Jake Xerxes Fussell
Jake Xerxes Fussell
A1. “All in Down and Out” 3.14
A2. “Let Me Lose” 5.06
A3. “Star Girl” 4.04
A4. “Raggy Levy” 4.00
A5. “Rabbit on a Log” 3.11
B1. “Boat’s up the River” 4.05
B2. “Man at the Mill” 3.10
B3. “Push Boat” 5.47
B4. “Georgia Buck” 2.07
B5. “Pork and Beans” 4.02
The Southern half of the Georgia-Alabama border follows the Chattahoochee River, which cleaves Columbus, Georgia from its decidedly less reputable neighbor, Phenix City, Alabama. Georgia’s second city is the hometown of “Mother of the Blues” Ma Rainey and novelist Carson McCullers, but it was local hillbilly duo Darby and Tarlton’s 1927 hit “Columbus Stockade Blues” that first immortalized Columbus in popular culture. Back in their day, if you ended up in lockup in Columbus, chances are you did your dirtiest deeds across the river. Historically rife with vice of every conceivable variety—gambling, prostitution, moonshining, and endemic corruption and violence perpetrated by both gangs and police—the notoriously anarchic Phenix City was once known as “The Wickedest City in America.”
A similar frontier liminality and skewed sense of place characterize the music of Durham, North Carolina singer and guitarist Jake Xerxes Fussell, whose self-titled debut record, produced by and featuring William Tyler, transmutes ten arcane folk and blues tunes into vibey cosmic laments and crooked riverine rambles. Jake Xerxes (yes, that’s his real middle name, after Georgia potter D.X. Gordy) grew up in Columbus, son of Fred C. Fussell, a folklorist, curator, and photographer who hails from America’s Wickedest City. Fred’s fieldwork took him, often with young Jake in tow, across the Southeast documenting traditional vernacular culture, which included recording blues and old-time musicians with fellow folklorists and recordists George Mitchell and Art Rosenbaum (which led Jake to music, and to some of the songs herein) and collaborating with American Indian artists (which led Jake eventually to his graduate research on Choctaw fiddlers.)
As a teenager Jake began playing and studying with elder musicians in the Chattahoochee Valley, apprenticing with Piedmont blues legend Precious Bryant (“Georgia Buck”), with whom he toured and recorded, and riding wild with Alabama bluesman, black rodeo rider, rye whiskey distiller, and master dowser George Daniel (“Rabbit on a Log”). He joined a Phenix City country band who were students of Jimmie Tarlton of Darby and Tarlton; he accompanied Etta Baker in North Carolina; he moved to Berkeley, where he hung with genius documentary filmmaker Les Blank and learned from Haight folkies like Will Scarlett (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, Brownie McGhee) and cult fingerstyle guitarist Steve Mann (“Push Boat”); he appeared on A Prairie Home Companion. He did a whole lot of listening, gradually honing his prodigious guitar skills, singing, and repertoire. In 2005 he moved to Oxford, Mississippi, where he enrolled in the Southern Studies department at Ole Miss, recorded and toured with Rev. John Wilkins, and, last year, met up with acclaimed artist William Tyler to begin recording his first solo album.
Collaborating with Tyler and engineer Mark Nevers in Nashville was a conscious decision to depart cloistered trad scenes and sonics for broader, more oblique horizons. Tyler, a guitar virtuoso known for his own compositions that untether and reframe traditional six-string forms and techniques, helmed the push boat in inimitable fashion, enlisting crack(ed) Nashville session vets Chris Scruggs (steel guitar, bass, fiddle: Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Marty Stuart), Brian Kotzur (drums: Silver Jews), and Hoot Hester (fiddle: Bill Monroe, Ray Charles) to crew.
So it’s no accident that Jake approaches the songs and styles represented here with both interpretive respect and unfussy irreverence, imbuing them with equal parts vaporish, percolating atmosphere and academic rigor, honoring the folksong headwaters by emphasizing their liquid mutability, alien strangeness, and sly humor above preconceived notions of static authenticity. Fussell recognizes that folk revivalist preciousness about spurious genre boundaries often feels absurdly at odds with the unruliness and restlessly inventive practices of tradition bearers—no revival or reenactment gear is necessary when the music lives and breathes and throws around hips and knees like these. Likewise, when you examine their lyrical content, ostensibly linear tales about rivers and work (labor of the hands, as in “Boat’s up the River” and “Man at the Mill” and labor of the heart, as in “Star Girl” and “Pork and Beans”) reveal themselves as fractured, riddled with narrative lacunae that open up the texts as squirrelly riddles or gentle metaphysical jokes.
For Fussell, these odd disjunctures demonstrate the way that verses and choruses, the stories we tell, disintegrate and erode over time, worn smooth as river stones and transmogrified by their repeated telling, more lovely for their fissures and absences than for any imaginary original integrity. (Aptly, “Chattahoochee” may mean something like “writing on rocks” in Muscogee or Yuchi.) Each song rendered here contains its own twinned inversion—its own Columbus, its own Phenix City—and Jake navigates their shoals with intuitive grace and authority.
- Produced by and featuring William Tyler on guitar, with Nashville session vets Chris Scruggs (steel guitar, bass, mandolin: Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Marty Stuart), Brian Kotzur (drums: Silver Jews), and Hoot Hester (fiddle: Bill Monroe, Ray Charles)
- RIYL Michael Hurley, John Prine, Dave Van Ronk, Jim Dickinson, Raccoon Records, and associated realms of critterdom
- Available on 150g virgin vinyl as an LP, with heavy-duty reverse board matte jacket, liner notes detailing the songs’ sources, and full-color LP labels, as well as on gatefold CD and digital formats
- Vinyl edition includes digital download coupon
Jake isn’t just a rare bird, he’s the professor you always wished you had, the friend you never get tired of epic hangs with, the human jukebox, the guitar player and singer who makes any band that he’s in better. He’s a southern scholar and gentleman in the tradition of Jim Dickinson, George Mitchell, and Les Blank. He’s a Dave Van Ronk for SEC country.
– William Tyler
How wonderful that a record company has finally recorded an album by Jake Fussell. He is one helluva bluesman: my favorite of his generation, in fact; and, in my opinion, the best young traditional blues artist performing today.
– George Mitchell
9/10. It takes a lot of work to sound this relaxed. On his buoyant self-titled debut, North Carolina-based, Georgia-raised folksinger and guitarist Jake Xerxes Fussell wields guitar chops gleaned from years of apprenticeship and deep study to spin the most vibrant yarns. Although the songs are Fussell’s adaptations of traditional folk and blues material, in Fussell’s curatorial hands, they sound neither old nor self-consciously shiny and new; they simply make you want to dance.
– Sarah Greene, Exclaim!
8/10. Finest worksongs reworked. Beautifully loose arrangements of playful, resilient songs.
– Alastair McKay, Uncut
A lively and wholehearted gem of folk, country and bluegrass… not only gorgeous, but also a hell of a good time. Quietly, but unmistakably, the poignancy of this group’s paean to the vistas and spirits of their land take hold of you. And you don’t want it to let go.
– Chad Depasquale, Aquarium Drunkard
A human jukebox, a raw and penetrating voice out of time, a genuine bluesman with the heart of a mystic. His debut, Jake Xerxes Fussell, just out from Paradise of Bachelors, is pretty damn perfect. This is the kind of record I feel like I was born to listen to. That voice. That guitar. Man.
– William Boyle, No Depression
There’s an in-the-blood knowledge of these traditions at play, but with Tyler and others following along, it’s always Fussell’s sense of discovery, the looseness of wandering, that wins out. Even with all the history built into these songs and this record, Fussell still emerges as a fresh and vital new voice, as a singer, a musician and a torch bearer for every true sound he’s come across to now.
– Matt Fiander, PopMatters
William Tyler produced it. Chris Scruggs and Brian Kotzur play on it. Paradise of Bachelors, arguably the best label in America right now, released it. And if that’s not enough to convince you it’s a must listen, well, it’s got some of the most vital and fresh re-imaginings of traditional American music you are gonna hear in 2015. It’s not radical, it’s not crazy, just beautiful and wonderful.
– Sean Maloney, The Nashville Scene
Jake X. Fussell is certainly one of America’s finest young tradition-based songsters and guitar pickers. He had an ideal start: as a kid traveling the back roads of Georgia, Alabama, and even out to the Indian regions of Oklahoma with his folklorist dad, hearing and absorbing not only the vocal styles and guitar licks of such greats as Precious Bryant, but also developing a sure sense of the expressive core of Southern roots music. From Georgia’s Sea Islands and Chattahoochie Valley to the Mississippi Delta to the Blue Ridge Mountains, Jake is still listening and learning, and coming up with music that takes us to a deep place in the American spirit.
– Art Rosenbaum
Jake Xerxes Fussell is one of my brothers in song. A finer guitar picker, and more heart-centered interpreter of American song you will rarely find.
– Jolie Holland
The guitarist William Tyler and the singer Jake Xerxes Fussell are more than mere musical lifers; they were born into the very sounds and traditions they’ve made careers of updating. On his recent Tyler-produced debut LP for Chapel Hill label Paradise of Bachelors, Fussell reinterprets ancient songs he’s heard along the way with bright-eyed enthusiasm and youthful candor.
– Grayson Haver Currin, Independent Weekly
Wonderful. Bouncing folk jams with an emotional core that hits hard. Fussell’s powerful voice lands somewhere in between The Tallest Man On Earth and Levon Helm. 2014 is Paradise of Bachelor’s introduction to the world. Jake Xerxes Fussell’s pushing for an even better 2015.
– Will Schube, Passion of the Weiss
4/5. Gorgeously understated.
– NOW Toronto
A near perfect travelogue for the journeyed old-time bluesman. Assembling 10 traditional tunes — imbued with pastoral grandeur by producer and contributing guitarist William Tyler — Fussell imprints his own distinct personality onto songs taught to him by pickers all across the country. What’s impressive about Fussell is how convincingly he owns this heavily travelled and clearly back-dated material.
– Jordan Lawrence, Blurt
If Fussell wears his numerous influences on his sleeve, he also manages to craft his own sound (aided by a crack Nashville band). When he sings old words we believe him: “you don’t believe I’ll fight? You can meet me tomorrow night / and we’ll bout it out on the battlefield.”
– The Oxford American
From the swinging, loose waltz of “All Down and Out” to the closing, clipped chug of “Pork and Beans,” they are nearly all immediate earworms. They are crisp, charming translations.
– Allison Hussey, Independent Weekly
On his self-titled debut, Fussell takes everything he’s learned over the years and makes his mark with a unique blend of faithful retelling and subtle irreverence. The foundation for each song is familiar, but the lyrical emphasis and expansive production not only breathe new life into old songs, but also allow Fussell to make them fit his preferences and personality—a process in folk music that’s as old and as important as the songs are.
– Christian Williams, Utne Reader
These songs are delicate yet at the same time as comforting as sitting with an old friend for the first time in too long. Whatever recording tricks are done to make an album sound like the singer is in the chair next to you, they have been used here. An exceptional record… Infectious.
– Nine Bullets
Fussell’s debut—assured, eloquent, great—feels like a meditation upon a continuum of circumstances, like building a new fence from old stones.
– Patrick Wall, Independent Weekly
Fussell demonstrates respect for original melodies but succeeds throughout in subtly reinterpreting and reconfiguring the songs. Fussell’s confident but restrained performance style is nicely complemented by the production of Nashville-based William Tyler, who provides subtle backing on guitar and organ, as well as judiciously employed fiddle, steel guitar, mandolin, acoustic bass and a simple drum kit. An impressive debut and evidence of the elasticity of traditional music in the right hands.
– Scott Barretta, The Clarion-Ledger
A fascinating and often sublime collection. What is striking is the immediate and yet enduring poignancy of the songs. Fussell successfully performs a songsmithing alchemy that results in songs that are fresh and altogether beautiful. Fussell’s ability to synthesize beautiful old folk songs into sublime new ones is surpassed only by his knowledge of obscure, near-forgotten and constantly amazing rural music.
– Aaron Texeira, Glide Magazine
There’s enough twanging guitar and silvery steel licks to situate this music in the country, and the rhythm section’s sturdy beats and swinging acoustic pulses take their cues from the pat of Fussell’s foot. But there’s also enough atmospheric filigree to awaken associations to the cosmic rock of The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Fussell digs into the songbooks of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Olla Belle Reed, and some guys who turned up at a North Carolina fiddling convention, streamlining each in turn so that it feels like a meditation upon a continuum of circumstances.
– Bill Meyer, Dusted
These songs feel well-worn and lived-in in the best way… comfortable and warm, like that old quilt that’s been in your family for as long as you can remember.
– Allison Hussey, The Bluegrass Situation
Fussell borrows and blends different versions of old songs, a bit like a hip-hop beatmaker, until he is well able to justify the copyright Trad. Arr. Fussell. When he turns his guitar-picking skills and convincingly withered pipes to a song, it’s almost as if it’s chosen him. He’s really good!
– Nick Bollinger, Radio New Zealand National
The material comes from the great rural blues and folk traditions of the South, but his interpretations are relaxed, unfussy, and full of his own unique personality. Fussell rolls through an often obscure yet timeless set of early blues and folk tunes with an understated grace and easy charm. He’s not afraid to mess with the formula a bit, but neither is he showy. The way everything hangs together so seamlessly suggests a poise beyond his years. This is the kind of subtle record unlikely to make immediate waves, but with a staying power that will call for repeated listens.
My surprise was not in how these old songs could sound so fresh, but because in my mind they are so fully adapted into something different and new, so infused with Fussell’s artistry that he could easily have claimed them– but didn’t. On Fussell’s self-titled album, it is the pointed and rather humble decision to credit all of his sources and influences that is salient.
– Nothing in the House
When you hear Jake’s renditions of these old songs they sound like they’re his songs, like he wrote them. Jake’s adding to the lineage of the song’s life. The production on the record—by William Tyler—matches Jake’s song sensibilities perfectly and brings the songs out in a way that seems fresh and classic at the same time.
– David Swider, The Local Voice
It sounds like it’s the purest music you’ve ever heard. All ten of the self-titled’s songs are relic-like masterpieces. Feels like a trip through a time and place I’ve never been anywhere near.
– First Lsnr
Fussell’s interpretations of this music sound like a back porch hangout. That’s where you’ll find me when I put this one on.
– Adobe and Teardrops