Over the past decade, James Hyland has had it so musically good as the lead singer and principle songwriter of the popular and lauded South Austin Jug Band. So what to do for an encore? Go back to the solo career he set aside when he formed SAJB. In the same spirit, do it with the magical musical assistance of some of his old Jug Band cohorts. And at the same time enhance his own artistic brand that, as Performing Songwriter raved, “possesses a hypnotic power and an intensity that is emotionally captivating.”
CELESTIAL NAVIGATION is just the sort of mesmerizing album to firmly make that mark, rich with the same qualities among many other of Hyland’s musical merits. And as an indication of just how captivating his voice, songs and vision are to Hyland’s many devoted admirers and followers, the recording of CELESTIAL NAVIGATION was financed through contributions from fans that truly value his work.
The new album is marked by what one might call a low-country sound. Hyland says, “I like to think of this album as the music playing on the jukebox at the first honky-tonk on the moon.” Praised by East Bay Express for creating “a kind of joyful noise that seems made of pure sunlight and moonshine,” Hyland weaves his spell this time out from the moods and vibes of twilight and nighttime. The result recalls Neil Young’s classic rural music rumination HARVEST and the sepia-toned Americana of The Band and plays as if Nick Drake were from the American South or Elliot Smith might have made a roots record. Yet just as Hyland did with recordings by South Austin Jug Band, this album’s sound blends genres and inspirations.
Playing a bohemian blend of bluegrass, acoustic country-folk, Texas roots and more with a wide-ranging beatnik sensibility, the Jug Band quickly became a weekly live music phenomenon that packed Momo’s. A limited-edition live album, PICKIN’ AND GRINNIN’, helped stoke the buzz, followed by three critically acclaimed studio albums: SOUTH AUSTIN JUG BAND (produced by the legendary Lloyd Maines), DARK AND WEARY WORLD and STRANGE INVITATION. At the center of it all was Hyland, “whose gently rolling voice was exquisitely tuned to all six instruments, never showy, always poised for the right turn of musical phrase,” wrote the Austin American-Statesman.
Over its 10-year run, the award winning SAJB morphed through seven different configurations and covered countless road miles, winning devoted fans as well as critical acclaim such as The Austin Chronicle’s praise for its “superb musicianship [and] enticing songsmithing.”
After the Jug Band called it a day, Hyland spent the next year writing songs drawn from his time and travels with the group. “The new album reflects on the experience of all that and all the little themes you absorb but you don’t realize that your subconscious is grabbing,” he says.
Hyland sought to retain and refine the distinctive sound he and SAJB had created. “Those guys really are some of my heroes. I look up to them because they are amazing musicians. Their style is definitely a part of my sound, and I brought a lot of that over to this record.”
Hyland’s musical career has been a wonderful surprise for him. Born in Charlotte, N.C., and weaned on Motown, he lived in Charlotte until his family moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, when he was in third grade. Around age 10, Hyland caught Bob Dylan playing “Like a Rolling Stone” on TV. “I couldn’t understand a word he said, but I loved the sound,” he says.
After high school, during which his primary interests were Led Zeppelin and basketball, Hyland enrolled at the University of Texas with the ambition of writing for film and television. “I just wanted to write,” he says. He started hitting Austin’s music scene, and what he heard inspired him to buy an acoustic guitar and a Willie Nelson songbook.
Hyland’s music has allowed him to do something he loves as a profession, and he will continue to in live performances with his band, the Joint Chiefs. “Nothing is going to keep me from playing music other than death or paralysis,” he says. “If I’m still playing music, I feel great.”
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