Jake Xerxes Fussell
Durham, North Carolina's Jake Xerxes Fussell is one of the finest interpreters of old songs around, with three immaculate albums of old-time country and blues creating a cosmic stew that feels totally individual and new.
It's pretty rare for me to book tickets for a gig on the strength of two songs, but in 2017 I did just that when I scooped a couple for my wife and I to see Jake Xerxes Fussell play.
There were other contributing factors: First it was a Caught by the River night. If you know Caught by the River that's probably enough said. If you don't, you know what you need to do. Second there's Jake's unusual name: for me it's an indication of something and I was willing to find out what. Third, Daniel Bachman was playing too. I hadn't heard much more Bachman than I had Fussell but when you hear comparisons with Jack Rose and John Fahey bandied about with such seriousness you're probably onto something good. So, with the two songs I'd heard, Jake's impressive name and Daniel Bachman in the mix I figured there was a pretty good chance my wife and I would at least have a pleasant night out.
I think it's safe to say that night stands as one of the best gigs I've ever seen. From the first note Jake played I had that giddy feeling I was at the beginning of a listening journey that would be a long and fruitful, surprising, expansive and that genuinely hard to find thing: authentic. Daniel Bachman was barnstorming too, but let's talk about Jake.
Jake doesn't perform his own songs, the first surprise that night had in store. I figured the two songs I had already heard were original compositions. Learning that Jake was an interpreter of songs – and therefore firmly in the folk tradition - rather than a songwriter immediately somehow made his music more even richer. Playing old songs with modern resonance the way Jake does is an act that requires imagination and emotional investment. In a recent performance at KEXP Jake explains: "It's more interesting for me to try to interpret things on a personal, emotional level otherwise I can't really get to it. It doesn't seem like it's mine, or [..] like it's relevant to me on a personal level if I'm trying to impersonate something from 1930."
The songs that Jake performs swell in the mountain creeks and river valleys of the American south, but if you dig the oars in deeper and row back into their more ancient headwaters you will hear voices from the British Isles and the African diaspora. Jake's interpretation doesn't attempt to dam this river of sound, but gathers influence from further tributaries, widening and diversifying the flood. When you hear Jake sing you're dipping your toe into a river that ran, runs and will continue to run because his wily, soulful handling of the materials gives the songs space rather than freezing them in time.
If memory serves (which it rarely does) the two songs I knew before that night were All in Down and Out from Jake's excellent eponymous first album and Have you Ever Seen Peaches Growing on a Sweet Potato Vine? from his second album What in the Natural World. These first two records have been constant companions ever since. WITNW is one of my favourite albums ever. It's an essentially perfect selection of impeccably, beautifully and artfully performed songs. Jake released his third album, Out of Sight, last year and it's another superb addition to the stable.
It's more interesting for me to try to interpret things on a personal, emotional level otherwise I can't really get to it. It doesn't seem like it's mine, or like it's relevant to me if I'm trying to impersonate something from 1930.
Jake Xerxes Fussell in an interview on KEXP
What I have also treasured about my journey listening to Jake's music is all the stuff in the background, woven around the music. Jake's no slouch, so there's plenty of treasure to be found once you start digging in the details and tangential paths. The album art Jake chooses is always beautiful. WITNW features a painting by Roger Brown and Out of Sight includes a charcoal drawing by Jake's folklorist father Fred Fussell. He has a radio show on WHUP called Fall Line Radio which has provided some great tunes for out own SR playlists and general musical education. His knowledge of the music he plays and the tradition within which it grew is vast without being overbearing. Growing up in a family of folklorists, visiting regularly with source singers and artists, laid foundations for a totally authentic, broad understanding of not only the music, but the material culture and the lives of normal folk who make extraordinary things every day. Things to sing, lie on, wear, use and play. Folk in its roundest sense.
David Abbott, Seasons Round
COVID-19. Refunds will be available in the event this gig doesn't go ahead. Updates will be provided here at the Seasons Round website and via twitter at www.twitter.com/seasonsround
Durham, North Carolina singer and guitarist Jake Xerxes Fussell (yes, that’s his real middle name, after Georgia potter D.X. Gordy) grew up in Columbus, Georgia, son of Fred C. Fussell, a folklorist, curator, and photographer who hails from across the river in Phenix City, Alabama (once known as “The Wickedest City in America” for its rampant vice, corruption, and crime.) Fred’s fieldwork took him, often with young Jake in tow, across the Southeast documenting traditional vernacular culture, which included recording blues and old-time musicians with fellow folklorists and recordists George Mitchell and Art Rosenbaum (which led Jake to music) and collaborating with American Indian artists (which led Jake eventually to his graduate research on Choctaw fiddlers.)
As a teenager Jake began playing and studying with elder musicians in the Chattahoochee Valley, apprenticing with Piedmont blues legend Precious Bryant, with whom he toured and recorded, and riding wild with Alabama bluesman, black rodeo rider, rye whiskey distiller, and master dowser George Daniel. He joined a Phenix City country band who were students of Jimmie Tarlton of Darby and Tarlton; he accompanied Etta Baker in North Carolina; he moved to Berkeley, where he hung with genius documentary filmmaker Les Blank and learned from Haight folkies like Will Scarlett (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, Brownie McGhee) and cult fingerstyle guitarist Steve Mann; he appeared on A Prairie Home Companion. He did a whole lot of listening, gradually honing his prodigious guitar skills, singing, and repertoire. In 2005 he moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where he enrolled in the Southern Studies department at Ole Miss, recorded and toured with Rev. John Wilkins, and in 2014, began recording his first solo album.
Jake’s 2015 self-titled debut record, produced by and featuring William Tyler, transmutes ten arcane folk and blues tunes into vibey cosmic laments and crooked riverine rambles. Collaborating with Tyler and engineer Mark Nevers in Nashville was a conscious decision to depart cloistered trad scenes and sonics for broader, more oblique horizons. Tyler, a guitar virtuoso known for his own compositions that untether and reframe traditional six-string forms and techniques, helmed the push boat in inimitable fashion, enlisting crack(ed) Nashville session vets Chris Scruggs (lap steel, bass, mandolin: Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Marty Stuart), Brian Kotzur (drums: Silver Jews), and Hoot Hester (fiddle; Bill Monroe, Ray Charles) to crew.
In 2017 Fussell followed his celebrated self-titled debut with a moving new album of Natural Questions in the form of transmogrified folk/blues koans. This time these radiant ancient tunes tone several shades darker while amplifying their absurdist humor, illuminating our national, and psychic, predicaments. What in the Natural World features art by iconic painter Roger Brown and contributions from three notable Nathans—Nathan Bowles (Steve Gunn), Nathan Salsburg (Alan Lomax Archive), and Nathan Golub (Mountain Goats)—as well as Joan Shelley and Casey Toll (Mt. Moriah).
On Out of Sight, his third and most finely wrought album yet, guitarist, singer, and master interpreter Fussell is joined for the first time by a full band featuring Nathan Bowles (drums), Casey Toll (bass), Nathan Golub (pedal steel), Libby Rodenbough (violin, vocals), and James Anthony Wallace (piano, organ). An utterly transporting selection of traditional narrative folksongs addressing the troubles and delights of love, work, and wine (i.e., the things that matter), collected from a myriad of obscure sources and deftly metamorphosed, Out of Sight contains, among other moving curiosities, a fishmonger’s cry that sounds like an astral lament (“The River St. Johns”); a cotton mill tune that humorously explores the unknown terrain of death and memory (“Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues”); and a fishermen’s shanty/gospel song equally concerned with terrestrial boozing and heavenly transcendence (“Drinking of the Wine”).