Durham, NC singer, guitarist, and folksong interpreter Jake Xerxes Fussell (yes, that’s his real middle name, after GA potter D.X. Gordy) has distinguished himself as one of his generation’s preeminent interpreters of traditional (and not so traditional) “folk” songs, a practice which he approaches with a refreshingly unfussy lack of nostalgia and preciousness. By re-contextualizing ancient vernacular songs and sources of the American South, he allows them to breathe and speak for themselves and for himself; he alternately inhabits them and allows them to inhabit him. In all his work, Fussell humanizes his material with his own profound curatorial and interpretive gifts, unmooring stories and melodies from their specific eras and origins and setting them adrift in our own waterways. The robust burr of his voice, which periodically melts and catches at a particularly tender turn of phrase, and the swung rhythmic undertow of exquisite, seemingly effortless guitar-playing pull new valences of meaning from ostensibly antique songs and subjects.
Fussell grew up in Columbus, GA, son of Fred C. Fussell, a folklorist, curator, and photographer who hails from across the river in Phenix City, AL (once known as “The Wickedest City in America” for its rampant vice, corruption, and crime). Fred Fussell’s fieldwork took him, often with young Jake Fussell in tow, across the Southeast documenting traditional vernacular culture, which included recording blues and old-time musicians with fellow folklorists and recordists George Mitchell and Art Rosenbaum (which led him to music) and collaborating with American Indian artists (which led to his graduate research on Choctaw fiddlers). As a teenager, Fussell began playing and studying with elder musicians in the Chattahoochee Valley; apprenticing with Piedmont blues legend Precious Bryant, with whom he toured and recorded; and riding wild with AL bluesman, black rodeo rider, rye whiskey distiller, and master dowser George Daniel. He joined a Phenix City country band who were students of Jimmie Tarlton of Darby and Tarlton; accompanied Etta Baker in North Carolina; moved to Berkeley, where he hung with genius documentary filmmaker Les Blank and learned from Haight folkies like Will Scarlett (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna, Brownie McGhee) and cult fingerstyle guitarist Steve Mann; and he appeared on A Prairie Home Companion. He did a whole lot of listening, gradually honing his prodigious guitar skills, singing, and repertoire. In 2005 he moved to Oxford, MS, where he enrolled in the southern studies department at Ole Miss, recorded and toured with Rev. John Wilkins, and in 2014, began recording his first solo album.
Fussell’s 2015 self-titled debut record, produced by and featuring William Tyler, transmutes 10 arcane folk and blues tunes into vibey cosmic laments and crooked riverine rambles. Collaborating with Tyler and engineer Mark Nevers in Nashville was a conscious decision to depart cloistered trad scenes and sonics for broader, more oblique horizons. Tyler, a guitar virtuoso known for his own compositions that untether and reframe traditional six-string forms and techniques, helmed the push boat in inimitable fashion, enlisting crack(ed) Nashville session vets Chris Scruggs (lap steel, bass, mandolin: Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Marty Stuart), Brian Kotzur (drums: Silver Jews), and Hoot Hester (fiddle; Bill Monroe, Ray Charles) to crew.
In 2017, Fussell followed his celebrated self-titled debut with the moving new album What in the Natural World, written in the form of reimagined folk/blues koans. This time, these radiant ancient tunes tone several shades darker while amplifying their absurdist humor, illuminating our national and psychic predicaments. What in the Natural World features 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).
On Out of Sight (2019), his third and most finely wrought album yet, Fussell is joined for the first time by a full band featuring Nathan Bowles (drums), Casey Toll (bass), Nathan Golub (pedal steel), Libby Rodenbough (violin, vocals), and James Anthony Wallace (piano, organ). An utterly transporting selection of traditional narrative folksongs addressing the troubles and delights of love, work, and wine and deftly metamorphosed from a myriad of obscure sources, Out of Sight contains, among other moving curiosities: a fishmonger’s cry that sounds like an astral lament (“The River St. Johns”); a cotton mill tune that humorously explores the unknown terrain of death and memory (“Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues”); and a fishermen’s shanty/gospel song equally concerned with terrestrial boozing and heavenly transcendence (“Drinking of the Wine”).
Fussell’s fourth album Good and Green Again (2022) finds the acclaimed folksong interpreter, guitarist, and singer navigating fresh sonic and compositional landscapes on the most conceptually focused, breathtakingly rendered, and enigmatically poignant record of his wondrous catalog. Produced by James Elkington and featuring formidable players both familiar (Casey Toll, Libby Rodenbough) and new (Joe Westerlund, Bonnie “Prince” Billy), it includes Fussell’s first original compositions; atmospheric arrangements with pedal steel, horns, and strings; and cover art by Art Rosenbaum.
Biography provided by artist management.