When Cahalen Morrison was introduced to Eli West upon moving to Seattle from New Mexico, he formed his first meaningful musical partnership in his new home.
Both men have gone on to numerous other projects independent of each other, but they always seem to return and released their third studio album, “I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both Hands,” on Feb. 4. The duo will celebrate the album’s release at the Tractor Tavern Sunday night with Ruth Moody.
“We kind of came out of the brother duet tradition, the Louvin Brothers and the Stanley Brothers and all that sort of thing,” Morrison said. “We do a lot of singing stuff based on that tradition but we definitely go a little beyond, or short of, those guys. We have definitely modernized it, updated it, something like that — bastardized it.”
One of the challenges of playing in a duet as opposed to a full band like Morrison does with his country outfit Country Hammer is the vast amount of space that only two instruments and two voices can leave in a song. It’s also a big part of the fun for the duo.
“I think a lot of people playing in a duo might try to fill it all, and that gets crazy,” Morrison said. “A lot of people might sound too sparse, so there’s a fine balance between busy and letting the rhythm fall. It’s a really fun dynamic we have, in my opinion.”
The dynamic is fun and effective. The texture of Morrison and West’s music is lively and engaging but on “Swing My Hammer” it leaves plenty of room for Morrison’s sharp pen to shine through, whether it’s on the humorous “James is Out” (about a stubborn mule), or the stark beauty of “Down in the Lonesome Draw.”
Morrison might be one of the best songwriters in the city, but what further elevates his third effort with West is the inclusion of bluegrass multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien, who produced the record and also sang and played on it. Morrison said that while playing with one of his longtime heroes didn’t necessarily add pressure to recording the album, it did raise the bar and added some extra inspiration.
“It was a fairly magical thing to have him around and have his input on things,” Morrison said. “(West and I) have both aspired to him and have been inspired by him for a lot of years. That was fun to kind of have a pinnacle that we’ve both been aiming for in the room with us.”
Let’s call it a milestone. You get the very strong impression from “Swing My Hammer” that Morrison and West are far from peaking, and that’s a very scary though indeed.
-Owen R. Smith, on Twitter @inanedetails