I have to admit, as I sit here getting ready to file the latest entry in our ongoing alphabetical exploration of all things Americana—I’m wondering if I might not have finally stretched the boundaries of Americana just a bit too far. They might snap under the strain this time. You’ve been warned. Protective eyewear might not be the worst idea in the world if you choose to continue reading.
The problem is that our second stop on the letter “H” seemed like a perfect opportunity to highlight the contributions of Ed Hamell.
If there’s a better world being born, Ed Hamell is one of the songwriters telling us what to look for. One wonders whether we would recognize it without some helpful clues from folks like him. If, on the other hand, this is as good as it’s ever gonna get—listening to Hammel On Trial will at least leave you with the satisfying feeling that you’re not the only one alive who can at least imagine something more.
The problem with calling Hamell’s music Americana is that he’s tapped into the America that is a mythical creature oft heralded in song and prose but never actually observed in the wild. He’s tuned in to the America that Kerouac went looking for and never found… the same America that haunted Hunter into fear and loathing. He’s one of America’s few native sons who sees the power and potential lying dormant as clearly as Joe Strummer could when looking from the outside in.
He sings about the America that you find in Steinbeck, Zevon, and Vonnegut. He paints the America that should exist—using snapshots of what the all-too-real America does to the least of those among us.
Hamell on Trial is a one-man show and Ed’s playing and singing style is equal parts punk and folk. If anybody tries to tell you that those two things can’t go together, tell them to check out Son House playing a resonator guitar or Kurt Cobain covering Huddie Ledbetter.
The first time that I heard Hamell’s music, I was blown away. I quickly learned that I had been missing out on something worth knowing about for almost a quarter of a century. I got down to the serious business of addressing that oversight and I’ve never regretted a moment of the time that I spent doing so. But the best thing about knowing he’s out there now is that he just keeps getting better with age. The insights get sharper, the songs get better, and the performances get bolder.
Ed Hamell was born and raised in Syracuse, NY. He played in his fair share of bands before fate led to a solo performance at a benefit concert. He left that gig with a record deal from a local label—something he never managed to pull together with a band behind him. After spending some time in Albany, NY, he moved on to Austin, TX where he caught his stride. He got a regular spot at the Electric Lounge and was showcased at South By Southwest.
In 1997, when it was time to move on from Austin, Hamell headed for New York City. Around that time, he began self-publishing his tunes and continued to do so until he signed with Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records to release 2003’s ‘Tough Love’. He released four albums with Righteous Babe before moving to New West Records prior to 2014’s ‘Happiest Man in the World’.
It was around this time that I came out of Alaska for the first vacation that I had taken from working in the oilfield in a little over two years. I ran into one of my oldest friends while I was swinging through Pittsburgh. He asked what I had been listening to lately. I told him how sick I was of the playlist that I had been spending 12-14 hours with – every day. He knew that I was heading west for the next stop on my walkabout, so he gave me a copy of ‘Happiest Man in the World’to take along for the ride.
The rest – as they say – is history . . .
1989 – Conviction (Blue Wave)
1992 – Letter to Mike (Self-Published on cassette only)
1996 – Big as Life (Doolittle/Mercury)
1997 – The Chord is Mightier Than the Sword (PolyGram)
1999 – Choochtown (Such-A-Punch Media)
2001 – Ed’s Not Dead: Hamell Comes Alive (Such-A-Punch Media)
2003 – Yap (Such-A-Punch Media)
2003 – Tough Love (Righteous Babe Records)
2006 – Songs for Parents Who Enjoy Drugs (Righteous Babe Records)
2008 – Live From Edinburgh: The Terrorism of Everyday Life (Righteous Babe Records)
2008 – Rant and Roll (Righteous Babe Records)
2014 – The Happiest Man in the World (New West Records)
2017 – Tackle Box (New West Records)
2017 – Big Mouth Strikes Again (New West Records)
2018 – The Night Guy at the Apocalypse, Profiles of a Rushing Midnight (Saustex Records)
Key Releases: I really wish that everyone could hear the first song off of ‘Happiest Man in the World’ for the first time while careening between Joshua Tree National Park and Big Bear Lake in a rented shitbox of a car with the volume threatening the last of what the speakers had to give. I’m pretty sure that’s how it’s meant to be heard . . . but maybe that’s just me.