In 1958, Ansel Adams took a photograph of
Arizona's Monument Valley. At first glance, the photo seems like a sliver of time, featuring three rock formations hanging in the balance between the foreground and the horizon as the desert spreads out into the Southwestern forever. Every ray of light and every shadow is paused at just the right moment, an impressive work capturing a quintessentially American sight. But if you look at it long and closely enough, you can see the wind move as it breathes across the highland, interrupted by the tall, red rock in its way, unknowingly being formed by time, wind, and sand. It comes alive, revealing that Adams' photos are not slivers of time, but bottled eternity. Just across the border from where Adams stood in 1958, near Utah's Zion National Park, three roots musicians, Hal Cannon, Greg Istock, and Eli Wrankle, collectively known as 3HATTRIO, are creating American Desert Music, a new music which responds to the natural world of this sacred American homeland. Their latest album,DARK DESERT NIGHT, uses the raw materials of American traditional music, capturing the formidable and unique ancientry of the American desert landscape. Like Adams’ photo, this music comes alive more and more with each listen.
"We live in a place that has a great and lasting indigenous imprint on it," says Cannon. "We don’t attempt to perform the music of the nomadic Native peoples who have lived here for centuries. We are modern day settlers in a place where settlement is not all that old." It is in this sense that the name 3hattrio derives its meaning from the band's three members, each contemporary Utahns with diverse musical backgrounds. Contributing his banjo, guitar, and vocals, is songwriter Hal Cannon, whose early musical life was dedicated to capturing the beauty and styling of nineteenth century folk music of the American West. A founding member of the seminal folk group Deseret String Band, Cannon has spent a lifetime studying and performing the traditions of Utah and the American Southwest, serving as founding director of the Western Folklife Center in Elko, NV, and producing nearly one hundred features and radio documentaries for public radio, including NPR and Australia's Radio National. As a folklorist and scholar of cowboy poetry, Cannon carries on the storytelling legacy that grew out of the western American cattle driving and ranching traditions. Originally from Florida, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and visual artist Greg Istock’s musical background comes from African traditions developed in the Americas, steeped in the worlds of Carribean music and experimental jazz. On Dark Desert Night, Istock plays bass and sings, bringing a convergence of rhythms and tones that span culture and history. Violinist Eli Wrankle, a native of Toquerville, Utah, grew up in a family of artists and was introduced to his instrument at the age of four. He has served as concertmaster of his high school orchestra and now, at age eighteen, has begun musical studies at Southern Utah University in Cedar City.
"The subject matter of our songs is sometimes desert oriented, sometimes not," says Cannon. "Mostly we express the desert experientially from a daily-ness of watching light off distant mesas and hearing the way sound plays off sheer sandstone cliffs. Then we play music.” On Dark Desert Night, this musically responsive approach to the land was exquisitely produced and recorded by Istock in his painting studio. The sound evokes that of Appalachia, Celtic roots music, old American ballads, and tranced-out Caribbean R&B, flowing into something that is at once otherworldly and grounded in the here-and-now of Utah’s red rock, a sound referred to by renowned cowboy poet Baxter Black as “profundo Gregorian sagebrush chant.”
At first glance, the desert might be seen as mere stone in a barren wilderness. But with Dark Desert Night, 3hattrio conveys the fertile beauty and wisdom of the desert of the American west, where the red dust pulses like blood and massive bodies of ancient water lurk beneath the earth. Here, life is best seen when lived close to the ground. And at dusk, if you linger long enough, your eyes adjust to the darkness, and the shadows rise up and dance, the wind begins to speak, and the dark desert night comes alive.