It’s hard to believe a first-generation Cuban-American is one of the founding fathers of the American alt.country movement, but Walter Salas-Humara has been at the forefront of the genre since his band the Silos released its debut, About Her Steps, in 1985 (or ’86, depending on whom you believe).
Back then, when hair metal and an infant electronic movement were the mainstream and country was in its big-hair heyday, About Her Steps entered quietly, a minimalist statement in an era of excess. Its combination of jangle, scratchy vocals and a certain will-o-the-wisp quality invoked the spirit of ’60s groups like the Byrds. But the Silos, unlike the Byrds, never quite took off among the mainstream, though the band was picked up by RCA for a self-titled album in 1990. Though sales were more than double those of the band’s previous two releases — and the songwriting showed a rapidly maturing Salas-Humara at home with the lyrical storytelling form — the band was dropped and largely retreated.
When the alt.country movement blossomed in the late-’90s, Salas-Humara was again considered relevant, a name to toss off your lips as testament to your hipness. “Oh, Walter,” alt.country fans would say, “he’s so authentic.”
This time, though, they had it right. Authentic he was — and still is.
When the Telephone Rings is Salas-Humara’s most realized work to date, seamlessly blending folk storytelling with droning guitars, soaring strings and world-music influences. Counterpoint harmonies on songs such as “The First Move” bring to mind Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch, while violinist Mary Rowell adds an Irish seashore melancholy. Songs such as “Don’t Wanna Know” are R.E.M.-esque pop, heavy on crying guitars and shuffling drums. It’s impossible to write a review of this album and not mention Dylan, simply because the two are so similar vocally and have both become pigeonholed icons of movements they long broke free of.
Though Salas-Humara has occasionally delivered a pooper (e.g., 1998’s Heater), When the Telephone Rings pulls more tricks out of his hat than a birthday-party magician. The county-fair calliope sound on “Dumbest on Parade,” the Traveling Wilbury’s “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”-esque “Take a Hit,” the Indian music sounds — they’re all devastating in their subtlety and finesse. Everything is soft, understated. This is an album for people who like little surprises, like finding five bucks in the pocket of your old winter coat.