, he left behind a catalog of impressive and timeless songs, many with minimal accompaniment, which emphasized his expressive, smooth-yet-dark hued vocals. There has yet to be a major compilation of Hawkins’ work, a gap that will hopefully someday be filled. But now we at least have this 15-track tribute (along with a 16th hidden a cappella cut of Hawkins himself seems like a home recorded demo) of primarily Austin-based musicians interpreting a clutch of his most memorable songs. The themes of broken and unrequited love may not be fresh, but Hawkins’ often achingly touching lyrics and earnest never saccharine tunes are brought to life in these obviously heartfelt covers. The lack of major star power—James McMurtry, Kasey Chambers, Tim Easton and Mary Gauthier are the most recognizable names—may hinder this set getting the appreciation it deserves. But every performance finds the sweet spot in Hawkins’ often melancholy melodies.
A case can be made for Hawkins’ typically stripped-down approach as the best way to appreciate his songs. But these versions that generally add a small combo to flesh out the sound are just as impressive and at times arguably more so. Randy Week’s twangy shuffle helps push across the self-accusatory lyrics of “I Got What I Wanted” (the rest of the chorus continues with the far more bleak “but I lost everything I had”) and the Damnations’ swinging “Bring it Home Daddy” unearths Hawkins’ great pop songwriting sense. McMurtry’s typically droopy-eyed vocals perfectly reflect the only slightly optimistic outlook of “Big Things,” a track whose autobiographical lyrics could be made into a movie. Although Gurf Molix’s voice is gruffer than anything Hawkins sang, he captures the rough, sad spirit of loss in the self-explanatory and somewhat 60-ish “I Gave Up All I Had.” Sunny Sweeney’s pure country vocals mine all the cheatin’ hurt from the double entendre “Happy Hour.” But Hawkins could be playful too as captured in the guitar and voice rendition of Danny Barnes’ “Bad Dog” and Shinyribs’ full blown soulful rollicking “Who Got My Natural Comb.”
Kudos to Shinyribs’ Kevin Russell, publicist/manager Jenni Finley, and writer Brian T. Atkinson for their perseverance in compiling this tribute. It may not be the first place to go for newcomers to Hawkins music—of which there are likely many—but it’s a wonderful extension of his style and personality and makes a terrific addition to his small yet remarkably buoyant catalog.