Entrancing guitarist and singer Jake Xerxes Fussell follows his celebrated self-titled debut (produced by William Tyler) with a moving new album of Natural Questions in the form of transmogrified folk/blues koans. This time these radiant ancient tunes tone several shades darker while amplifying their absurdist humor, illuminating our national, and psychic, predicaments. Featuring art by iconic painter Roger Brown and contributions from three notable Nathans—Nathan Bowles (Steve Gunn), Nathan Salsburg (Alan Lomax Archive), and Nathan Golub (Mountain Goats)—as well as Joan Shelley and Casey Toll (Mt. Moriah).
“Thus is nature: beyond all things is the ocean, beyond the ocean nothing.”
– Lucius Annaeus Seneca, from Natural Questions, c. 65 AD
Roger Brown, whose preternaturally vivid paintings grace Durham, North Carolina guitarist and singer Jake Xerxes Fussell’s second album What in the Natural World, is usually associated with the loose confederacy of artists known as the Chicago Imagists, but at heart he was fundamentally a Southern boy whose Alabama origins root his work. (He grew up in Opelika, about thirty miles northwest of Fussell’s childhood home in Columbus, Georgia, and counted Elvis Presley as a distant cousin.) Influenced both by comics and the folk and self-taught art he collected, Brown’s distinctive landscapes—which oscillate between architectural and natural, urban and bucolic, busy and barren, depicting the incursion of culture on our environment—are meticulously rendered in a stylized idiom of alien symmetries: recursive, patterned terrains as saturated with vibratory color as with psychological and political subtexts.
Both Brown and Fussell approach their art as a consequence of their practices as collectors and scholars of Southern vernacular culture—material culture and music, respectively—imbuing their own inventive work with the clarity and vigor of folk traditions, while reframing their durable, multivalent strangeness for our own times. Fussell has become a masterful interpreter and mutative performer of American folk and popular music, always allowing the songs he selects to breathe and swell with oceanic ambiguity, never closing them off to contemporary contexts and sonics. It’s the result of a lifetime dedicated to apprenticeships with master storytellers, from Piedmont blueswomen Precious Bryant and Etta Baker to documentary artists Les Blank and Art Rosenbaum.
So if What in the Natural World feels both several shades darker, and unsettlingly funnier, than Jake’s self-titled 2015 debut (produced by brother-in-arms William Tyler), you need only look around at our national predicament in 2017 for clues. Since then Jake has played around the country, opening for Wilco, dueting with Tyler, and touring with Mt. Moriah, Nathan Bowles, and Daniel Bachman … and the territory he’s traversed, for many of our fellow citizens, doesn’t brook much hope.
This time round Fussell has sourced his repertoire from beyond his primary Southeastern foraging grounds, including songs from the Southwest (“Canyoneers”) and even Wales (“Bells of Rhymney”). He encounters monsters, literal and figurative, everywhere in this landscape of loss and longing—from the hellhounds of “Jump for Joy” to cruel Mr. Brown in “Furniture Man” (“a devil born without horns”); from the oppressive mine owners (“they have fangs, they have teeth”) of “Bells of Rhymney” to the demons and dragons on “St. Brendan’s Isle.” Unlike his debut, the majority of these songs are not nominally traditional; they don’t hail from what Jake calls “the weird void of folk anonymity and the dark, fertile past.” Five of nine are attributed to specific artists, both canonical (Duke Ellington) and obscure (Helen Cockram), and all are recast in vibrant, assured recordings that elide genres and dissolve the false binaries of tradition and innovation, folk and modern, old and new.
What in the Natural World was recorded by Jason Meagher (Steve Gunn, Michael Chapman) in Orange Co., New York, and by Nick Petersen (Horseback, Mt. Moriah) in Orange Co., North Carolina, and features contributions from three notable Nathans—Nathan Bowles (drums, banjo, piano, melodica; Steve Gunn), Nathan Salsburg (guitar on “Pinnacle Mountain”; Alan Lomax Archive), and Nathan Golub (steel guitar; Mountain Goats)—as well as Joan Shelley (vocal on “Lowe Bonnie”) and Casey Toll (bass; Mt. Moriah).
Throughout, Fussell poses Natural Questions in the form of transmogrified folk/blues koans. These nine elliptical riddles, spare but sturdy, driven by Jake’s limpid guitar and understated singing, both absorb and reflect the conditions of their listeners, refusing to offer easy answers. Though the album title lacks a question mark—it can be read as exclamatory or interrogative—all of these songs contain axial, and anxious, questions about the Natural World and our tenuous position within it.
“All the hounds, I do believe, have been killed/Ain’t you thrilled?” The minimally arranged “Jump for Joy” (from Duke Ellington’s eponymous 1941 “Sun-Tanned Revu-sical”) and “Billy Button” (an odd relic of nonsense verse with likely roots in medicine shows and minstrelsy) anchor Sides A and B with mutual echoes. Fussell’s nimbly fingerpicked chord progressions, buttressed by Bowles’ piano and melodica, hew an achingly bittersweet mood of yearning from rough doggerel about “groovy pastures” and “hog meat”—transforming their absurdist lyrics into affecting statements about mortality and the distant promise of paradise. What to do when we finally “stomp up to heaven and meet old St. Pete,” when we arrive in “the happy land of Canaan”? “It’s a long way to travel, and the money for to spend.”
“Have you ever seen peaches growing on a sweet potato vine?” Can nature yield further fruits? Instead of a response to the titular paradox we get sleepily affectionate flirtation: “Wake up, woman, take your big leg off of mine.” (“She’s a married woman, but I love her just the same.”) Bowles shuffles winningly.
“What kind of business has the poor man got/dealing with the Furniture Man?” “Furniture Man,” a desperate tale of poverty, dispossession, and imminent homelessness—its cascading guitar refrain descending into a quiet pit of resignation—is as relevant and heartrending now as it was when first recorded in the 1920s.
“What’s in a man to make him thirst/for the kind of life he knows is cursed?” “Pinnacle Mountain Silver Mine” (by Appalachian Virginia singer Helen Cockram) and “Canyoneers” (by Arizona producer and Lee Hazelwood associate Loy Clingman) explore the rugged topography of risk and impossibly remote rewards. Pinnacle Mountain holds a “secret I may never know” (intimated by Salsburg’s charming, filigreed guitar), but the “lonely river rats” of “Canyoneers” seemingly toil for purely existential reasons. “Have you ever wondered what you’d do when all the chips were down?”
“‘Is there hope for the future?’/Say the brown bells of Merthyr.” The arcane coal miner’s lament “Bells of Rhymney” shares its text, by Welsh poet Idris Davies, with the song popularized by Pete Seeger and the Byrds, complete with personified, protesting bells, but here Jake supplies his own gospel-tinged musical setting. “St. Brendan’s Isle” offers a faux-Celtic companion piece by Arkansan Jimmy Driftwood, wherein monstrous mine owners are replaced by actual brimstone and scaly “monsters that be.”
“How can I live, how can I live?/You wounded me so deep.” The hero of “Lowe Bonnie,” a chilling Alabama variant of the Child murder ballad “Young Hunting” (aka “Henry Lee”), is slain by his jilted lover (voiced here by Joan Shelley) in a deathly embrace, as he watches her “pen knife” spill his “own heart’s blood” onto his feet. Jake’s guitar shivers.
In his first-century scientific and philosophical treatise Natural Questions, Seneca interrogates his environment for answers, venturing some, but warning that “a single lifetime, even though entirely devoted to the sky, would not be enough for the investigation of so vast a subject.” Maybe the meaning of a thing reveals itself only through tradition, through time, through iterative summoning and study. You get the sense, listening to Fussell’s music, and looking at Brown’s paintings, that they would agree.
+ Available on 150g virgin vinyl as an LP, with heavy-duty 24pt matte jacket, color labels, and high-res download code for the entire album.
+ CD edition features heavy-duty matte gatefold jacket and LP replica artwork.
+ Artwork features two paintings by iconic Chicago Imagist artist Roger Brown (1941–1997).
+ RIYL: Michael Hurley, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Dave Van Ronk, Jim Dickinson, Raccoon Records, Joan Shelley, Nathan Bowles, Nathan Salsburg, William Tyler, Daniel Bachman, Wilco.
A singular combination of pedigree, experience, education, and talent.
– The Oxford American
8/10.Finest worksongs reworked. Beautifully loose arrangements of playful, resilient songs.”
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!
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
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
Jake 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
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