I first came across the name John Egenes in 2013, when I reviewed New Zealand country singer-songwriter Donna Deans’ superb album Tyre Tracks and Broken Hearts. While it was indubitably Deans’ album, Egenes’ fingerprints were all over it too. He not only produced it but wrote one of the songs, played several backing instruments (acoustic guitar, pedal steel guitar, dobro and mandolin) and sang harmony vocals. It turned out that Egenes, who hails from Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a former session musician who now works as a lecturer in contemporary music at the University of Otago.And there’s a lot more to him than that. Performing last night at the Wairarapa home of Simon Burt and Pip Steele, Egenes revealed a genuine cowboy pedigree. In a former life he worked as a horse trainer and, as a young man, rode a quarter-horse coast-to-coast from California to Virginia. He attends cowboy gatherings in places like Montana (we’re talking real cowboys here, not the kind who are all hat and no horse), has friends on the rodeo circuit and recites cowboy poems. He’s also well-connected in country music circles, casually dropping illustrious names such as Townes van Zandt and Jerry Jeff Walker. Oh, and he’s a skilled leather worker who makes saddles and carved the beautiful leather cover wrapped around one of the two acoustic guitars he played at last night’s house concert.
Egenes (it’s a Norwegian name, pronounced, as closely as I can approximate it, as eggerness) mostly sings his own songs, accompanying himself with a deft, fluid guitar style that melds traditional Merle Travis-style country picking with a Delta-ish bluesy vibe. They’re charming, laconic, often whimsical songs – many of them ostensibly about cowboys and horses, but with a bit of philosophical depth and sometimes a satirical bite as well. He covers other people’s songs too. His set last night included a laid-back, almost Calypso-ish reworking of the rock and roll standard Sea Cruise – Frankie Ford would hardly have recognised it – and a mellow rendering of the lovely Prairie Lullaby, a song originally popularised in 1932 by Jimmie Rodgers. And while Egenes left his mandolin and pedal steel guitar in Dunedin, he demonstrated the breadth of his skills by playing banjo on several songs; not in a flashy way but in the plain, affecting style that might once have been heard on warm evenings on an Arkansas cotton-picker’s front porch.This was the last of this year’s series of house concerts hosted by Simon and Pip. They’ve now been going for five years (I wrote about the first one here) and have established a loyal following. Simon has a knack for finding little-known acts worthy of wider exposure, and Egenes (who has recorded several CDs) is no exception.