Jim Hurst did not title his new album Intrepid on a whim. As one of bluegrass music's most respected guitarists, he has journeyed in and out of string music traditions, welcoming any artistic challenge that came before him.
Playing country music in the '80s and '90s with Trisha Yearwood and Holly Dunn? He's done that. Forming more bluegrass-bred alliances with Claire Lynch and Missy Raines? That's part of the résumé, too. And what about newer collaborative projects with acoustic-music pioneers David Grisman and Rob Ickes? They are all chapters in a career that has been purposefully intrepid every step of the way.
"I came up with the title," said the Middlesboro native, who performs Thursday at Natasha's. "It takes a little courage and maybe a bit of foolishness to do something like this, especially in the bluegrass genre."
Foolish? The music on Intrepid sounds anything but. Musically, it boasts master flat and finger-picking tunes with vocal inspirations that sail through multiple country and Americana-music generations. What sets the album apart from the works of numerous contemporaries is that Hurst does it all himself. Save for the closing gospel quartet piece (He Makes You Strong), Intrepid is a one-man show. Similarly, most of Hurst's headlining concert performances these days are unaccompanied affairs.
"It really reveals who I am in my solo shows," Hurst said. "A lot of promoters and event producers, they don't know what to expect unless you can hand them something that can provide a little perspective. I wanted the album to be as reflective as possible of my live solo show.
"(Country songsmith and progressive bluegrass stylist) John Hartford has tried something like this, but I guess there are different conversations as to whether he was bluegrass. So did (finger-picking guitarist/composer Randall Hylton. Both of those guys were pretty successful at it, too. Randall Hylton, though, was all about entertainment when he stepped up onstage. I mean, I try to make my shows real and fun. But I'm not a comedian. I don't tell jokes. I just try to have a ball with the music."
Many bluegrass enthusiasts probably were introduced to Hurst through his touring and recording tenure with Lynch, but it was Hurst's immensely popular duet with bassist Raines that led to the kind of technical proficiency and stylistic daring that defines his playing today. The instrumental makeup differs, but Hurst sees a strong link between his duet work with Raines and his newer collaborative music with Blue Highway dobroist Ickes.
"Missy and I worked together for almost nine years," Hurst said. "To be able to throw ideas at each other night after night onstage and inspire one another to always reach a little bit higher and still maintain the integrity, the essence of a song, was wonderful. With Rob, it's different only because there is no bass. But we're up for pretty much anything, from a pretty gospel song or a ballad to going out as far as a song by (blues pioneer) Skip James or even Miles Davis."
The increasingly visible music that Hurst is making with Grisman expands on that idea. His guitar work augments Grisman's mandolin leads and bass support from son Samson Grisman. They jointly perform under the banner of the David Grisman FolkJazz Trio.
"We're doing everything from Stephen Foster to the Rolling Stones," Hurst said. "We take on a pretty wide variety of music. Last night, we did a little bit of E.M.D. (the leadoff tune from The David Grisman Quintet's famed 1977 album, with guitar great Tony Rice and multi-instrumentalist Darol Anger), but did it kind of slow and funky. It was great.
"One thing about David: He is an artist, first and foremost. He has to make money and he has to be a businessman. He knows how to do that. But when it comes to his art, he doesn't pigeonhole. Playing with him offers a new opportunity to express yourself every night.
"I've always loved the variety in all of the music I've been able to play. I always knew when I was onstage with Holly Dunn, I was playing her music, and when I was with Trisha Yearwood, I was playing her music. But what I like about the diversity I've been enjoying these last couple of years is taking on so many different kinds of music on the same stage. I feel that way when I'm doing my solo thing as well as when I'm working with Rob or David. I get such a boost from that variety. I'm thankful for every bit of it."