Fifteen Favorites: The Joseph Huber Edition

Photo credit: Moloich Photography

Sometimes, these features are inspired by my listening binges. Really, I’ve been listening to a lot of Joseph Huber’s music lately – the sort of artist who stands as one of the last active links to the underground country movement of yesteryear, but also one who’s transcended that with a fruitful solo career of his own.

Granted, most Huber fans will categorize him as incredibly talented and horribly underrated and unknown, and that’s pretty much the perfect description. That’s been true even since his days with the .357 String Band, another outfit ahead of its time that crumbled far too early. But he’s also spent the past decade doing things his own way, without the added stress or malarkey (a fancy word for “bullshit”) that comes with navigating the music industry in the modern age. Of course, it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, Huber’s music is akin to a hidden treasure that requires some actual digging to unearth, and those in the know reap the benefits. But it also means I’m building up a myth and a legend for someone most readers of this blog are likely unfamiliar with, on his own or through past endeavors.

But I don’t know exactly what’s been pulling me back lately. Maybe it’s the way his melodies tend to linger or reappear out of the blue from time to time, or maybe it’s the old-world poetry he employs to paint beautiful scenes of common characters and emotions. It could even be the faraway, sepia-toned recording style he uses to make his poetry feel like old tales of folklore; certainly an acquired taste, but if it sticks, it sticks. I guess we’ll figure it out together down below.

I’m always uneasy to say anything I write here counts as a recommendation – in this day and age, you don’t need one guy with a blog telling you what to listen to out there – which is why I tend to label these more as discussions on a more informed and even level. This, however, will be a (hopeful) exception to that rule, and I hope new discoveries await someone out there. Let’s get started.

All songs written by Joseph Huber unless otherwise noted.

No. 15, “16-10”

I could be coy and say there are two kinds of Joseph Huber songs: the long, drawn-out poetic epics that require the patience to sit with and parse through, and the fast-paced, upbeat fiddle and mandolin tunes meant to be the material that would actually fit the live show setting, with everything else falling somewhere in between those two extremes. That’s not a slant, but rather an oddball way of determining individual expression, and one that’s evolved over the course of several albums.

Anyway, “16-10” certainly plays toward the latter element, but it’s also a sigh of resignation as Huber’s character learns how to play a relationship on an even level, likening it to a game of cards full of winning and losing streaks that eventually evens out for the better. It’s the first moment of triumph on this list where hope is found in earnest; learning how to trust and show your hand on a more vulnerable level, in other words. I’d bet on it any time.

No. 14, “Death, Cruel Shadow, Be My Shade”

Huber’s solo debut is an odd one. It’s an album comprised of material that stands in stark contrast to the more frenetic, high-energy punk and bluegrass offerings of the .357 String Band, playing to more melancholic, almost Townes Van Zandt-like territory. Certainly purposeful in showcasing a different side to Huber, and it’s not like I make that aforementioned comparison lightly. But it’s also one that, because of its somber, dour nature (and even that feels like sugarcoating it), doesn’t factor into Huber’s live show these days, nor does it quite reflect his discography at large.

Still a favorite of mine, though, and I’d include “Death, Cruel Shadow, Be My Shade” here on that title alone. But it goes further than that, anchored less in trite melodrama and more in genuine loneliness off the spare acoustics and fiddle and the general conceit of how past sins can consume us to the point of not feeling like we can move on accordingly. A bit broadly sketched, for sure, but no less gripping in its  melancholic plea from someone at the end of his rope, whether it’s in life or in the metaphor for hell it very well could be.

No. 13, “After You”

This is, simply put, a love story built on a happy ending cliché, but what I love about it beyond the chipper melodic flow off the touches of banjo and mandolin is the progression and attention to detail. From opening as wild dog on the prowl in search of something who could very stumble, to actually maturing and starting a family, it’s always amazing how Huber can construct such deftly-crafted poetry while managing to work in a great, evolving hook as well. Like with “16-10,” it’s all even, where he initially thinks he’s going to save some lonely soul, only for it to work the other way. It’s a track rooted in familiar tropes, but Huber just has this magnetic way of painting them in more interesting lights.

No. 12, “When I Was You And You Were Me”

I mentioned it in the opening, but Huber’s greatest asset to his poetic construction is the old folk-like sensibility to his writing, and it’s hard not to hear a song like this as a long-lost one from ages ago. What’s further striking is that it’s often rooted in a simple idea or theme, where the presentation and various one-liners and metaphorical devices used are what elevate it further. The thing is, too, Huber is also a bit of wildcard on record, so the natural reaction to finding out a partner has moved on from him is to anchor it within another fast-paced epic as the wheels come off and reflect in solitude. It’s far more playful and a bit more tongue-in-cheek than what I just described, and Huber certainly has darker songs in this vein. But again, great melodic hooks – especially this one with its blustering Celtic flair – will do subtle wonders sometimes.

No. 11, “Two Tongued Swear”

Of course, coming off of the previous entry, if “When I Was You and You Were Me” was the chaotic (but fun) downward spiral, “Two Tongued Swear” is the moment of consequence and accountability. Maybe it’s just my love for songs where characters actually get the chance to pick up the broken pieces and move onward, especially here where it’s not an easy, straightforward road to recovery; it’s easier to stumble and give back in to old desires, really. But it’s also a track where Huber’s character has enough dogged determination to do it for himself, which is what it’s really going to take to stay on the straight and narrow anyway, even if earning an old partner’s trust is also at stake. “I let the bottle down, and stopped being a let-down” … that says it best.

No. 10, “An Old Mountain Tune”

This is one of those “poor in spirit but rich in love” songs that has enough tongue-in-cheek self-awareness and lighthearted humor and optimism to win me over on its good graces alone. Huber’s character and his partner are barely making ends meet here, enough to where he admits that along with stealing food to keep from starving, he stole the words and chords from an old mountain tune to sing to her, because at least it’s something to offer in times of strife. Come to think of it, I guess I don’t know if it’s more lighthearted or sad in sentiment, but it’s certainly grounded and earnest in a way that can point it back to a strong, unshakable core, even after everything has fallen away. And to hear him sing this, it still sounds more like something borrowed and reshaped over something directly taken.

No. 9, “Bell On a Rope”

We’re back to that debut, and back to the days when references to Hell were common standards for underground country, really. Granted, this isn’t quite as direct – a lament for a dead man, above all else, where my best interpretation is that he’s caught in purgatory and could head in either direction. And yet, it’s the presentation that hooks me, oddly hypnotic in how the harmonica cries through at the perfect moments, and fitting in its transitions from bright to dark chords. It’s a song caught in between in more ways than one, but not for me – it’s a winner.

No. 8, “Souls Without Maps”

What’s amazing to me about each Huber album is not only how each album has evolved a little more and more musically with each passing era, but also how creative his compositions were with so little on those early offerings. He may have emerged from the .357 String Band as a master of the banjo and fiddle, but he’s basically conquered most string-based instruments and incorporated them into his sound today.

So it’s fitting that 2017’s The Suffering Stage, while not his first album to do so, is the one to incorporate plenty of piano to the mix to reveal a more soulful bent not only to his poetry, but even to his delivery. It’s a delicate touch, and one fitting for a tender sentiment like this, where two souls without maps who both got lost along the way find their way to each other anyway, and where the drums can also add a bit of dramatic punch and groove. It’s one of his most stirring hooks and a closer to a fantastic album, a rare happy ending for a Huber project that still carries its share of hard-fought battles and scars to reflect the actual journey.

No. 7, “The Unpromised Land”

I wouldn’t say 2014’s The Hanging Road is Huber’s darkest project – it’s nearly impossible to beat Bury Me Where I Fall in that regard – but it does feature some of his heaviest compositions. We’ll discuss the other one later on, but for the first, a booming echo built off the darker acoustics and galloping drums for a fiery hook is enough to make this feel thunderous in impact. All the more fitting for the writing, given that this is an intense post-breakup song that compares the destruction left in its wake to natural disasters; and it carries the potency to work, even as a seven-minute epic. It’s not the only cut in his discography to employ nature-based iconography to great effect, but for me, it’s one of the most powerful examples.

No. 6, “The Ancient Lake”

It’s another example of Huber using nature-based imagery to depict a dark tale – and on the basis of the mythical, southern-Gothic folklore sketched here, arguably one of his best. And off the creaking echo and sinister low-end fiddle and banjo interplay, it’s another song to feel distanced and told from long ago, like an old folk tale resurrected to depict common emotions of heartache, death, and despair in transcendent beauty. I’ve yet to touch on Huber as a singer, and indeed, his creaking, weathered tone may not be for everyone. But the way he stretches out each line with such sorrowful detail, it’s simply just haunting, and a testament to his emotive abilities. I hope his character has found that ancient lake by now, if just for his sake alone.

No. 5, “Sons of the Wandering”

You know, off the brighter touches of piano, organ, and mandolin giving way to a surprisingly chipper melody, I’m tempted to call this one of Huber’s most immediately engaging tunes. But it stems from a project that’s heady in its philosophical musings of, well, the world itself and the individual yet shared journeys we embark on, making this feel less upbeat and more … triumphant. I’ll touch more on that sentiment in a later selection, but “Sons of the Wandering” is Huber looking outward at the world and the people within it through arguably his most empathetic lens yet. Simply put, it’s an anthem for those of us thrown into a confusing world and doing our best to navigate it, but it’s also critical of those who’d take advantage of it or the players within it for pure personal gain. Arguably the most timely and political statement he’s made to date, but like the best statements in this vein, he speaks for the people rather than preaches to them.

No. 4, “Coming Down From You”

It’s hard to write about this without directly comparing it “The Unpromised Land,” another dark, echoing tale of heartache (that even stems from the same album as it), except this feels much more frenetic off the galloping acoustic groove and sizzling electric axes. Really, the typically uncommon latter element (for Huber’s work, that is), along with the faster pace in general, may be why this has felt so dramatically urgent for me in its attempts to find peace and closure. Simple and direct, for sure, especially compared to other songs in this vein here, but another fantastic showcase of emotive mastery.

No. 3, “Broken Paddles”

For as many ways as I’ve tried to described Huber’s writing thus far, there is something unconventional about it. He’s never necessarily writing about himself – these tales do often feel character-based, where even if you get more emotive snapshots over complete storytelling from time to time, there is something so simple at the core that resonates profoundly, whether it’s rooted in an old-time or modern-day setting, because we all stumble through the same basic emotions throughout time. So I don’t know … “Broken Paddles” has always struck a special chord for me, a tale of lament where Huber’s character is left alone pining for an old lover’s return, knowing full well it won’t happen, but wishing it would anyway. It’s an odd mixture of chipper and melancholic off the brighter melodic groove and Huber’s downplayed delivery. And perhaps it’s just my fondness for characters who aren’t going to get what they want but have to grin and bear it anyway, and my desire to root for them regardless. Either way, goodbye has only rarely sounded better.  

No. 2, “Pale, Lonesome Rider”

There are times where Huber’s material can sound vastly different in the studio setting compared to the live one, and indeed, it took that live setting for me to fully appreciate “Pale, Lonesome Rider” in its entirety. It was always fantastic either way. The studio version is more reserved and low-key, likely more fitting for the titular persona off the spare blasts of harmonica destined to ramble on alone, while the live version is faster-paced and more urgent, as if the former version is meant more as a character study and the latter offers more of a warning to stay away. Either way, he knows that lone, wandering troubadour spirit in him isn’t fit for that long-haul role, and it’s a familiar pathos that sounds potent and striking in execution. And that chorus – “I’m a pale, lonesome rider, throwing my face right to the wind / a better man would settle down beside her, who do you think I am?” – is an all-timer for me.

As always, before I unveil my No. 1 pick, here are a few honorable mentions:

“Bury Me Where I Fall”

“Iron Rail”

“Where You Said You Would Be”

“A Northwood Waltz”

“Dance Around the Daggers”

“The Hanging Road”

“Hello, Milwaukee”

And lastly, “Fell Off the Wagon”

If there is one popular Joseph Huber song, it’s this one. It’s not an immediate favorite of mine, but I’d be remiss not to spotlight it in some form.

And now, my No. 1 pick:

No. 1, “The Suffering Stage”

This, above all else, is Huber’s grandest artistic statement to date. It’s easy to find simple comfort in his old-time melodies and poetic resonance that stems from tales of heartache, loss, and other forms of personal strife. But this addresses all of it head-on, in a way that almost feels uncomfortable at first – not just in the way his flow ramps up and gets genuinely angry at points, but also through the soft lead in with the acoustic guitar and hint of fiddle that coalesces into several tempo changes and an increased drum presence to lend it its pounding heart. It’s a profound epic that takes inspiration from one of Buddhism’s main tenets: that we endure different stages of life until we reach ultimate happiness.

And yet, despite fostering an old soul at heart in tales that feel like they come from a past world, this is strikingly modern, addressing the cycles of poverty and class that divide us as a nation. The pain of a world torn by sorrow and strife. The savageness and cruelty of how we treat our fellow others … you know, come to think of it, I guess it really could speak to any time after all.

And even still, he ends it by asking for one more day on the suffering stage, because he’s determined to make it through despite the world’s cold harshness, because better to endure it for the sake of others – to make a mark or impact that can at least somewhat help the current and next generations along – rather than let it beat you for nothing. Hell, even then, there’s still those moments of personal beauty we get to glimpse and experience that aid us in that endeavor, whether they be natural or made by those suffering in the same way we are as a tribute to us. And at least with these songs, Huber has made that suffering stage a bit less lonely for those willing to listen.

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