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
"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