Eugene Chadbourne is a special kind of celebrity. You may know him as the frontman of the rock-revisionist trio Shockabilly, which gained some acclaim in the early '80s, or you may know him for playing free-jazz, country or some strange chimera of the two. Maybe you've heard of the guy who plays the electric rake or who ranked among Spin Magazine's 100 Greatest Guitarists of All-Time in 2012— "the Groucho Marx of the guitar," they called him. Or you may know him as a music critic for All Music Guide and Maximum Rocknroll.
But chances are, despite his worldwide micro-celebrity, you won't recognize Chadbourne at all.
At Common Grounds, a coffee shop in Greensboro, where Chadbourne has lived for more than three decades, he seems to be just another regular. The 60-year-old wears a comfortable blue T-shirt, stretched at the collar. His curly gray hair splays out like he's auditioning for the role of Doc Brown in Back to the Future, framing a round face with a sly grin. As he orders, Chadbourne chats with the barista about maybe playing a gig at the shop soon.
He reminisces about sets here in the '80s, like when he opened for hardcore heroes Corrosion of Conformity. He had fun, but the crowd of toughs who'd traveled to the show from Fayetteville looking for a punk-show fracas didn't.
Playing an electric rake engenders some degree of ignominy.
"Eugene Chadbourne was—or seems to have been—one of the biggest and most critically acclaimed stars of the independent scene during its nascent phase in the 1980s," critic Adam Harper wrote in a 2013 Dummy Mag essay. "In the course of my academic research on that era, his name kept coming up over and over and over again, though I barely recognized it at first."
During the last 40 years, Chadbourne has played on hundreds of albums, even founding the influential Parachute Records in the '70s. His résumé includes work with avant-garde icons from Anthony Braxton to John Zorn, college rock bands from Camper Van Beethoven to the Violent Femmes. Mothers of Invention drummer Jimmy Carl Black and Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra count among his collaborators. The list forms one of the most impressive curricula vitae in the international music underground.
"I think it's just amazing," he says. "Not from a point where I'm blowing my own horn, but for me, it's amazing that I've gotten to play with all these different people from different styles of music."
In North Carolina, he's become a magnate of experimental music, a spiritual and pragmatic mentor who has helped foster a network of improvisers with an attitude. More than a decade ago, for instance, bassist David Menestres studied music at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. He learned of Chadbourne long before meeting him.
"I kept hearing rumors about this weird and crazy guy in town who played his guitar with a block of Styrofoam," he remembers.
Menestres wasn't yet familiar with Chadbourne's expansive catalog or legendary list of partners; instead, he found a collaborator whose openness and enthusiasm provided a gateway to new musical approaches.
"One day, he just came down and played with us," Menestres says. "I was getting into some weird stuff, but he's definitely the guy who opened up that avenue—that all of this music is strange and weird and wonderful and beautiful and acceptable just as much as everything else is. No matter what he's playing, whether it's Johnny Paycheck or Miles Davis, it's always Eugene Chadbourne. There's not a lot of genres with him."
Chadbourne has never fit comfortably into any single style, due in part to his winding entry into music's fringes. A radio station in his hometown of Boulder, Colo., first piqued his teenaged interest with The Rolling Stones and the Beatles. Chadbourne started buying records, then a guitar. He began playing psychedelic rock in local garage bands, a portal that a new area station that briefly adopted a free-form playlist widened. They exposed him to Pink Floyd and Morton Subotnick, Muddy Waters and Lightnin' Hopkins.
"They were particularly interested in educating pimply little hippie kids like me," he says of the station.
While working as a newspaper reporter in Calgary, Chadbourne started to develop his own style of free-jazz-informed guitar playing. Jazz pioneer Anthony Braxton encouraged him to take it more seriously as a career, so he moved to New York in the '70s. He played with John Zorn, who has long tied his musical explorations to his personal interests, whether that's Jewish liturgical music or the spaghetti Western scores of Ennio Morricone. Soon, Chadbourne followed suit, rendering his longtime love of country music with an improvisational approach.
"When I started playing country and western music, in some ways I did it because I really loved it and it was a lark," he says. "I also was encouraged by how irritated people in the avant-garde scene were with what I was doing."
It differentiated him, too.
"As a free jazz musician, I was an imitator," Chadbourne explains. "I was a fourth-generation whatever. Somebody could say, 'Oh, I could go listen to Derek Bailey or John McLaughlin. I don't need to listen to that guy.' But if you want to hear a Johnny Cash song with a free jazz guitar part in the middle, you have to come to me."
That reluctance to play within accepted boundaries hasn't always made Chadbourne an easy act to follow, one explanation as to how his popular awareness has been mercurial at best. His prolific and wildly divergent output makes it difficult to find an entry point or a common thread.
"He's divisive because of how open and expansive he is," Menestres says. "That's troublesome to people because they want to pigeonhole him as just this weird country guy or this avant-garde jazz dude."
For Chadbourne's collaborators, that aesthetic freedom shapes a large part of the appeal. Carrie Shull met Chadbourne in the early '90s while studying classical music. She took a jazz improvisation class at UNC-Greensboro in part to address her performance anxiety and in part because she liked jazz. The teacher told Chadbourne that there was an oboist in town playing improvised music, so he invited Shull to play.
"It was very liberating," she says. "He was immediately very encouraging and positive, just kind of, 'No matter what you do, it's great!' He was very welcoming and open-minded. I was ready for that."
Since graduating, Shull has played with the North Carolina Symphony and the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, but she's continued to record and tour with Chadbourne for nearly a quarter-century, too. For all the satisfaction of playing classical music, Shull says, its rigor can be taxing. Chadbourne's music, though, offers a diversion from symphonic strictures.
"With Eugene, it's just different because there's not stress and seriousness," she says. "It's always playful and kind of adventurous."
Chadbourne says such relaxed inclusiveness is essential.
"There are people who are very strict about what they want to present and very demanding," he says. "I'm not really like that—I like to have people bring something of their own."
To that end, Chadbourne's collaborators must share his irreverence, not technical chops. Rupturing tradition is a Chadbourne hallmark, as his freewheeling catalog includes humorous protest songs (1996's Jesse Helms Busted With Pornography), deconstructed swing (2006's Aki Takase plays Fats Waller) and an album of Merle Haggard covers (last year's Merles Just Want to Have Fun). He remembers a gig long ago at a blues club in Belgium. Chadbourne was playing acoustic guitar in a duo with a locally known blues harmonica player. He didn't give the audience exactly what they expected.
"The very first chord I played—just a chord on an acoustic guitar—was so out of what you would play with blues that somebody got up and left. It's just nuts," he laments. "Certain styles of music—the way they're played traditionally—is like fascism to me."
Chadbourne's sense of playfulness and the fun it generates remains his primary motivation, especially in a field where the money and the acclaim can be sparse. If there is any single thread tying together his various projects, it's the excitement he has in delivering the material, as though he's stumbling into new realms through old, weed-covered paths.
"The financial rewards are not always there," he says. "Sometimes there's some positive feedback; sometimes there isn't. I have to really enjoy it."
Menestres confirms that attitude.
"Whenever I think about Eugene," he says, "I can't picture him not laughing."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Far out and nearby."