North Carolina music history is lousy with singer-songwriters, from classic examples like John D. Loudermilk and James Taylor to a younger set that includes Ryan Adams and Tift Merritt. More recently, Ryan Gustafson—a longtime Carrboro fixture who decamped to Asheville four years ago—has quietly established himself as an essential entry in that canon.
While he may not have major-label winds in his sails, Gustafson has a knack for writing songs that are gently heartbreaking and subtly stunning. On the new Unsung Passage, he makes that case even stronger.
Gustafson issued his solo debut, Donkey, in 2009 under his own name, but within a few years adopted the moniker of The Dead Tongues to help delineate his identities clearly. He wasn't used to being identified as a singer-songwriter; he'd always been in a group.
"I don't know if it was a mixture of being self-conscious, or if I actually just needed to step away from my name for it to make sense, and to be able to develop these ideas about it as opposed to ideas directly about myself," he explains. "I liked being able to get a little bit away from myself and just let it be its own world as opposed to my everyday world. It's pretty much the same thing, but it's easier for me to make sense of it with a name."
As The Dead Tongues, Gustafson has issued some of the sturdiest, most enrapturing folk-rock records anywhere of the past few years. Gustafson released Unsung Passage in May, having written it in pieces over the past two or so years while touring extensively in the United States and Europe as a hired gun for Phil Cook and Hiss Golden Messenger. The songs ride along an undercurrent of undefined heartache, with Gustafson's vocals emphasizing a weary spirit on "Clip Your Wings" and "The Broken Side of People Everywhere." They feel as comfortable as a family heirloom quilt and yet sparkle like one-of-a-kind gems, from the open airiness of "My Other" to the groovy stomp of "Thunder and Crash."
Though it may not be immediately evident in his songs, Gustafson cites Appalachian old-time music—pre-World War II songs and ballads that are frequently heavy on fiddle and banjo—as one of the most significant influences for his work.
"A lot of old time music is only four chords and a few notes, but for some reason, there's something written inside people that is moved by these simplistic things," he says. "I've done lots of different types of music, but I feel like this is what's innately most comfortable for me to express in a way that is satisfying to me, and I feel like it is actually doing what I want it to do," he says.
Before locking his attention on folk-inclined rock songs, Gustafson's efforts were far more scattered. There was the alt-rock of Boxbomb, the pop-leaning rock of Max Indian, and the gentle electronic compositions of The Daughter Is Ambiguous, another solo effort. But following the threads of old-time and folk music felt the most natural for Gustafson.
"Some people are freaks of nature, and they can just do it. It's taken me a while to find a voice that I feel comfortable with," he says.
Between 2013's Desert and 2016's Montana, Gustafson met another musician who would help him further hone what he wanted to be doing with his music: Minnesota banjo player Charlie Parr. Following an introduction via Phil Cook, Gustafson worked on Parr's 2015 LP, Stumpjumper, where he absorbed Parr's ragged but lightning-fast approach to clawhammer banjo. Witnessing Parr in action clicked a few things into place for Gustafson about how he wanted to approach his own craft.
"I just made all of these connections in my head, and that's when I went and wrote Montana, right after doing that record with him," Gustafson says. "I got my fingerpicking chops up, and it felt like it really set me down this one path of things making sense for a little bit."
The difference between Montana and Desert is subtle yet striking in that regard—where his songs were loose and relaxed on the former, Gustafson's carefully honed picking adds a new layer of detail to songs like "Empire Builder" and "Stained Glass Eyes" on the latter. On Unsung Passage, those chops stand out on sprightly banjo line leads in "The Giver," while a glimmering web of guitar makes for a soft complement to the taut, popping percussion on "Pale November Dew."
Gustafson's albums as The Dead Tongues so far feel like a game of one-upmanship against himself, with each new release somehow outstripping its predecessor. The circumstances of Unsung Passage's construction seem to indicate that the perpetual motion of life on the road suits Gustafson's spirit, and he seems to have his eye on following his songs as far as they'll take him. One thing's for certain: when it comes to reliably excellent records, Ryan Gustafson will always have something to offer.