Jim Wurster on His Stepson's Near-Death and Hired Hand

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions and observations about the local scene. This week: South Florida's foremost Americana auteur collaborates on a project that resonates like a resurrection... 

It wasn't that long ago that South Florida stalwart Jim Wurster was trumpeting the latest in a series of superb solo albums, Straight To Me, an effort that provided a harrowing glimpse at Americana's dark side. Wurster was never a stranger to those darker environs; his early efforts with Black Janet first established him as a prodigious artist with a flair for drama and intensity. His later work with the Atomic Cowboys found him newly concerned with country music, a style that clearly found him equally as adept.

That said, Wurster's new project, Hired Hand, might be his most striking work yet. Recorded with his stepson Bud Berning's band SkyRider, its origins go back nearly a decade, derived from an incident that turned into a terrible tragedy. As Wurster tells it, Berning used his 2002 summer break from college to embark on a road trip that would take him from Oregon to Central America. During the Mexican segment of the journey he was involved in a horrible accident that resulted in him suffering multiple fractures, including shattered bones in his legs, forehead and cheeks. 

"When his mother and I arrived at the hospital in Mexico City, he was in a drug induced state," Wurster relates. "Over the next several days, he was operated on a half a dozen times as they pieced him back together. The best doctors in Mexico worked on him and did a miraculous job. He would endure several more operations, before being flown by air ambulance to Miami Jackson. He was there for one week, and endured a few more surgeries. He then came home, and was bedridden for the better part of the next year, as his bodily slowly healed. During that time, we acquired a digital recording program and he went to work learning how to record and mix music. At the end of his recovery, we recorded an old Black Janet song, "Masters of Deception." 

That was to be the start of a collaboration that wouldn't be fully realized for another six years. After Berning returned to college in Orlando, he formed a group he dubbed SkyRider and inked a deal with a local label, Endemik Records. Consisting mainly of atmospheric instrumentals, the resulting album, entitled 47:34, took its cue from Berning's tragic mishap, a dark series of soundscapes that reflected those tumultuous days and weeks as he struggled through his recovery. The sole exception was Berning and Wurster's recording of "Masters of Deception," which Endemik opted to release as a vinyl single. 

The song garnered a decent buzz in Europe and respectable airplay on college radio in the States. SkyRider to the road as a backing band for a hip-hop act named Sole, but was then offered the opportunity to record an album for the Connecticut-based Fake Four label after its owner heard the "Masters of Deception" single and suggested they follow up with a set of similar material. 

According to the Fake Four Facebook page, Wurster remained the impetus for Berning - who's now become synonymous with SkyRider - to find new life through his music. "Jim Wurster bailed SkyRider out of jail, amongst other things," its narrative begins. "Some even say Jim Wurster himself pulled SkyRider from the mangled wreckage of that near-fatal accident in Mexico which left SkyRider in a ten day coma, but that's the stuff legends are made of.
One thing is for certain, when Bud Berning made his solo debut as SkyRider, deep in the swamps of Florida, he called upon Jim Wurster to bring out that old guitar he swore he'd never play again. He asked Jim to re-record his Reagan Era critique piece "Masters of Deception", a song that spoke so powerfully to Berning - as it was just as befitting in of the times of the Bush Era - that he featured it as the only fully worded song on the instrumental album, 47:34, a haunting glimpse into the shattered mind of one trapped by the succubus arms of a coma." 

It's an apt description for an album that's as tortured and tumultuous as the scenario that preceded it. With a full band in tow - Wurster on vocals and guitar, Berning on bass, guitar, keyboard, and percussion, William Ryan Fritch playing a multitude of other instruments and John Wagner on drums - the resulting effort, Hired Hand, combines dense psychedelic undertones with Wurster's ominous invocations. Songs such as "Cold Wind," "Dark Skies" and "Suicide Soliloquy" maximize the foreboding manifest in those titles with a dire despair reminiscent of Nick Cave, Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen at his most morose. And yet, its also an inspiring record, one that finds redemption in its beautiful coda, "There's a Reward" as well as its otherwise upbeat intro, "Queen of My Heart." 

An ideal record for today's uncertain times, Hired Hand reminds us that revelation and inspiration can be found in even the worst of circumstance.

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Lee Zimmerman