Traditional music is not an insect in amber”: the Tarheel newcomer’s debut demonstrates that maxim with exquisite grace.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
It’s an unfair standard, but we expect debut records to sum up, succinctly and completely, the essence of their artists. It’s a false notion. Most first albums, even the best ones, only begin to shade in a picture that will fill out as the musicians move forward, bringing their vision into clearer focus and adding new wrinkles.
The recent self-titled effort from Durham, North Carolina’s Jake Xerxes Fussell is the exception that sustains our lofty expectations. His debut — issued by Paradise of Bachelors, an increasingly eclectic Tar Heel State label excavating the weirder corners of the ongoing folk tradition — is a near perfect travelogue for the journeyed old-time bluesman.
Assembling 10 traditional tunes — imbued with pastoral grandeur by producer and contributing guitarist William Tyler — Fussell imprints his own distinct personality onto songs taught to him by pickers all across the country: The wide-eyed and wistful “Star Girl” came to Fussell by way of Blue Ridge balladeer Bobby McMillon; revered California fingerstyle guitarist Steve Mann turned him onto “Push Boat,” a rollicking blues number that takes on eerie, melancholy hues in Fussell’s hands; the album’s lone instrumental, “Georgia Buck,” was passed on by Precious Bryant, the Georgia blues legend Fussell toured and recorded with before her death two years ago.
“These were really the songs that kept coming back to me,” Fussell says, speaking over the phone from his new N.C. home. Georgia-born, he recently relocated to Durham after almost 10 years in Oxford, Mississippi.
“I probably had a list that was trimmed down to about 15 or so,” he continues. “Ten wound up on the record. And we really only recorded 10. There weren’t any outtakes. These are just the ones that sort of stood up on their own.”
Much of his whittling was guided simply by the quality of the tunes and reactions to his renditions, many of them tested during weekly gigs down in Oxford. But for Fussell, the experiences he encountered learning his songs were equally compelling. He grew up in Columbus, Georgia, where his father, Fred C. Fussell, worked as a folklorist and museum curator. In his formative years, Jake accompanied his father as he visited people who practiced traditional American arts — “old-time basket makers and people who did old hunting traditions and fishing traditions, but also old-time musicians, as well.” These travels sparked his interest, leading him to seek out players like Precious Bryant. He’d go to her house frequently to play and listen, taking her to gigs because she didn’t drive.
The younger Fussell went onto receive his own formal folklore education, earning a master’s in Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi. His contrasting backgrounds — as a roving and voracious picker, and an aspiring scholar — inform his distinct approach.
“On my best days, those things are so complimentary,” Fussell explains. “They work hand in hand. Sometimes they feel like they’re out of sorts and they’re two different worlds, but for the most part, I feel like each one really supports the other. Growing up with that kind of background, I became really interested in songs. Because I knew musicians in a traditional setting, I was always interested in what purpose different songs served. I realize that I am sort of drawn to songs that maybe have a certain purpose … songs that interest me historically in addition to just being interesting songs.”
These are indeed songs with many years behind them. The liner notes for opener “All in Down and Out,” adapted from a 1938 recording by Dave Macon, trace the song’s origins all the way back to 1924. But what’s impressive about Fussell is how convincingly he owns this heavily travelled and clearly back-dated material. Set to the guitarist’s punch-drunk waltz-time picking, his “All in Down and Out” bridges the gap between barebones Pete Seeger ballads and latter-day Bod Dylan brainteasers. “This is the truth, and it certainly exposes/ Wall Street proposition that wasn’t all roses,” Fussell sings, his gravelly croon evoking either sincerity or sarcasm, depending on your perspective. He relishes the irony and feels the pain, singing a song that predates the Depression and skewering the hypocrisy and idiocy that stoked the country’s current recession.
“Just how relevant that song is to living in whatever decade we’re living in now,” William Tyler offers, “it’s just like, don’t get caught with whiskey in your car, going to Atlanta is still considered punishment — it’s just funny. It’s such a relevant song. The material’s really, really interesting, and the way Jake interprets it, you can’t really tell where these songs came from.”
As evocative as Fussell’s renditions already are, his studio collaboration with Tyler adds yet another layer to his merger of past and present. Capturing Jake’s solo personality during a separate session at Dial Back Sound, a Mississippi studio operated by Fat Possum’s Bruce Watson, the two then travelled to Nashville to overdub with help from some Music City veterans: Chris Scruggs, who has worked with Will Oldham and Marty Stuart, contributed steel guitar, bass and fiddle; Brian Kotzur, once a member of Silver Jews, laid down drums; and Hoot Hester, a fiddle ace whose credits range from Bill Monroe to Ray Charles, also took part. Mark Nevers, the Lambchop alum who hosted the Nashville sessions at his Beech House studio, assisted with engineering.
But despite all the talent on deck, it’s Fussell and Tyler’s effortless chemistry that sets the record apart. The two spent a month in Oxford playing and scheming before they began recording, and the way Tyler works his own sparkling and expansive parts around Fussell’s crisp and unassuming progressions perfectly balances old-time bona fides with modern folk-rock elegance.
Fussell’s brisk acoustic picking pounds purposefully down familiar dirt roads during “Raggy Levy,” in which the narrator plans to “build me a stone fence” to keep the world at bay. Beautiful but menacing distortion swells each time he hits the chorus, the encroachment of modern advances that threaten to erase this man’s simple way of life. On “Boat’s up the River,” Fussell’s languid blues licks conjure sorrow, as a man gazes downstream, pinning — “I believe to my soul she’s Alabama-bound.” Tyler’s echoing slide embellishments linger like ghosts, the shadowy recollections this poor soul just can’t shake.
“He didn’t write the songs, but he sort of did in a way,” Tyler says. “I don’t feel like people are really doing that enough with traditional music. Each song had enough of its own universe to where it was like, ‘Well, you can have one here that’s more like a soul song. Here’s one that’s kind of a blues song. Here’s one where it’s really spectral, psychedelic folk-sounding.’”
Fussell concurs: “Traditional music is not an insect in amber. If you mess around with it, I think that’s OK, there’s not really any laws there.”
Photos: Rebecca Kauffman, Brad Bunyea