Album of the Week: Bruce Langhorne’s The Hired Hand (1971)

In 1971, the actor Peter Fonda, to whom [Bruce] Langhorne was introduced by [Hugh] Masekela, invited Mr. Langhorne to compose the music for his movie “The Hired Hand,” an austere soundtrack that featured banjo, fiddle and acoustic guitar… Not suited to the pace of Hollywood, to which he relocated from New York in the late ’60s, Mr. Langhorne moved to Hawaii in 1980 to farm macadamia nuts. He returned to Los Angeles in 1985 and, in 1992, learned that he had Type 2 diabetes. His diagnosis inspired him to create Brother Bru-Bru’s Hot Sauce, an organic, low-sodium salsa. -New York Times obituary, 2017

Two years before his directorial debut The Hired Hand, Peter Fonda starred in the classic road-trip film Easy Rider (Fonda was also credited as a screenwriter). Easy Rider looked to the future with its psychedelic narrative, unconventional style and countercultural themes. I haven’t seen The Hired Hand, but its soundtrack by Bruce Langhorne is similarly forward-thinking.

Though the obit above suggests that he was a man of many talents, Langhorne is probably best known as a session player for Bob Dylan, appearing on multiple classic Dylan albums. However, The Hired Hand soundtrack bears little resemblance to Dylan’s music. Langhorne’s guitar on “Opening” is repetitive and hypnotic, as violins provide a cheery accompaniment. Percussion is quite sparse on this track, including a very lightly played dulcimer, lending the song an ambient quality. “Riding Thru the Rain” is ominous, with a piano that sounds as dusty as the untamed West depicted in Fonda’s cowboy movie.

The sound on the recording as a whole has an old-school reel-to-reel quality that is gorgeous, yet the music is not dissimilar to what 21st century artists in the cross-section of ambient and country (Scott Tuma and William Tyler come to mind) make. According to boomkat, “Langhorne assembled each piece alongside his girlfriend Natalie Mucyn, who with no prior mixing or editing experience multitracked the recording via some distinctly lo-fi tape dubbing.”

“Ending”, the album’s longest track, has a middle-section with flutes that is stunning. It’s a lovely finish to a strange, moving and all too brief album from an unheralded artist.

Listen to The Hired Hand here.

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