ROUTES & BRANCHES
a home for the americana diaspora
February 26, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
I like to know stuff about the music I play, and I like to share that info with R&B readers and listeners. On the off chance someone has told me how much they enjoy my work, it's not unusual that they'll tell me how much they appreciate the fact that I try to include more than the basics when talking about music. They learn something.
On the other hand, none of this would mean anything if the music I share didn't also speak to the heart. I've known a good number of artists who are remarkable technically but whose music fails to reach me at an emotional level. I call this music bluegrass. JKLOL ...
Jake Xerxes Fussell takes the stage with quite a pedigree. Somewhere in his home he has a framed degree in Southern Studies from University of Mississippi. As a child, he would follow his folklorist father along backroads where he met real people who played real music not in hopes of procuring a record deal, but because it was simply in their blood. One story tells how young Jake would chauffeur treasured Piedmont guitarist Precious Bryant to her shows. During these travels, he would learn folkways and collect songs that flowed like a river through these communities.
2015 saw Jake Xerxes Fussell releasing his self titled debut collection. Produced by fellow folk innovator William Tyler, that highly touted record introduced the guitarist's practice of fiddlin' with folk music. While none of the songs were twisted beyond recognition, Fussell reimagined roots music from across the country and throughout the years, adding a drone here or a lyrical twist there for a rare folk record that sounded both trad and cutting edge. He remarked during one interview, "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."
This maverick spirit is woven through Fussell's second release as well. RIYL Phil Cook, Nathan Bowles, Daniel Bachman or Joan Shelley, What In the Natural World plays in the wide ranging meadow of folk, blues and country, messing around with it all for results that feed the soul. Like his debut, familiar trad tunes shoulder up to lesser known entities, each piece arriving with its own story, run through with its own deep grain, greasy with the fingerprints of generations. The most familiar of these, "Bells of Rhymney", was set to tape around 1958 by Pete Seeger. Over the years, the song passed through the hands of the Byrds, Dylan & the Band, Cher, the Alarm, Robyn Hitchcock and more and more. In the hands of Jake Xerxes Fussell, "Bells" is shocked to life with a largely electric arrangement, more blues than folk, more reckless and rambling than reverent: "They have fangs they have teeth / Shout the loud bells of Neath / Even God is uneasy / Say the moist bells of Swansea."
Fussell actually tends to grow his folk from a bed of electric guitar, creating a true chemistry here with players like Nathan Bowles, Joan Shelley, Casey Toll (Mt Moriah) and Nathan Golub (Mt Goats). This collaboration is applied to best effect on an unfamiliar (to me) piece by Georgia farmer/electric bluesman Jimmy Lee Williams. "Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing on a Sweet Potato Vine" trips along on some syncopated drumming and an entrancing electric guitar line, Fussell's vocals coming across loose and lazy like Paul Burch or MC Taylor. The song epitomizes both the absurdist humor and the connections to the natural world that pervade the collection.
At their root, folk and blues are peoples' music, so there's also plenty of politics and wry social commentary to be had on pieces like 1925's "Furniture Man". Fussell takes a song that tends to be played as a rag or a 'grass and allows it to float casually atop a sighing cloud of pedal steel. The narrator watches as his property is repossessed by "a devil born without horns". "Pinnacle Mountain Silver Mine", attributed to Helen Cockram in the 70s, plays closer to trad than any other piece on Natural World. Daniel Bachman actually shed light on the original for a Spotify playlist of Virginia music he lovingly assembled in 2015.
Far less typical is "Jump for Joy", borrowed from a controversial 1941 Duke Ellington revue intended to counter popular stereotypes of black life in America. "Don't you grieve, Little Eve / All the hounds I do believe / Have been killed." It's a barebones gospel-tinged gem featuring little more than Fussell and his guitar but as engaging as any full band production.
The kind of intimate knowledge of folk music that Jake Xerxes Fussell wields by no means assures a satisfying musical product. It can exist for its own sake and end up rattling around inside the brain like stale trivia. Fortunate for us, when nurtured and "messed around with", it can also spend a lifetime seeping into the blood, pumping through the heart and running like electricity through the fingertips. The adapted American roots music on What in the Natural World comes to us still warm, smelling of fertile soil and echoing with the voices of generations.
A brief but heartfelt bow to North Carolina's worthy Paradise of Bachelors label. In addition to Jake Xerxes Fussell, they've brought us new stuff from Itasca and Michael Chapman over the past couple months, in addition to an essential re-issue of Terry Allen's iconic Lubbock (on everything). See also: Nathan Bowles, Promised Land Sound, as well as early essentials by Hiss Golden Messenger and Steve Gunn.
This Episode also offers a beautiful new collaboration between Pieta Brown and Calexico, an unexpected pop gem from Samantha Crain, and a generous handful of soul. We also poke around Kasey Chambers' Dragonfly, and we color outside the lines with some Molly Burch and something new from Leif Vollebekk. Please get you some Spotify and indulge in this week's ROUTES-cast following the playlist.
- Sons of Bill, "Broken Bottles" One Town Away (Gray Fox, 09)
- Jaime Wyatt, "Your Loving Saves Me" Felony Blues (Wyatt, 17)
- Alejandro Escovedo, "Beauty of Your Smile" Burn Something Beautiful (Concord, 16)
- Bap Kennedy, "Nothing Can Stand In the Way of Love" Reckless Heart (Last Chance, 17)
- Low, "Holy Ghost" Invisible Way (Sub Pop, 13)
- Molly Burch, "Wrong for You" Please Be Mine (Burch, 17) D
- William Matheny, "Living Half to Death" Strange Constellations (Misra, 17)
- Chuck Prophet, "Rider or the Train" Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins (Yep Roc, 17)
- Candi Staton, "Heart on a String" I'm Just a Prisoner (Parlophone, 69)
- Jason Isbell, "In a Razor Town" Sirens of the Ditch (New West, 07)
- Ryan Adams, "Anything I Say To You Now" Prisoner (PaxAm, 17)
- Leif Vollebekk, "All Night Sedans" Twin Solitude (Secret City, 17)
- Romantica, "Lonely Star" Shadowlands (Last Chance, 17)
- Bash + Pop, "Not This Time" Anything Can Happen (Fat Possum, 17)
- Peter Wolf & Mary Chapin Carpenter, "Cry One More Time" Love Me / Love Me Not (Amazon, 17)
- Kasey Chambers, "Ain't No Little Girl" Dragonfly (Essence, 17) D
- Black Joe Lewis & Honeybears, "Sexual Tension" Backlash (BJL, 17)
- Charles Bradley & Menahan St Band, "Heartaches & Pain" No Time For Dreaming (Daptone, 10)
- Scott H Biram, "Red Wine" Bad Testament (Bloodshot, 17)
- Rev Peyton's Big Damn Band, "When My Baby Left Town" Front Porch Sessions (Family Owned, 17)
- Tift Merritt, "Proclamation Bones" Stitch of the World (Yep Roc, 17)
- Great American Taxi, "Home" Dr Feelgood's Traveling Medicine Show (GAT, 17) C
- Mavericks, "Easy As It Seems" Brand New Day (Mono Mundo, 17)
- Perry Brown, "Pray for Me" Become My Blood (This is American Music, 17)
- Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives, "Way Out West" Way Out West (Superlatone, 17)
- Gurf Morlix, "Right Now" Soul & the Heal (Gurf, 17)
- Samantha Crain, "Antiseptic Greeting" You Had Me at Goodbye (Ramseur, 17) D-
- Caroline Spence, "Southern Accident" Spades & Roses (Spence, 17)
- Ags Connolly, "Neon Jail" Nothin' Unexpected (At the Helm, 17)
- Pieta Brown, "In the Light (w/Calexico)" Postcards (Lustre, 17)
- Over the Rhine, "I Painted My Name" Patience (IRS, 92)