Thirteen years as a student at the Colorado Springs School may not sound like the typical background of a man born to sing the blues, but John-Alex Mason is well on his way to achieving a goal he's worked toward since he got his first guitar at age 12.
Since graduation from CSS and the Wooglin's Deli open-mike nights seven years ago, Mason has been honing his chops as a student at Middlebury College, a European street singer, and a five-month gig at a blues caf in Charleston, S.C. He has lived and worked full-time as a musician in Vail since last September, and he made his Colorado Springs debut performance Tuesday night, celebrating the release of his self-produced album Walking Tracks.
"There's blues to cry by, blues to jump for joy by, and blues to just sit on the porch with," Mason told his audience midway through a performance that mixed his arrangements of classics from Elizabeth Cotton, Lightnin' Hopkins, and Robert Johnson with his own original compositions. The result was a lesson in folk blues from a dedicated student of the craft, unearthing old roots music while updating the genre with his own material, echoing everyone from Greg Brown to Leon Redbone.
Among the standout originals were songs like "Hometown," a mid-tempo 12-string ode riffing on the pity of a town turned into a city. Mason jabs at everyone from cops and GIs to city council members and real-estate agents. The evening's most poignant moment came in the song "Oh Brother," the kind of achingly honest tribute to a brother that rarely comes out before tragedy calls for it. With his soft finger-picking and haunting harmonica breaks, Mason made gentle blues out of his childhood memories of his hero.
Walking Tracks, now available in local record stores, is a cleanly produced, mature study in solo voice and guitar with one foot on the steel rail tracks of Mason's predecessors and another in the untouched powder of his Rocky Mountain homeland.
* * *
Clean sweep for the cowboys
The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum announced its prestigious Western Heritage Awards for Western literature, music, film and television this week, and Colorado Springs' own Western Jubilee Recording Company (WJRC) took a clean sweep of the music awards.
A Prairie Portrait, the collaboration between Don Edwards, Waddie Mitchell, and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra produced by Rich O'Brien and Kathleen Fox Collins won the WHAmmy for Traditional Western Album. "The big pleasure is in bringing diverse art forms together and making something that makes sense artistically," Collins told the Indy in response to winning the award. "Cowboys and orchestras are not natural allies."
Collins took the idea a step further on the Sons of the San Joaquin's album, Sing One for the Cowboy, bringing the Opera Theater of the Rockies in to sing on the choruses for one song. "In my worldview it's fabulous to bring symphonies and opera companies and vocal arts ensembles and boy choirs together with traditional American artists," Collins added. "It's a wonderful opportunity to enlarge the audience."
The Sons of the San Joaquin won the Original Composition category for Jack Hannah's song "Charlie and the Boys" on Sing One for the Cowboy, produced by Rich O'Brien and Scott O'Malley. To complete the sweep, WJRC won the first-ever Western Record Label award, shared by O'Malley, Collins, Dane Scott and Kathie O'Malley.
Completing the Colorado coup, Spencer Penrose will be inducted into the Hall of Great Westerners along with Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and York, the black slave who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their expedition across the continent. Past award winners in various categories include N. Scott Momaday and Louis L'Amour for literature and John Wayne, John Ford, Jimmy Stewart, and Robert Redford for film.