As undiscovered talents go, it’s hard to top Ted Hawkins. The soul and roots songwriter lived a hard life and died before his name was widely known in his home country. Yet for those who have heard his music, Ted Hawkins is as well-respected as he is enigmatic.
Such was the case with Austin musician Kevin Russell, longtime bandleader of Shinyribs. “It was love at first listen,” he says.
This weekend, Russell and a host of other artists come to the Lagunitas brewery in Petaluma to perform their Hawkins tunes from the new tribute album,
Cold and Bitter Tears: The Songs of Ted Hawkins, out now on Eight 30 Records.
“From the first song, I was just blown away,” Russell says. “I played it for everyone, and everyone loved it. We all shared his music in our little group.” By the time Russell made this discovery, Hawkins was living in Venice Beach and performing on the boardwalk as a busker. Popular in faraway places like Europe, the songwriter was often overlooked and unknown in the States.
Labels like Rounder Records gave Hawkins a deal, but his restless and unconventional life kept him in obscurity. In 1994, he hit the big time when he secured a record deal with major label Geffen and released The Next Hundred Years. Sadly, Hawkins died from a stroke shortly after the album came out.
Russell never got to see Hawkins live, but he became the self-described “Johnny Appleseed of Ted Hawkins,” playing his music during Shinyribs concerts and sharing Hawkins’ songs with anyone who would listen. One recent listener was Jenni Finlay, a music promoter and manager who first heard Russell play Hawkins last year in Kansas City. By the time she had driven home to Austin, she decided to produce a tribute album.
Recruiting several country, rock and folk artists, Russell, Finlay and writer Brian T. Atkinson co-produced Cold and Bitter Tears. The record features James McMurtry, Kasey Chambers, Mary Gauthier, Shinyribs and others, and includes a previously unheard demo, performed by Hawkins, as a hidden track.
“Every song has its own character that each artist brings,” says Russell. “There’s a lot of color on the record, but it’s not a paint-by-numbers project.”
This Friday, Russell and other album contributors are marking the release of Cold and Bitter Tears with a concert at Lagunitas, which originally helped finance the album.
“It’s going to be a fun time and a good celebration of his songs and his life,” Russell says.