Contemporary folk virtuoso Jake Xerxes Fussell talked about reimagining classic folk songs with his unique style on his latest record.
Most of your songs are either traditional folk tunes or covers of Old-Time songs. What part of the songs you've selected to be on What In The Natural World resonated with you? Is there a certain era in time or geographic region that you're most drawn to when selecting songs to use for your own records?
That's an interesting question. I'm tempted to claim that I'm relatively unbiased in the way that I select the songs that I play - that I just pick out things that I like, no matter where or what time period they're from, and that the only real determining factor is my unfiltered love for the song itself. And as much as I'd like for that to be true on some level, of course it's not at all the case. Our own personal histories and identities are all so wrapped up with what media we're exposed to in the first place, not to mention what songs we choose to listen to. On a certain level, we only have so much choice in the matter, even though we appear to be living in some era of unending choices. But it's all an illusion! If you look around any record store these days in any major American city or college town, it feels like you can choose any genre of music you please. And maybe there is more variety these days, I guess, but it's all so carefully curated and marketed, too, isn't it? It's interesting to think about what records you don't see on the new arrival shelves or what types of music never even make it onto a record, and for what reasons. But anyway, yes, if you look at the songs I'm playing on this record, you can begin to recognize some patterns. I'm from Georgia and grew up within a folkloric upbringing so there's a lot of songs on there from my part of the world, and to a large degree the songs reflect my ongoing passion for traditional music. But I don't really want to limit myself to those confines either. As much love as I have for the music of Gid Tanner & The Skillet Lickers, I'm not particularly interested in recreating the 1920s string band form, nor do I want to portray some performance of "southernness" or whatever. Your wardrobe will only take you so far. Actually, it seems to take some performers a pretty long way! Anyway, the main thing is that the song has to have some emotional resonance with me on a personal level. And I want to do the song justice. I have to want to sing it, and everything else sort of falls into place after that.
What's the main way you discover older music? I could imagine commercial streaming services have a minimal library for early 1900s folk music.
Actually, I spend more time on YouTube than I do worrying with other outlets. It's a pretty overwhelming music library in and of itself. But I do spend a fair amount of time listening to records, and probably just as much of my time is spent listening to CDs, if not more. And looking through old songbooks. And yes, sometimes I dig around in actual libraries and archives looking for songs to sing. That's somewhat rare these days, but I'll do whatever it takes!
Some of the songs you borrow from are quite old and relics. Is there a level of carefulness and respect you feel obligated to commit to when reviving and rerecording these tunes?
If I really care for a song and really want to sing it, I'll do whatever I can to make it sound right for me so that I can sing it with some legitimacy. Now that can be a tricky thing because for some people legitimacy means some form of historical revivalism, and that's not really what I'm in it for. That doesn't take me to the emotional core of the thing. You've got to service the song itself. The number-one way that I can respect a song is by singing it in a way that's sincere to me. And that is generally a deeply intuitive process, and sometimes it means taking a song to an unexpected place, sonically or melodically or rhythmically or whatever. But that's okay. I can do it because I'm being sincere. And honestly, I do it because no one has ever told me not to do it.
What was the production process like for the record? Did you try new things in the studio or stick to what worked on the last record?
On my first record, I was working with the guitarist William Tyler. We did a lot of basic tracking in Mississippi and then went to Nashville and did some more basic tracking, and then we brought in some Nashville players and built layers on top of it and weaved motifs into the bigger framework. That worked well because I'd been playing most of those songs solo for a long time, and Willie was good at finding ways to include different sonic textures and variety to what I was already doing in a way that didn't bury the songs. He's quite good at that. But on this particular record I think I had more ideas about different parts and instrumentation as I was putting the record together. I was thinking in more of an arrangement-based way, I suppose. I had been hanging out with Nathan Bowles a lot, and I'd played him all the songs, and we both had a lot of ideas and discussion about what sort of record we though this might be. So it was more "orchestral" from the get-go, if you wanna call it that. I had more sonic ideas. Making a record can be a very stressful process, but, strange to say, I'm quite pleased with the way this one turned out.
You're based in Durham, NC. What makes Durham or the Triangle a good place to live for a folk musician (or musician/artist in general)?
I've been in Durham a little over two years. I really like it here. People here are very into collaboration. They're also cool with letting you do your own thing. I can explore ideas here and people will be willing to go along with you and try new things out. I like that. Also, it's halfway between the mountains and the ocean so I can get to either in a day...that's nice!
How were you introduced to Appalachian heritage, culture, and music? What fascinated you most about the culture to drive you to make a career hinged on the themes and ideals?
Well, I wouldn't say I've made a career hinged on the themes and ideals of Appalachia, haha! I'm actually not from Appalachia. I grew up in southwest Georgia, which is a different region altogether. It's flat and the soil is sandy and there's a lot of peanuts and corn and longleaf pine trees and prickly pears. It doesn't have a whole lot to do with Appalachia where I'm from. It's closer to the Gulf of Mexico. But I do sing a few songs that originated in Appalachia. "Pinnacle Mountain Silver Mine" is one of those. The vast majority of the songs I sing are not Appalachian in origin, though some of them may have been sung by people in Appalachia at various times, in addition to other regions. Don't get me wrong, though...I love mountain music, especially the old fiddle tunes. But I see Appalachia as just one region, among many, which has produced some great music over the years. The problem is that people tend to view Appalachia as the real womb of traditional music or something like that, and I think this is a big misconception. It's an interesting misconception, though. There's a historian named Patrick Huber who has written a good deal about this, and the Midwestern folk music scholar Jim Leary has some things to say about this as well.
You've had experience learning from and touring with many modern legends in folk, blues, and traditional music from all over - not just the South. What wisdom do you hold most dear that was passed down from these greats like Etta Baker, George Daniel, and Will Scarlett?
Etta Baker showed me some odd chords that I haven't seen anybody else play since. She was an extremely kind person and I liked visiting her and learning from her a number of times, but honestly, I wasn't all that close to her over a long period of time or anything like that. She probably was the best guitar player I ever played with, though. George Daniel I knew much better. In fact, for a while there when I was like 19 or 20, I would visit George every week or so and play guitar while he blew the harp. I had some wild times hanging out with him. We would drive all over Macon County, Alabama, visiting at peoples' houses in all these little rural, out-of-the-way communities. He seemed to be a major player in the bootleg liquor trade, so that was interesting, to say the least. He also had been a rodeo cowboy back in the 40s and 50s and he had some funny stories about that. He could rope a calf and do all kinds of things...he showed me the variety of ways by which country people entertained themselves. I met Will Scarlett in Berkeley. I think Jolie Holland introduced us to each other, actually. Will's still playing, I'm sure. Will introduced me to Steve Mann, from whom I learned the song "Pushboat." The musician with whom I played the most was the Georgia blueswoman Precious Bryant, and I could go on about her for days. She taught me a lot.