John Fusco – Borderlands | Album Review

John Fusco – Borderlands

Rocket 88 Records R88R-JF-001

10 songs – 49 minutes

Since making his debut on CD as a singer/songwriter a few years ago, John Fusco has proven himself to be as equally as talented a bandleader as he is a screenwriter and movie/TV producer. The filmmaker who gave us Young Guns, Hidalgo, Thunderheart and The Highwayman, he’s a storyteller with few peers as this disc, which delivers a blues-filled saddlebag of what he terms the “Wild West Soul of America” shows.

Raised in Prospect, Conn., Fusco spent his early adulthood in the South as a laborer and blues singer. He turned to writing after experiencing vocal problems after co-founding and serving as the keyboard player/lead vocalist/harp player of the Travis McComb Band back home and touring with the Virginia-based Dixie Road Ducks.

A martial arts expert who’s always been fascinated with Western and Native American themes, his first-ever screenplay – a modern-day retelling of the Robert Johnson legend of selling his soul to the devil – became the blockbuster film Crossroads after being submitted as his master’s thesis while studying at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

This is the third disc Fusco has released since 2019 when he made his debut on the Checkerboard label with John Fusco and the X-Road Riders followed by John the Revelator a year later. Like those CDs, this album delivers a film-noire mix of blues and roots held together by gritty lyrics – in this case, the description of folks who find themselves trapped between past mistakes and an uncertain future. The songs unfold like a film script and are infused with coyote howls, mariachi horns and much, much more.

Fusco plays keys throughout. His pleasant, well-worn voice fits perfectly with the theme of his material. The set was produced and arranged by George Walker Petit, who contributes guitar, fretless bass, percussion and ocarina. They’re joined by Matthew Backer on guitar, Russ Lawton of the Trey Anastasio Band on percussion, Patrick Richard Ross on mandolin and Acadian fiddle, Connor Young on trumpet, Stuart Paton on congas, Jane Boxall on marimba, Michael Hartigan on accordion and Ashley Betton on backing vocals.

The quiet chirping of a dove followed by a horn flourish open “Coyote Man” before Fusco launches into a description of the title figure, a solitary “sailor on the sand who takes our children by the hand and leads them across the Rio Grande” – but also “diablo’s righthand man” who lets 60 wayfarers to die after one of their wagons gets stuck. A Spanish guitar runs are featured in “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which describes a cantina on the border, where the patron longs for the owner’s daughter as she dances seductively and pays for her company by killing Rio Hondo John, who preaches against the house of sin.

A stellar slide run from Backer drives the unhurried complaint, “Bad Luck Rides Shotgun,” which states “every time good luck tries to hitch a ride, bad luck shoots her through with misery” and flows into “Horseback Jesus,” the description of a highly scarred traveler who looks like a runaway slave, preaches peace and brotherhood and prays for his attackers’ salvation with his last breath after they’ve shot him.

The mood brightens for “Cowboy Picture,” in which the singer’s riding with his father during the most beautiful sunrise he’s ever seen before the image-drenched “Countrified Noise” describes the pleasures of a “simple man who likes to play his guitar real loud.” A seven-minute opus, “Cyanide Whisky” paints the picture of a woman who loves you like an angel but “you’ll wake up with a devil in your bed” before “Knighted by the Queen” visits another saloon where the owner has smallpox scars on her face but a regal attitude and a young man from New Orleans rules on the piano.

“Run, Rez Dog, Run” opens with the distant call of a coyote before it erupts into a country-bluesy hootnanny before yielding to a reworking of the traditional gospel number, “Ain’t No Grave,” to bring the album to a close.

Blues takes many forms, and John Fusco has a style that’s truly all his own. Check out this pleaser and I’m sure you’ll agree. It’s a winner on all counts.

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