There’s nothing dubious about Steve Cunningham’s tones. Doubt is removed from the start of the first track, "BruddaBru," as he steadfastly resists classification and instead goes his own way of mixing up musical genres for what in the end is a celebration of the guitar. Cunningham doesn’t so much shun categorization as simply being blithely indifferent to it, letting the music speak for itself. As the opening act for Barenaked Ladies, Jeff Beck and Kool and the Gang, Cunningham has proved himself adaptable to a variety of musical situations. From the evidence of Dubious Tones,
he knows how to rock and groove as well, and very well indeed, directing his sound to the hearts of his listeners.
Even though Cunningham uses the same rhythm section throughout the CD, he varies his own instrumentation, not to effect novelty, but to create novel effects that bring out the essence of the music, helping him realize the musical intentions that arose from his own imagination on ten of the tracks. With an obvious background in rock, jazz and country guitar, Cunningham picks up on a groove and runs with it, the melody being less consequential than whether the music makes an audience want to get up and dance. So, even when Cunningham plays "Busted Lip" on lap steel in a twangy sort of way, it becomes, after Brian Hall adds the walking bass lines, a jazz jam tune ala John Scofield, as Cunningham zings listeners with vibrato effects, little swoops, chorded descents and bent notes resolving ever so slowly over several measures. After that workout, Cunningham relaxes on "The Creeping Man," allowing the notes to laze and glide, similar in its effects to Santo & Johnny Farina’s classic guitar piece, "Sleep Walk."
The good thing about Cunningham’s treatment of the standards is that he doesn’t stiffen from the intimidation of tradition or adhere to the accepted lines of improvisation.... or even to instrumental orthodoxy. Consistent with Thelonious Monk’s breaking of rules, Cunningham does so too on "Rhythm-a-ning," creating his own space, as country meets Monk. Saxophonist Sam Skelton makes his single appearance of Dubious Tones
on this track, anchoring Cunningham in the jazz tradition with references to Charlie Rouse, even though Cunningham steadfastly refuses to conform, as if Les Paul were jamming with Monk. And Cunningham does Les Paul proud since both of them are innovators of sound, in their own separate ways, who absorb all there is to absorb before experimenting with the unique approaches to the guitar, no matter what the musical style.
Iconoclastic as ever, Cunningham performs "America" as a country roads interpretation, solo, as if he were picking out in the wide open spaces of the American Midwest, and like Les Paul, overdubbing his own dramatic whole-note accompaniment. "How Great Thou Art" is seen through the eyes of a musician who attains fervid declaration of faith above the crashing of cymbals. But that’s not all. After the initial chorus, Cunningham kicks off rollicking barn dance of a western swing version over an unabashed back beat, the strings singing their own exclamations before he takes off on inviting improvisations.
"Backtalk" assumes the character of a slow shuffle while Cunningham’s backtalk consists of a slip-sliding repetitive melody, as if pitch were a center around which notes stretch and snap like rubber bands instead of being a fixed constant. And then there’s "Hemp," on which Cunningham explores Middle Eastern modes without chord changes but with the unison lines sung wordlessly by vocalist Gwen Hughes.
Based in Atlanta, Steve Cunningham nonetheless remains busy with touring, commercial work, recordings, movie soundtracks and concerts. Undaunted by conventionality, Cunningham’s dedication is to his instrument and to the ways that it can move his listeners just by its groove and its irrepressible presence.