On his debut album for Paradise of Bachelors label, North Carolina’s Jake Xerxes Fussell has assembled a fascinating and often sublime collection of songs adapted from the songbook of obscure, near-forgotten and amazing old-time music.
A native of Georgia, Fussell has spent a thorough portion of his life discovering and unearthing these old tunes. The son of a folklorist and curator, his father traveled the rural and urban south documenting “traditional vernacular culture” and bringing the young Fussell along with him. Continuing in this vein of musical exploration, Jake spent his teenage years in the apprenticeship of elder bluesmen, performing with regional country bands and eventually conducting academic research on Choctaw Indian fiddling.
With such a strong pedigree in the study of primitive and traditional styles, it should come as no surprise that Jake Xerxes Fussell’s self-titled debut should be so deeply rooted in the soil of the banks of his native Chattahoochee River. What is striking is the immediate and yet enduring poignancy of the songs. By reaching as far back as can be reached to tap the essence of the first-generation versions of these tunes and combining them with other noteworthy renditions, Fussell successfully performs a songsmithing alchemy that results in songs that are fresh and altogether beautiful.
The album opener “All In Down & Out” begins with sounds that might be heard on a scratch blues 78” before Fussell begins to sing the nearly century-old tune (his particular version being based on that of Uncle Dave Macon from a 1938 recording). William Tyler (Silver Jews) both produces and provides excellent six-string guitar work on the album, and the result is excellent: a sound that is polished and practiced but authentic. The sort of period- yet-modern production style and playing carries throughout the record, particularly noteworthy on the track “Push Boat,” which might have just as believably been cut at Sun Records in the mid 1950s.
Moments of real depth are on full display tracks like “Star Girl,” an introspective smattering of songs like “Adieu False Heart” (1938) and “The Loving Girl” (1929). Fussell’s finger picking and the steel work of Chris Scuggs combine jhere to create a heartbreaking, gorgeous and ethereal soundscape against which the tale of lost love is told. Similarly, “Raggy Levy” features a simple yet enigmatic lyricism, the like of which is indicative throughout the album – seemingly basic phrases and lines which belie the mysterious nature of their origin.
If this young artist should continue in this vein of combining traditional, primitive melodies with sharp, modern production and excellent ensemble playing, there is a promising and exciting future for fans of “real folk blues” and old-timey music. Indeed, 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.