Nathan Bowles :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

“Elk River Blues” can be used as a road map to the solo music of Nathan Bowles.

In 2012, as an end to his first album, A Bottle, A Buckeye, the song—written by fiddler Ernie Carpenter as an instrumental lament about the flooding of his boyhood home after U.S. Army Engineers built a dam—is wistful if a bit lonely. In a 2014 video, when Bowles plays the track again on a park picnic table, it’s a sadder version and definitely lonely. And so mid-way through Bowles’ new record Plainly Mistaken, released last week on Paradise of Bachelors, when “Elk River Blues” begins again I couldn’t help but notice the song’s upbeat nature. It’s bright, sunny. It’s a romp. The song is reflective, pensive (like the others recordings) but a bit hopeful. On his first album constructed with a full band—a trio consisting of Casey Toll (double bass) and Rex McMurry (CAVE)—Bowles’s music isn't as solitary while being equally reflective.

Last week, over beers at a downtown Durham, NC bar, we asked Bowles about "Elk River Blues".

“I still think about that song all the time. When I just pick the banjo up, and I don't know what I'm going to do, I'll just start playing around on that song. It sticks in your craw somehow,” he said. The new recording felt more communal, I said. Was is supposed to be happy? Was the record supposed to be upbeat?

“Yeah, maybe, I don't know. Maybe what you're hearing as up is there's a real vitalness to it,” he said. “There's a thump from playing with other people that I think drives me. It makes me energetic. I felt that during the recording. There's a lot of fire in the record, for sure. Smoldering. It's a lot of energy. Thoughtfulness. I don't know. I don't think it's a sad record but…” He drifts off and pauses to think.

“My first idea [for the trio] was to like arrange older material,” Bowles continues, explaining it might be fun to play his old records with a trio for live shows after doing percussion with Steve Gunn on tour. “I didn't know if [the trio] was going to be a lark. Once the older material gelled pretty quickly, I was like, ‘Now, I both want to bring my new material to these two guys; and also, like write material with them collaboratively.’” Elk River Blues, he thinks, follows from the first instinct, to re-record old material. “I really like when artists re-record things. I think that's cool. You know, because all these records are just postcards from a time. So, you get to see how their perspective has changed on that piece. Or maybe it hasn't.”

Plainly Mistaken ebbs and flows in a similar fashion to the way Bowles speaks. It pauses to contemplate; it speeds through ideas only to soon revisit them. It circles. The record’s easy going while being totally focused. You can see all those attributes in standout first single, an over ten-minute jam called “The Road Reversed.” It shows off again Bowles ability to capture the listener. You can get lost in it like you would any drone or folk record. This combination of atmospherics and clawhammer banjo harkens back to that “old, weird America” Harry Smith collected on his famous Anthology of American Folk Music.

Bowles and I spoke about his banjo and circular music for a little over an hour. The following is an edited and condescended version of our conversation.

Aquarium Drunkard: I was just reading up on all the press that you've done in the past. And something that always is funny to me is that I feel like people don't know quite what to call you? The word banjo's in there. But beyond that…

Nathan Bowles: I guess on the solo records the banjo is the central instrument, even if there is a lot of other stuff going on around it. But I'm not sure I even sure think about it as like ‘banjo music.’ That's just the thing I tend to write material on.

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