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Folk roots, new routes on Jake Xerxes Fussell’s latest album

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Photo by Tom Rankin
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Jake Xerxes Fussell

The artist released his new album "Good and Green Again" on Jan. 21st.

While the term “Great American Songbook” is usually applied to songs originating in Tin Pan Alley or Broadway musical theatre that became standard repertoire for early to mid-century jazz musicians, the same concept can be used in reference to pieces of traditional music which, through preservation, re-recording, and continual performance, have become staples of American oral culture.

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Jake Xerxes Fussell's fourth and latest album "Good and Green Again" is out January 21.

Much of American folksong is variations on a theme: narratives fractured or tweaked by different performers, characters or place names changed, picking styles altered, source material molded into something completely different. The difficulty of discerning how a song is “meant” to be played can leave room for interpretation. Subtle variations in lyrics, chords, or instrumentation can arise from different regional dialects, recordings, or the fusing of one song or story with another.

Jake Xerxes Fussell has released three full albums of traditional material, ranging from country blues to work songs to old fiddle and guitar tunes, much of it arranged for guitar, drums, pedal steel, and fiddle. His fourth and latest album, "Good and Green Again," his first with producer James Elkington, features more daring instrumentation, newly-composed instrumentals, and many striking touches from musical collaborators. WUNC Music recently caught up with Fussell to discuss the world of traditional music, the recording of the new album, and his approach to musical interpretation.

This interview transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Harris Wheless, WUNC Music: This album features some of your first original compositions: three instrumentals and one song with found lyrics. What inspired you to begin writing your own material?

There's a lot of old handclaps or songs that are just a few lines. So I've had an interest in adapting some of those to a musical setting, if they weren't already musical enough.
Jake Xerxes Fussell

Jake Xerxes Fussell: Well, I've actually always kind of been writing little instrumentals and stuff. I shouldn't say kind of, actually, I have been writing my own instrumentals for years. But for the most part, I didn't want to put them on records because I didn't feel like they were substantial enough. Whatever instrumentals I had, they were kind of just little diddly things that I didn't really consider complete unto themselves or anything. But with this record, I had had a few instrumentals that I thought with sort of deliberate arrangements could be pretty interesting. And in the past, I have included a couple of instrumentals on my records. Especially when I felt like there were some long narrative ballads that were taking up a lot of energy. It's kind of nice to give the listener a break. If you have a couple of songs that are really narrative-driven, and require some focus, if you want to know what the song’s about, you kind of have to listen on an intellectual level. So, on this record, I have like a nine-and-a-half-minute song. It’s a long narrative ballad and I think you kind of owe the listener a little bit of a break. So, these instrumentals, they're not throwaway or second rate or anything. I thought they might lend themselves to the overall mood of the record. But at the same time, because some of these songs are kind of melancholy or heavy, it might be nice to have some things on there that don't require that sort of weight.

In the case of that song “Washington,” that's sort of an outlier in that I took the lyrics from a hooked rug that I saw in a book, and then put a melody to it. ... [It] immediately struck me. Just the couplet itself, or whatever you want to call it, just that line: “General Washington, noblest of men, his house, his horse, his cherry tree, and him.” And then, along with the visual of it, it was funny on one level to me. It seemed like an old children's rhyme. And I do have an interest in songs that are just one or two lines, because that's kind of a thing in oral culture. There's a lot of old handclaps or songs that are just a few lines. So I've had an interest in adapting some of those to a musical setting, if they weren't already musical enough.

Had you ever considered breaking up one of the previous albums with instrumentals? Or did you not really think about that until this one because you didn't have instrumentals written that you were satisfied with?

In retrospect, I probably should have. [Laughs]. But I approached this record differently in thinking that the instrumentals could potentially be a substantial part of the listening experience, if they were executed properly. And that was gonna take a lot more deliberate arrangement. In the past, if things sounded intentional, that was just a happy accident. [Laughs]. And that's not to put down my previous records. I'm proud of them. But the approach had always been either get some basic tracking down, and then we'll overdub some stuff on it, or get everybody in the room and just hit record.

Have you ever tried writing your own lyrics for any of the instrumentals you've written, or ever tried taking the music from a traditional song and writing your own lyrics to it?

No, I haven't. I've never been a lyrics person. By that, I mean, I've never been somebody who felt compelled to write lyrics or words of any kind. And I don't know why that is. If I were to do any kind of writing I would be much more inclined to write a short story or an article about something. I've never ever been interested in writing poetry. I admire people who do that. I have friends who are great lyricists and I’m in awe of them. And I’m in awe of that way of thinking about the world and perceiving things.

A lot of times you’re playing a character when you’re singing a song. But there has to be an emotional root there in order for it to be believable.
Jake Xerxes Fussell

But I was never compelled to do that myself. To me, with lyrics, you always have to get into some intellectual framework to think that way. And I never thought that way. I never thought about things in terms of words when it came to music. If I did, it was more responding to some lyric that I really liked that came from someone else. And I thought, well, I can work with this lyric. That's the case with that George Washington thing. “Oh, this is really interesting. I can work with this on some musical level.” But that was always my entry point to that. I just never have been a word person. ...

I’ve done a lot of traveling with people who are great songwriters. I did a run a couple years ago with Bill Callahan. I’ve worked a lot with Joan Shelley. I see how songwriters operate. I watch them jot little things down in notebooks and hotel stationary and I like that. I really admire that process, but that’s never been me. I’ve always been listening to Library of Congress field recordings from 1936 or whatever. I’ll hear one line of somebody playing a fiddle or something and think, “Oh, that’s something I could maybe try to work with there.” So that’s always been my approach. Or reading these old folk songbooks. That kind of stuff.

Do you have a process for choosing traditional material? Do you do any kind of archival research or are there particular song forms or narrative elements that you find yourself gravitating towards?

I don’t have a set way of doing it. And I know it probably sounds cliché, but usually, the songs find me. [Laughs]. But it’s kind of true. I’m always listening to different things and I’ll hear something and think, “Well, that’s interesting.” And it’ll usually be kicking around in my head and I can’t get rid of it. And then I’ll try to start playing it and try to get some sort of bite on the thing and figure out if it’ll hold up or not. A lot of times the criteria for me is if I can have some emotional tie to the thing. Otherwise, it won’t feel appropriate for me to try to sing in this voice or from this particular point of view. That’s always the first order of business for me, because I’m doing material that’s so much older than myself most of the time, that it’s not from my point of view that I’m singing, it’s usually somebody who lived 200 years ago or more. So, in order for me to pull that off, it has to be legitimate on some emotional level first and foremost. Plenty of times there’s been folksingers who are men singing from the point of view of a woman, or vice versa. A lot of times you’re playing a character when you’re singing a song. But there has to be an emotional root there in order for it to be believable, for me.

Have you ever worked formally as a folklorist?

Not really. I mean, it’s funny because [laughs] a lot of times when people write about me they use the word “folklorist” to describe me. I push back against that if I have the opportunity to. I don’t think of myself as a folklorist. I’m not one. Just because I don’t have training in that field and that is a specific thing. It’s almost like calling someone an architect if they’ve done some carpentry work before. [Laughs]. I grew up around folklorists. My dad is and was a folklorist when I was growing up. My mother wouldn’t call herself a folklorist but has definitely been around in that world for a long time. Both of them were sort of out of the material culture world. They, as young people my age and younger, were interested in textiles and basket-making and building log cabins and things like that. And then, through that world, got into traditional music, which is how I became exposed to all that stuff.

I wanted to ask about “The Golden Willow Tree,” since it’s so much longer than a lot of the other songs on this record. I was looking through some of the different iterations of the song and it seemed like some of them were quite a bit shorter and didn’t have some of the more detailed narrative elements that you included. Did you consider doing any of the shortened versions of the song or did you prefer that longer version you found with a little more narrative detail?

Yeah, I thought the narrative itself was so interesting. I like that you pointed that out because that is one of the things that I love about listening to so many different versions of a particular narrative. Sometimes the narrative gets totally fractured from the original thing, and the version you’re left with is like two or three verses, and so it doesn’t entirely make sense. Especially a lot of things that are left lingering in the canon of American folksong. Through the generations, a lot of the context has been lost, or at least sort of fallen through the cracks. So you’re left with this weird series of associations. [Laughs]. On this particular song, I thought the narratives – there’s a bunch of versions out there that are more thorough, but the Horton Barker [“Turkish Rebilee”] one stuck out to me as being one of the best, from my point of view. I wanted to sing something similar to that narrative to get the full story. I did not intend for it to be nine and a half minutes long. [Laughs]. But then, once I put it in that musical setting, once I sort of put it into that particular type of melody and pace, it couldn’t get any shorter. And believe me, I tried. [Laughs].

I got so caught up in the narrative that when the song ended I thought, “Was that really just nine minutes?” It didn’t feel too long. It didn’t drag or anything like that, especially because I think there’s a very interesting narrative there and the music’s good.

Well, Harris, hearing you say that pleases me to no end. [Laughs]. That was my big fear about this record. That song is just going to be a bummer. [Laughs]. ... [There] was this thing where there was a lot of talk about that song between me and Jim, when I first recorded it. Because it could either be the kind of thing where it could be the one big drag on this record, or in a weird way, it could kinda be the centerpiece. And hopefully, it ended up being the latter. Even though I didn’t think of it as being the most important song or anything, it actually kind of fits in there comfortably, in a way that I didn’t expect.

Why did you choose the title "Good and Green Again" for the album? Does the phrase have any specific significance for you?

Well, I wanted there to be some sort of optimism with this record, because it does feel kind of melancholy overall. This is the second time that I’ve taken a phrase that I heard somebody use out in the world or I overheard somewhere. And I just decided to lift it. The first one I did like that was that "What in the Natural World" record. I heard somebody say that at a service station one time, like as an exclamation, I guess. And then, this one, I was working at the Hillsborough Habitat ReStore a while back, and heard somebody say that it was going to be “good and green again.” I didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t know if they were referring to something with the pandemic. I think they were talking about the weather, because it had been raining a lot. But it’s just something that stuck in my mind. It had alliteration going for it. [Laughs]. And then, I just liked the rhythm of it. But I wasn’t totally sold on it. I had a few contenders. And then, I was looking at Art Rosenbaum’s paintings and there were several of them that were more recent and one that had a lot of greenery in it. I had been thinking about that title anyway, so I thought they might work together. So yeah, I was happy with how that turned out.

The album art looks really good. Do you know if the pastel is a drawing of any particular part of the country? I don’t know where he lives.

Yeah, it is. He lives in Athens, Georgia, which is in North Georgia. And the drawing is a piece that he did of Tallulah Gorge, which is in the mountains there. And I think he did that “plein air,” as they say. I think he went up there and visited. He does quite a bit of that.

I think it just goes to show that you’re in a mood or you have a series of moods and you’re gravitating towards a certain feeling, and you’re trying to get that out through the songs. There’s some sort of search there. And so that just becomes apparent the more you’re trying to work through it.
Jake Xerxes Fussell

You might say that song choice, especially with traditional music, gives the listener a little bit of insight into the performer. Do you have any thoughts on why you gravitated towards these traditional songs or why you felt they worked well as a group?

You know, it’s funny, whenever I’ve worked on a record, I never have approached it like there’s a theme. It’s always just the greatest hits of what I’ve been playing lately. [Laughs]. It’s not like "Blonde on Blonde" or "Graceland" or "Blood on the Tracks" where there’s a thematic overarching thing going on. I don’t come to it with “these are the themes that I’m working through,” it’s more like, “these are the songs I want to do.” And then, once I’m done with the thing, I do recognize a theme. [Laughs]. Or one or two themes start to become really apparent. And that’s happened several times. So yeah, that definitely happened with this record. And that’s just an accident. I think it just goes to show that you’re in a mood or you have a series of moods and you’re gravitating towards a certain feeling, and you’re trying to get that out through the songs. There’s some sort of search there. And so that just becomes apparent the more you’re trying to work through it. And then once the thing is done, usually by the time I’m hearing the first pass of mixes on the record I’m like, “Oh, this thing actually has a little bit of a form to it.” [Laughs]. In a funny way that wasn’t really intended.

When you finished the record and you were noticing some of these things, were there any themes or anything that jumped out at you that you hadn’t recognized before?

I mean, definitely. I didn’t go in to make a record about loss. And not that that has to be what this record is about, really. I don’t want to say that because then people will be like, “Oh, God, I don’t want to hear that record.” [Laughs]. If I say I made a record about loss, well, you lost me too. [Laughs].

Some people would definitely flock to that. But maybe that’s not what you want.

Right, yeah. [Laughs]. Get their loss kink. I didn’t go into it with that idea. But then, certainly those sort of themes came out. Like, “Oh, there’s something going on here about loss, but then also kind of renewal too,” which maybe goes back to the title.

Maybe some of the themes that can be discerned on this record are general themes that would pop up, like if it was a common thing for people to compose ballads about significant events: ships going down, a mill burning down, or significant personal events like unrequited love, and you end up with all of these songs that in different ways are all about loss. 

Yeah, event songs are such a big part of the folk singing culture. Event songs and then songs that are sort of commenting on changing times and industry and labor. People's jobs being replaced by machines. Which, you can go back to “John Henry,” or mechanization, or songs about shoemaking. “Peg and Awl” is an old song about human labor being replaced by robot labor. And it’s funny to hear those songs now and think, “This is still relevant.” I don’t hear those songs as being outdated at all. Or even irrelevant on any level.

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