Though new to Durham, Jake Xerxes Fussell knows the lay of this Southern land.
The son of a noted Georgia folklorist, Fussell spent his childhood surrounded by traditional music, riding around with his dad while he documented bluesmen, string bands and Native American artists throughout the Southeast. Fussell later enrolled in the Southern Studies department at the University of Mississippi, conducting research on indigenous Choctaw fiddlers. He deepened his repertoire by accompanying Piedmont blues legends Etta Baker and Precious Bryant, shooting the shit with Haight folkies Will Scarlett and Steve Mann and touring with gospel-blues singer Rev. John Wilkins.
Fussell's welcoming self-titled debut collects 10 adaptations of obscure folk and blues numbers. These songs are his vernacular, much as they were for the folks from whom he learned them. He is comfortable with these tunes, stripping his interpretations of fussy academic rigor. His approach is one of interpretive respect and easy irreverence, so that he transmutes arcane worksongs, Appalachian love ballads and stevedore tunes into crooked cosmic laments and river-like rambles. It fits the broader milieu of Chapel Hill's Paradise of Bachelors, the label responsible for the release.
The production and arrangement of William Tyler, a guitarist noted for his ability to reframe traditional techniques, deserves part of the credit, along with the crack backing band he helped assemble. They imbue Fussell's songs with atmosphere. There's sometimes a distinct rock edge: "Pork and Beans" and "Let Me Lose" groove smoothly with full rhythm sections.
But Fussell's best when the accompaniment is minimal. The low, swirling squall Tyler conjures in "Raggy Levy," for instance, underscores the song's riverine movement. Chris Scruggs' silvery pedal steel illuminates Fussell's sweet reading of "Star Girl."
Relics, almost like fossils, acquire their patina by the passage of time. But Fussell doesn't treat the songs as such. He recognizes their universal themes. Just as "Man on the Mill" muses on the circular nature of time, so does Fussell. "All in Down and Out" and "Let Me Lose" speak as much to post-crash America as they did during the Depression. "Star Girl" could slot easily on any folk revivalist's offerings. Fussell's debut—assured, eloquent, great—feels like a meditation upon a continuum of circumstances, like building a new fence from old stones.
Label: Paradise of Bachelors