Jake Xerxes Fussell grew up enmeshed in the music and culture of the South. The son of folklorist, photographer, and artist Fred C. Fussell, he spent time with father on the road, documenting the sound and feel of blues singers, indigenous fiddlers, and performers whose songbooks reached back in time, connecting generations through song.
The younger Fussell carries on curatorial work through his records, applying his alternately smooth and grainy voice to traditional vernacular ballads. Writing about Fussell’s latest, Out of Sight, Aquarium Drunkard’s Kaley Evans noted his ability to “avoid what could easily be an off-putting academic exercise in less capable hands,” delivering instead a “collection of songs that both honor and belie their origins.”
Aquarium Drunkard caught up with Fussell to discuss the process of finding oneself in songs of the past, understanding how their truths applies today, and how the scope of traditional and shared music is not limited by region or provenance.
Aquarium Drunkard: The songs on Out of Sight are all culled from the public domain. If asked to define one single quality you look for in a song to sing, what might that quality be?
Jake Xerxes Fussell: The main thing is that the song has to feel natural and legitimate for me to sing. Selecting the songs is a very intuitive process, so if the song doesn’t feel legitimate with my voice I’ll know pretty quickly and I’ll usually abandon it and just move on to another song. Either that or I’ll have to use a dramatically different approach to the arrangement and take it in a very different direction from whatever source material I’m using. And honestly I don’t like to do that all that much if I can avoid it because, for one thing, I like to preserve a certain amount of the song’s integrity and usually the best musical ideas have come to me pretty quickly rather than through some intellectual tedium. Drastic rearrangements can become a weird trap you set yourself in. But at other times that approach can work out okay…it just sort of depends on the song and how much faith you have in it from the start.
Because I’m singing a lot of narrative songs in the first person that were written long before my time–in a few cases maybe several hundred years before my time–there has to be a certain amount of believability for me to pull it off. The listener has to trust that I know what I’m singing about on an emotional level. And the best way for them to believe me is if I already believe me.
AD: These songs are largely associated with the South; does your music feel rooted there? Could you imagine yourself approaching songs from a region you’ve never visited on a future recording?
Jake Xerxes Fussell: It’s true that many of the songs in my repertoire are sourced from some region in the southeastern part of the US–whether that’s tidewater Virginia, the Chattahoochee River Valley, panhandle Florida, the Georgia coast, Wiregrass Alabama, etc. That’s largely because I grew up in the southeast with a regional awareness and within a folkloric background so I’ve constantly been trying to understand the world around me through music and place. But I don’t really think of myself as a “southern musician” per se. To be totally honest I think the idea of “southernness” often gets blown way out of proportion and in many cases becomes sort of meaningless. Thankfully there’s some good scholarship out there these days which dismantles a lot of that “folk=southern” mythology. There’s a guy named James Leary who has done some great work on the importance of Upper Midwestern music traditions. The truth is that many of the songs and tunes that one might recognize as part of southern folk music can also be found in Mid-Atlantic, New England, Great Plains, Midwestern, Caribbean, or Native American repertoires. That’s certainly true for a lot of the well-loved fiddle tunes, religious songs, lullabies, etc.
It’s important to remember that in the 1920s and 30s–the era when a lot of this regional genrefying was sort of crystallized–the big record companies were using the rural south as a selling point. Some of the people involved in the folk revival took the bait and carried it forward. Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music is a bold and beautiful project but not very representative of much other than its own bizarre self…I think there’s maybe two non-southern tracks on the whole thing. One of my mentors, Art Rosenbaum, is a great example of someone who saw regions but also saw through them. How is this New England fiddle tune related to this Bahamian sea chantey?
I find that approach far more intriguing and helpful. As for my own repertoire, I actually do play many songs that wouldn’t be categorized as southern or associated with the region. “Michael Was Hearty”–one of the narrative ballads on this recent album, was never a part of American oral tradition as far as I know. I learned it from a YouTube video of an Irish guy named Thomas McCarthy–a truly wonderful singer. I enjoy and occasionally perform songs and tunes that are from faraway places. But again, it has to feel legitimate for my voice, so that can limit things at times. I probably wouldn’t sing a mariachi song, for instance, though I love that style of music very much.
AD: Your version of “Jubilee” is beautiful, and a little downcast. Jean Riche’s is solitary but a little “brighter” sounding. Do you take pleasure in inverting a song that way?
Jake Xerxes Fussell: I can’t say that it’s something I really do on purpose, “inverting” a song’s mood like that, as you say. You’re totally right that Jean Ritchie’s version is much brighter and mine maybe isn’t so bright, but there’s still a certain melancholy in her version too. Obviously my attempt pulls more of that quality out of it. That’s a wordy way of explaining a big part of what I’m trying to do…to pull certain qualities out of a song that are already in there and let them shine. Usually you don’t have to look too far before you recognize something you can work with on an expressive level.
AD: “Cosmic” is a word sometimes associated with your music. I hear it in my own way (there’s a far off space in the sounds I very much appreciate) but what, to you, makes a thing “cosmic?”
Jake Xerxes Fussell: I honestly have no idea what “cosmic” means, at least as it relates to my music. Hell I’m not even sure if I know what “cosmic” means when it doesn’t relate to my music! Maybe because I take songs from one context and place them into another it seems like I’m up to some sort of magic trick or something? I really don’t know. But the big secret is that’s what all music is doing. I’m not exceptional in doing that…the contexts change all the time. It might just be that I’m more transparent about the act of it or something. How are you enjoying this non-answer?
AD: As far as non-answers go, it’s pretty great. The album cover is beautiful; that’s your father’s artwork, correct? What about that particular piece made you want to put it on the front of your record?
Jake Xerxes Fussell: Yes, that’s a charcoal of a mound that my dad drew in the early ’90s. It’s one of a series that amounts to probably several hundred if not a thousand paintings and drawings of mounds that he did from the early ’90s up until now. He’s still doing them…charcoals, pencil drawings, oil paintings, watercolors, you name it. It’s sort of an obsession of his…a never-ending work of art. I’m glad you like it; I’ll tell him you said so. I really enjoy picking out the artwork for my record covers and am fortunate to work with a record label where visual art is such an integral part of the presentation. When I first met Brendan Greaves [of Paradise of Bachelors] I was relieved that he was a museum guy because so few people in the music industry think that way. My previous album covers were fun to work on too. I was lucky to get permission to use Roger Brown’s paintings on What in the Natural World and a Francis le Porte etching of the Chattahoochee River on my first album.
AD: You’ve played with the gospel group the Como Mamas, from the fertile gospel hotbed of Como, Mississippi. What has working with them taught you and how has it influenced your own music?
Jake Xerxes Fussell: I try to pick something up from everyone I play music with and if it doesn’t find its way into my own music in a direct and tangible way, it’s certainly informative for me in the bigger scheme of things. I have toured a bit as a guitarist for the Como Mamas in the past couple years and that’s been really fun, mainly because they’re great singers and they’re so fun to hang out with. We all have a lot of fun traveling together and we’ve toured much more in Europe than we have in the States, so that’s been very interesting. Before I started making records of my own, I did a lot of sideman jobs. I was living in Mississippi and was playing with people like Reverend John Wilkins and Kenny Brown, among others. Before that I’d played a lot with Precious Bryant, so gospel guitar was familiar to me, thanks to her. I really love playing that style of guitar and I’ve used it a little bit here and there in my own playing. In fact, if I had to name my favorite guitarists they’re probably all guitarists with strong gospel leanings: Joseph Spence, Howard Carroll, Etta Baker, Curtis Mayfield.
My version of “Bells of Rhymney” on my previous album is straight out of that gospel idiom, even though it’s a secular Welsh poem. I can’t say that playing with the Como Mamas has had that big of an impact on my own solo musical endeavors, at least in terms of tangible results, but often we don’t really know what’s impacted us until it comes through in some funny and unexpected way. And that happens all the time. words/j woodbury
Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which allows readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019 and beyond.