That there are still undiscovered treasures hidden amongst the cluttered racks of countless record stores across the country is enough to keep people digging through stacks in hopes of coming across something revelatory. When guitarist and singer-songwriter Ryley Walker came across a copy of John Hulburt’s private press album Opus III in a Chicago record store, he found himself faced with just that. Spearheading the lone album’s reissue on Tompkins Square, Walker refers to Hulburt in the album’s liner notes as, “the undeniable and unsung hero of solo fingerstyle guitar of our city [Chicago].”
An anomaly within a city at the time better known for its contributions to electric blues and garage rock, John Hulburt’s solo acoustic guitar recording Opus III went virtually unnoticed when originally released in 1972. Given the city’s lack of prominent acoustic-based performers and the Midwest’s overall dearth of solo guitarists working in the John Fahey/Takoma school of acoustic playing, this fact is not surprising. What is surprising is the overall quality of the performances turned in here by the former garage rocker and member of the Knaves.
Where contemporaries like Fahey, Robbie Basho and even Leo Kottke tended to favor more meandering, contemplative guitar studies that allowed them to explore a host of styles and influences while simultaneously take the instrument and form to a new level, Hulburt’s approach is far more concise, more song-focused. At a whopping 20 tunes, one would expect Opus III to come close to the two hour mark. However as the majority of these performances barely reach the two-minute mark, the album itself clocks in at a scant forty minutes.
But within these forty minutes, Hulburt makes a case for inclusion alongside the better-known names of the time. Deftly picking his way through a host of highly melodic, never wandering pieces, Hulburt’s background in the pop realm helps reign in the artier pretensions that often bog down his more folk-minded peers. Instead, these compositions tend to feature more of a traditional verse/chorus structure with clearly defined sections that focus more on musicality than virtuosity. This isn’t to say Hulburt isn’t capable of virtuosic runs (see his subtle fills on “Coffee House Theme” and “Polydiom No. 2” for proof of this), rather he prefers a more tasteful, almost simplistic approach to the compositional process.
Working within such tight parameters, it’s impressive how Hulburt manages to avoid repeating himself either in his phrasing or melodic inventions. While each certainly sounds of a piece and the work of one mind, there is enough variation to hold the listener’s attention throughout. When his voice appears on the ninth track, “Guitar on My Knee”, it proves as straightforward and unfussy as his guitar playing, refusing to call attention to itself despite its clear technical proficiency.
Throughout Opus III Hulburt manages to nimbly navigate a number of styles. From rags to blues, singer-songwriter fare to classically tinged guitar workouts (“Hallelujah I’m on Parole Again”, in particular teases the “Ode to Joy” passage of Beethoven’s 9th) Opus III masterfully displays a broad stylistic range and keen ear for melody.
At under a minute, “Libby” may well be the album’s most affecting moment. Under a laidback, major key melody Hulburt uses a series of drones to create a wistful feel that, despite the optimistic tonal nature of the melody, adds an overall feel of melancholy. It’s an interesting emotional contrast that, due to the song’s length, can be missed the first time around. But there’s something in the song’s fleeting moments that draws the listener back in, much like the whole of this brief album, a feeling of something wonderful having transpired just out of reach and requiring further inspection. Thanks to Walker and Tompkins Square, the latter long a champion of solo acoustic players and the former an accomplished player himself, the world will now have a chance to do just that.