The CD-Release for Holding On will take place at the High Noon Saloon on Saturday, March 19th. New local band Old Soul Society will also celebrate the release of their eponymous debut. Sarah Lou Richards, a Wisconsin native now in Nashville will also appear. The show is part of BandSwap, an effort supported by the City of Madison and overseen by the Madison Arts Commission.
It’s been said before that if you spend enough time on the road you might not be able to pull off. Josh Harty has been on the road basically since childhood, traveling with his dad across the North Dakota plains and elsewhere. In the five years that have elapsed since his last solo recording, Harty has toured relentlessly in forty-one states and thirteen European countries, even recording an EP in the Czech Republic that was offered as a reward in his Kickstarter crowdfunding project. For Harty, music and the road are his reality. Holding On is a reflection of that reality and is one of those recordings that comes along far too infrequently; one that is so sincere and heartfelt, delivered with such honesty that it takes on the same qualities as literature, a piece of work that can be absorbed over and over with varying realizations, depending on your own reality and state of mind at the time. This is the type of music that speaks, in a voice that is clear and resonant, confident and yet full of unanswered questions, examining behaviors with no clear explanation and the blur of the highway providing the ultimate comfort.
Holding On is also more than that. It is a classy collection of sublimely arranged and recorded songs, captured at just the right time. Had he labored more he may have added another repeat, another verse, or second-guessed some of the lyrics. Holding On is like that fine brew that had just the right ingredients, was created at just the right temperature and goes down oh-so-smooth. People can argue analog versus digital all day long but there is no substitute for musicians playing together in the same room. That’s the magic. The medium that captures it is far less important because that frequency, those synchronized brainwaves, cut through all the bullshit. It doesn’t matter if it’s classical or noise rock or, in Harty’s case, beautifully articulated Americana. All of the rhythm tracks and vocals were cut live at DNA Music Labs with Mark Whitcomb at the helm.
The concoction that is Holding On is further enhanced by the aged wisdom and experience of some of Madison’s best players. By now Blake Thomas and Harty are blood brothers. They co-produced this record with Thomas adding guitars, banjo and Hammond organ on several tracks. The rhythm section of drummer Scott Beardsley, percussionist Pauli Ryan and bassist Chris Boeger are the foundation, establishing a comforting groundwork that allows the other instruments that elusively charmed space in which to flourish. Chris Wagoner is another key ingredient, turning in inspired performances on mandolin, Dobro, lap steel, violin and even biting electric guitar. Dan Walkner chips in on electric guitar as does Earl Foss and the Brown Derby guitarist Andrew Harrison. Tight Tiger’s vocalist Brian Knapp appears as well.
“The road is like one big family,” Harty once said and some of his extended family contribute: the husband/wife team of Matt Castelein and Kelley McRae provide vocals on the title track, Montana violinist Trevor Krieger teams up with Wagoner, contributing a beautiful string ensemble to “Running.” Nashville’s Rusty Lee plays Hammond and other keyboards on several tracks and Atlanta musician Ben Brooks-Belcher plays harmonica.
The theme of these ten songs may be best boiled down to a stanza from “Running,” a mournful ballad that sums the constant motion with life’s finite span: “Time, is gonna bring you down / When you run you find that you’re the only one / That you’re running from.” Or this from “Kind,” a tune with a catchy chorus that is juxtaposed with a ghostly electric guitar: “You’ve always been the kind / To keep it inside ‘til you run out of time / …The choices that you’ve made I’ve heard you say / Can come from behind / And then you’re out of time.” And then there’s “Wired,” the most countrified track on the album that has some tasty, jangly guitar and stellar lap steel from Wagoner: ”I’ve never found the answers / To the questions I’ve never asked / Pride will kill a fool anytime it can / So day after day I burn the page / No matter wrong or right / Because what’s never found can never come at you from behind / Apparently it’s the way I’m wired…”
All the songs on Holding On were penned by Harty except for “You and the Road,” which was written by Nashville artist Brooks West and the rocking “Shiver in the Dark,” co-written with Austin’s Christopher Plowman. All are biographical in nature, save one: “Ballad for a Friend.” “A while back I was reading through the Dallas Morning News and found an article that I found wildly intriguing,” Harty explains. “Two high school aged boys having a spat with a third boy over a girl decided to lure him into the woods and murder him. So, while trying to wrap my head around the story I wrote my first murder ballad.”
Harty’s vocals channel Gordon Lighfoot, Dylan or even Richard Thompson perhaps. On the JJ Cale meets Dire Straits “Round & Round,” Rusty Lee’s keyboard even quotes the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm.” But the sum of any influences on Holding On add up to one thing: Josh Harty, a singular achievement that not many musicians realize. “I made up my mind a long time ago / Every day’s been another round, another scar to show / Just hope that I’ve done good / I just hope I’ve done all I could,” Harty sings on “Learn to Fight.” You’ve done good, Josh, you’ve done good.