Jake Xerxes Fussell is a classic storyteller. His pleasant, emotive and just-slightly-gruff voice is perfectly suited to the passing-along of old stories and his mellow, melodic picking style accentuates that warm and charming feeling.
Fussell grew up in Georgia, occasionally travelling the Southeast with his folklorist father. He played and studied with old bluesmen in the Chattahoochee Valley before enrolling in the Southern Studies department at Ole Miss. He worked with eminent instrumental guitarist William Tyler and a group of old Nashville session vets to make his enchanting debut album in 2014.
He co-hosts a radio show in Hillsborough, NC that delves deep every week into a “diverse spectrum of sonic offerings” from all times and places in the American South. His music clearly demonstrates this lifetime study and deep understanding of the Southern cultural panoply and it exudes all of the enchanting and romantic aspects of the region.
The early 20th century traditionals that Fussell sings feel lived-in, like an old pair of boots that only get more comfortable over time. They’re evocative of a different time and place (that can refreshingly feel light years away from the surreal dystopia that this century is shaping up to be,) but Fussell never seems like just an old-timey act. He imbues each song with his laid-back and amiable personality and the production and instrumentation are more interested in supporting the song than passing any sort of traditionalist purity test. The seemingly unvarnished temperament reveals hidden depths on each listen. The songs feel both old and new, both timeworn and fresh, as if you’re listening for the first time to a song that you’ve somehow always known.
I had a chance to virtually sit down with Jake Xerxes Fussell to ask him a few questions about his new album What in the Natural World and sweet potatoes.
You grew up traveling the back roads of the south with your father, who was a folklorist documenting the blues and other southern cultural aspects. What was a typical day on the road like with him and how did that time influence the musician you are today?
To be honest, the concept of “the backroads,” or even “the road” in general, tends to get a little hyperextended in conversations of traditional music, at least in my own personal experience. I did grow up in a folkloric environment to some degree. Both of my parents were (and still are) very interested and involved in folklore, and through my dad’s fieldwork in particular, I was fortunate to hang around and meet and get to know some great musicians. And in some cases – like with Precious Bryant or George Daniel or Art Rosenbaum – I got to play with some of these people repeatedly and learn a lot from them over the years. But the majority of this traveling really just took place within an hour or two from where my family lived…in southwest Georgia and southeastern Alabama. It’s hard to nail down the degree to which this early exposure influenced my musical self because this was actually the very reason I became interested in music in the first place. I don’t know if I had been all that drawn to music otherwise. But I heard a lot of great music firsthand, and that had a profound effect on me and it still informs my music.
Durham, N.C and the surrounding areas seem to have one of the most vibrant and active music scenes as far as Americana/Blues/Folk-indebted music goes. You’ve collaborated with the guitar master William Tyler and the excellent folk duo of Joan Shelley and Nathan Salsburg among others. You’re on the consistently-fantastic N.C. label, Paradise of Bachelors. What brought you to North Carolina and why do you think it’s become a mecca for that kind of rootsy music?
I’ve been in Durham for a little over two years but before I moved here I lived for almost ten years in north Mississippi, which I guess you could say is another roots music mecca of some kind. Every place is a roots music mecca in some way, I think. By that I mean that every place has its music traditions. It’s just that some places are more celebrated for it than other places, or they make more of a show about it…or an industry. That recent anthology that came out on Dust-to-Digital records, “Folksongs of Another America,” does a great job of pointing out that there’s plenty of great traditional music in America that doesn’t come from Appalachia or the Mississippi Delta or New Orleans or Nashville or Austin. Of course we know this already, but it’s good to be reminded. And if you spend any time listening to “Americana” radio stations, you aren’t reminded with a whole lot of frequency. But anyway, back to my point: Yes, I really like living in Durham. It seems like musicians and music people here are very open to collaboration and are genuinely supportive of each other. That’s about all you can ask for, really.
You will soon be touring Europe with Daniel Bachman. He’s often considered the torchbearer of American Primitive Guitar these days, the next in a succession from John Fahey to Jack Rose. Most of your music originates from artists old enough to have influenced Fahey himself back in the 60s, but there’s definitely a sort of kindred connection between your and Bachman’s styles. Can you talk about the similarities and differences between your music and his?
Well, Daniel doesn’t do much singing. But I’m *always* singing, and he often gets jealous about that and it will erupt in a big argument and one of us will go home crying. Just kidding! I love Daniel’s music. I especially like it when he plays hymns, and his recent 12-string pieces are really beautiful…very shimmery and mysterious. As far as our similarities go, I think Daniel and I may be from similar geological worlds. He’s a “fall line” guy like me. He’s from Fredericksburg, Virginia, and I’m from Columbus, Georgia. Growing up in a place like that gives you a certain outlook on the rest of the world, I think. Also, Daniel is really an expert good at seeking out bizarre YouTube videos, which I admire.
You gave a special thanks to Nathan Bowles (who played drums, banjo, piano and melodica) on your new album. Bowles is somewhat of musical polymath with a long history playing drums, banjo, piano and more with Steve Gunn, Jack Rose, Pelt and on his own modern-classical-take-on-Appalachia album from last year. Can you tell us about what he meant to the making of this album?
Nathan Bowles was pretty much my second set of ears throughout the making of this record. When you’re making a record, even if you don’t have a “producer” per se, it’s still crucial to have someone you can bounce ideas off of, and hopefully, that person will be honest. I met Nathan not long after I moved to Durham and we immediately hit it off. I could tell he was someone I’d like to work with. He helped me a lot throughout the recording process – not just as a musician, but as a really devoted and deliberate listener. Nathan cares a lot about what he’s doing and he’s going to be honest. That was invaluable throughout the making of this record.
You did your graduate research on Choctaw Indian fiddlers. What drew you to study that and how has their playing influenced your own music and style?
Well, my graduate research was partly about Choctaw fiddling and it was partly about some Sicilian musicians in 1920s New Orleans. Those two subjects aren’t really related to each other in any direct way, but I was using each as a way of getting at something about cultural gatekeeping, both in the documentary / folklore world, and in the prewar commercial recording industry. I’ll spare you the details! But I will say that I first heard Choctaw fiddling when I was a kid. My dad used to help produce an annual festival that brought in American Indian craftspeople and singers and dancers and storytellers from all over the southeast and Oklahoma. I don’t think Choctaw fiddling had any real influence on my own music but the southeastern stomp dances, particularly the Muskogee Creek & Yuchi stomp dances, made some lasting impressions on me. I love that music and I think about it all the time, but I don’t think it’s been all that influential to my own music in any direct sense.
The songs on your new album are mostly traditionals from the first half of the 20th century. How do you play music that’s close to 100 years old and still make it feel fresh and not like a mere revivalist act? Do you feel like the lyrics still resonate today?
The song has to feel relevant to me in order for me to sing it. There are plenty of old songs that I would never bother singing simply because they don’t feel legitimate for me to sing. The song is first and foremost. I have to relate to it in some emotional way, and I can draw out whatever musical or lyrical elements I want to use to express my own point of view or whatever, but I have to be drawn to it in some intuitive way first before any of that stylizing will even hold up. And if I can relate to it on some emotional level, I just sort of assume that it will resonate with other people too. And thankfully, I haven’t really been wrong about that yet…often to my surprise!
Your Delta-ish understated picking style is unique. Like Nathan Salsburg, you always choose melody over flash but your chops and skill are obvious. You seem to have spent a lot of time ‘woodshedding’ before releasing your debut album. Who would you say are your biggest influences as a guitar player and how do you think that time spent honing your craft effected your playing?
I really love Joseph Spence, Etta Baker, Riley Puckett, Blind Blake, John Jackson, Sara Carter, John Lee Ziegler. And I like a lot of the Mexican Norteña and Purepecha guitar players, not that I know how to play that way. My friend Sarah Louise is a really great guitar player. Honestly, I learn a lot about guitar playing by listening to some of the old banjo players like Roscoe Holcomb or Dock Walsh. I can use something they’re doing and apply it to the guitar. Of course, that’s nothing new. A lot of the really great old guitarists were banjo players first, and I think a lot of the virtuosic guitar stuff from the early 1900s was a bunch of banjo leftovers. Nathan Salsburg takes a lot from the English and Scottish guitarists like Nic Jones and Archie Fisher, and I Iove all that stuff too, but I don’t know as much about it as he does, which would explain why he sounds so great and why I sound like I do.
For the guitarheads reading, can you talk the guitars you play on the new album/touring and which are your favorites?
I think I only used two guitars on this album: my old parlor guitar, which is an “Arion” from the 1910s…a really great little guitar that’s much more versatile than it looks. I used to play steel strings on it but lately I’ve been playing with gut strings, which I’m not used to but it brings interesting results. And I used a mid-60s Telecaster, which has become my main instrument lately. It belonged to my late friend JD Mark, who was a guitarist from Flint, Michigan.
Can we expect any keytar on the new album? Who are your favorite traditional keytar players?
The keytar tradition is so deep and complex that it’s difficult for me to keep up. I would not rule out playing a keytar on my record…whatever it takes!
Raggy Levy, one of the best and catchiest songs on your debut, featured you singing about sweet potatoes. (Enough, in fact, for my girlfriend to request “Mr. Sweet Potato” whenever she wanted to hear that album.) The first single from your new album is a cover of Jimmy Lee Williams “Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing on a Sweet Potato Vine?” Were they an especially common theme of old blues or do you just really love sweet potatoes?
That’s not the first time I’ve heard that someone has referred to me as Mr. Sweet Potato after hearing “Raggy Levy.” I honestly didn’t think about it when I recorded “Have You Ever Seen Peaches” but sometimes things have a way of circling back around on you, and we don’t know what to make of these connections. So I’m still wondering about this myself. What is it with sweet potatoes? I’m still trying to find out.
Your music seems to be on most of my cooking and potluck playlists. Do you find inspiration for your music in food? What’s your favorite Southern dish?
That’s one of the best compliments I’ve ever heard! I like being on your potluck playlist. This interview is getting increasingly personal and I like it! I love all kinds of foods, really. There’s a thing from my hometown called “Country Captain.” It’s sort of a chicken curry thing over rice. You should try making it sometime and bring it to one of your potlucks, and then my song will come on and you will have one of those “a-ha” moments that people talk about.
Any bands that you listen to that would surprise us? What were you listening to while making this album?
At this point, does anything surprise anybody? I was actually listening to a lot of Peruvian huayno music while I was making this record, but that’s what I’ve been listening to for the past 5 years. and Big Country.
Jake Xerxes Fussell’s new album, What In The Natural World, comes out March 31 on Paradise of Bachelors.