By Stefanie Kalem
“I don’t make a big deal that it’s all original material,” says Palm Harbor-based singer/songwriter Dave Hardin. “I just go up, I do my stuff, and if somebody asks, I’ll tell them. And I think I get more of an honest response that way.... I don’t think anybody’s ever really hated it. Well, there was a mullet fisherman’s bar in Tarpon, they didn’t like it much, but other than that – that’s the only time I’ve ever been fired from a gig.”
“Keeping it real” is the first thing that comes to mind when one encounters Hardin and his music. Patiently approaching 40, the troubadour wears his blonde hair shoulder-length, works a day job at a plant nursery, and sings his carefully rendered tales of everyday magic in a voice that simultaneously evokes the hills and mountains of Kentucky and Ohio, where he grew up, the sun and citrus tang of Florida, and the gravel of the roads in between. That distinctive vocal tone – sort of a cross between Kevn Kinney and John Prine – is a natural for Hardin, though, he jokes, the coffee, cigarettes and working outside haven’t hurt. “I’ve always had that singing voice,” he says. “I’ve never really been able to cut a really good falsetto for anybody, so that’s just kind of what it is.”
Hardin’s new CD, Nine Years Alone, is a crafty mix of twangy acoustic balladry, hard-luck stories, and even some sunlit, Wilco-ish y’allternative pop ("Can’t Believe My Eyes"). It opens with the wide, sad smile of “Between Us,” whose slide guitar and healthy strokes of twang and jangle (twangle?), lay comfortably beneath Hardin as he tells y’all how his “old Ford just took ill.” The disc closes with the funky, bossa nova joint “Ramses and Nefertiti,” but in between are a number of simple, acoustic stunners that can take your breath far away.
One of these, “Our House,” boasts fingerpicked guitar and a tale of the simple pleasures of life, like high school girlfriends, late night TV and domestic bliss. “We recorded that kind of as a fluke,” Hardin recalls, “just in the house when we were doing some vocals for another track. And it was brand new at the time so we went ahead and put it on there.”
The album title comes from the song of the same name, an ode to the effects that Hardin’s divorce had on his son, now 12. A picture of the boy – shirtless, airbrushed, and ecstatically holding a lit sparkler – graces the CD cover too. So what does the kid think of all this attention, I wondered? “Not a whole lot,” says Hardin. “... He’s been around (my music) since he was born. I think it kind of shocked him that he was on the front, but it was such a good picture.”
The disc has been getting rave reviews from local press, as well as hefty airplay onWMNF-88.5 FM The community station booked him for its recent Tropical Heatwave festival, where he played an early set to an enthusiastic, near-full house. All of this attention hasn’t gone to Hardin’s head – he attributes much of it to his promoter/manager Gary Ashton, who also plays drums in Hardin’s backing band.
“(Promotion is) something that I’ve never really been good at,” says Hardin. “I’m not really doing anything different than I did two years ago.”
Ashton will be heading with Hardin and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Bettison to Nashville at the end of June to work on music with The Mavericks’ Bob Reynolds and Scotty Huff, and with two of Music City’s most prolific songwriters, Billy Livsey and Tony Colton. While there, Hardin and company will most likely play a showcase gig at The Bluebird Cafe in Nashville.
The last time Hardin was in Nashville, in 1999, Ashton hooked him up with guitarist Phil Palmer, a Sony Europe recording artist and session/tour player for the likes of Tina Turner, Eric Clapton, George Michael and Pete Townshend (he appeared on Townshend’s recent VH-1 Storytellers special). Palmer is working on the Hardin assault across the pond, where Nine Years Alone is selling respectably.
These lateral moves, which include the pursuit of a lucrative publishing deal, are ample preparation for what Hardin admits is an eventuality in the Tampa Bay original music scene: hitting the popularity ceiling. “I don’t look to do it any time soon,” he says. “... I’m constantly writing, so it’s not like there’s always going to be the same songs over and over for like four, five years. It’s a constant change, so the material’s a constant change. And it grows. I’m working with two really talented musicians, so it always has the opportunity to grow in new and different directions.... So it doesn’t become stagnant. Because then it’s not fun anymore, and if it’s not fun, there’s no reason to do it.”
“I think the ultimate goal,” he says, “is to be able to do what we do and do it as good as we can, for as long as we want, and if that means we do it on our own, then that’s fine too. I know a lot of these musicians that are on Rounder and Philo, you know, major indie labels, they’re not going to make as much money selling their CDs as we do, selling them on our own. Not to say that it wouldn’t be nice to get signed, because that gives you a little bit more credibility to get booked and stuff. But I think what we do kind of speaks for itself.”
Dave Hardin performs every Thursday night at the Purple Moon in Dunedin, and will also be there June 16 and 30 (Fridays), and at Club More in Clearwater on Saturday, June 24 (727-466-6673). In November, he will appear at the annual Wings and Strings Festival in Polk City.
© Weekly Planet
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