Joseph Allred :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Joseph Allred is sitting on a well-worn couch in front of a wood-paneled wall and a lampshade perched crookedly atop its lamp. They’re in rural Tennessee – not in the house they grew up in, but in a house that feels very much like home.

“I grew up in a little town about 35 miles from here called Jamestown, and my dad grew up in a house right across the street from here,” Allred says. “But my grandparents grew up here in this house and my great grandparents built this house. I think my great great grandparents and my great great great grandparents have all been from out here in this area.”

The nearest community, in fact, is called Allred, and down the road is another called Shiloh, and beyond the turnoff to Shiloh is Blue Hole Hollow and the Cub Cemetery, where Joseph Allred’s father is buried. It’s this verdant sliver of Tennessee that inspired Allred’s new album The Rambles & Rags of Shiloh, a collection of 10 gorgeous instrumental works for acoustic guitar and banjo by the person Matthew J. Rolin recently called “the best guitarist alive and it’s not even close.”

That may be true, and it still doesn’t encompass all of Allred’s wide-ranging artistic interests. Over the past several years, they’ve also recorded and released lengthy experimental sound collages, five lovely songs for the lute, beautiful buzzing drone music and a set of gospel-influenced tunes with vocals in addition to guitar-centric albums for respected record labels such as Feeding Tube and Scissor Tail. Allred’s visual art, too, is featured on many of their album’s covers.

In 2016, Allred moved to Boston for graduate school and now they’re in the process of moving back to Tennessee for several reasons: An aging parent, a change of plans, a desire to be somewhere that feels like home during a time of great uncertainty and upheaval. Aquarium Drunkard caught up with Allred in July to talk to them about their life and their work. Here’s that conversation, edited for space and clarity. | b salmon

Aquarium Drunkard: Tell me about your earliest musical memories. Did you grow up in a musical family?

Joseph Allred: My dad sang in the church choir of the church I grew up going to, and he sang in a gospel quartet. And my parents also had a record collection with Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath and David Bowie and some other good records in there. I remember my Dad played “Stairway to Heaven” for me, and he had a little classical guitar and I remember him showing me how to play “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath. That was the first riff I ever learned on guitar. My mom was a science teacher and she is very, very practical, but she had people on her side of the family who played music, too.

AD: When your dad taught you the Black Sabbath riff, do you remember feeling a spark of love for the guitar or did you come back to it later?

Joseph Allred: Oh, it took me a while to come back around to it. I was 12 when I got the first kind of “real” guitar that I had and from that point on I never put it down at all. I just started learning chords and putting them together in the way I thought sounded good. I never had much interest in learning in a more formal environment. I just wanted to play all the time.

AD: You mentioned going through phases of musical interest: Metallica, punk rock, My Bloody Valentine, heavy psych, Godspeed You Black Emperor. At what point did you discover the acoustic guitar and acoustic music?

Joseph Allred: My dad died about 10 years ago, and when I was going through that, I had to find what was really necessary and I got pretty disillusioned with the electric guitar pretty quickly. I realized that it just wasn’t necessary to have any of (the gear) to make really deep, evocative music and to create a whole world that’s every bit as vivid as what you can do with a full band. It was during that period that I really started to dig into folk music. I remembered seeing John Fahey on a magazine cover and I knew a little bit about the influence he had on Sonic Youth and Cul De Sac, and that’s when I started thinking, you know, “What all is the acoustic guitar capable of?” And that’s really when I started to get into the stuff that I do now.

I’d been experimenting with open tunings and a guitar style that was really influenced by Fahey and some of the other solo guitarists, and when I was going through something incredibly traumatic, I wanted to create a world that I could just enter into without anyone else or without pedals or effects or anything like that. Really, just about everything I do now comes from being in this particular area (of Tennessee) and the connectedness I feel here. That’s when I really started to find the creative voice that I have now.

(Note: Here, Allred starts to talk about the songs on Rambles & Rags and how they relate to experiences and memories from their life: The gently rolling and richly melodic “Sweetcorn Ramble” connects to a fundraising event held at a nearby farm in Tennessee. “Overture for Lodge No. 637,” with its sturdy cadence and call-and-response hook, is named for a community building where their dad went to school. The moody closing track, “Blues for Terry Turtle” pays tribute to its titular figure, one half of the Virginia noise-rock band Buck Gooter, who passed away in 2019.)

AD: You talked about trying to use the guitar to create a world that you can enter. How much of your work is about putting notes and chords together and composing songs and how much of it is simply about placing a guitar in your hands and seeing what comes billowing out?

Joseph Allred: Just speaking from my own experience, any sort of creativity is very much about trying to have control over something. I feel like that’s something I’ve struggled with a lot. You know, I’ve struggled with mental illness and addiction and all sorts of things and being able to have some sort of space where I’m in control of something is really important for me. For me, growing up in this tiny little town, having music and skateboarding and, like, the horror movie section at the video store in town, all of that was very important because it made me feel like there were people out there who weren’t going to just put up with things the way they were, and they were creating something. I spent so much time just listening to the first couple of Ramones albums or the Misfits or whatever and learning how to play those songs on guitar. Maybe it was some kind of escapism, or just trying to create something, because the world that was right in front of me was just not hospitable at all.

AD: And now you’re moving back here from Boston. Why?

Joseph Allred: Well, being a hillbilly from a tiny little place in Tennessee, the more I get out the more I realize there are people whose whole experience is urban or suburban and they tend to think that that’s how the world is, too, and that their experiences are universal. In fact, their experiences are not at all the same kinds of things that exist here and I’ve become increasingly aware of that. So this place may feel inhospitable, but I don’t feel like I belong up there, either.

AD: And that’s where the music comes in. It offers a feeling of belonging.

Joseph Allred: Yeah, that’s about the only place I feel much of a belonging at all.

AD: The “liner notes” for Rambles & Rags draw a parallel between the Biblical city of Shiloh and Shiloh, Tennessee, not far from where you sit right now. Is that area a spiritual place for you?

Joseph Allred: The cemetery where my dad’s buried, it’s just down the road. You go down a highway that isn’t very well trafficked, and then you have to turn off that highway and go around a curvy gravel road and go across a creek that often isn’t even passable to get to the cemetery.

So when you get there you can sit there and there’s no human sound at all. Maybe occasionally you hear something way off in the distance. But mostly it’s quiet and you can sit and just remind yourself that there is more to all of this than us. Things just haven’t changed much out there in the last hundred years, and you start to realize there’s a lot more to this than human concern.

So it’s true that I can sit there and feel some sense of personal peace. But it’s not enough, I don’t think, to say, “It’s all temporary. Everything is bigger than human concern and bigger than politics and so on.” You can say that, but politics are real and suffering is real, and I’m trying to find a way to do something that has the power to really effect some kind of change, even if it’s a tiny amount and it sometimes feels like it isn’t enough. As an artist, it’s kind of a matter of necessity to make peace with that, but it feels too self-involved to me. I think I’ll probably always consider myself a failure to some extent because I haven’t been able to do something that is more clearly engaged in trying to address the suffering of people in this world. But I try anyway.

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