Authenticity might be the most essential quality for any musician, but that trait seems to be either intrinsic or elusive for humans in general. It’s presumable then that an artist who lives and breathes or — in some rare cases — was brought up on the music they eventually make is better equipped than most to capture listeners through recorded sound and live performance.
A wizardly fingerpicking guitarist and singer who grew up in a Columbus, Georgia, household steeped in traditional music and art, Jake Xerxes Fussell has managed over the course of four studio albums to inventively restore and refashion a wide cross section of folk music from different times and places in American history.
Not forcing himself into any particular style, instead carefully selecting only pieces that feel fitting spiritually, tonally and vocally, Jake has become a bountiful conduit for brilliant rejuvenations of traditional folk sounds. Through his inimitable abilities both with his guitar and his voice, and by way of what are his first original offerings on his new album, Jake is helping put a timeless luster on today’s folk scene as one of its most respected figures.
Out to support his latest record, Good and Green Again — produced by James Elkington and released Jan. 21 by Paradise of Bachelors — Jake made a visit to the nation’s capital this past Sunday night for what would be an intimate set of music at Pie Shop on H Street.
Stream singles from Jake Xerxes Fussell’s newly released studio album, Good and Green Again, via Spotify:
He took the narrow stage alone clutching a local beer in one hand, a coffee in the other, and tossed his canvas trucker jacket to the floor along with his mask. He sat himself in a metal and plastic chair before an audience packed into the cozy space, which, of all venues in the city, might best simulate a living room, with bench seats along the wooden wall and gorgeous antique chandeliers gleaming from above.
From such close proximity, anyone in the room the night of Jan. 23 could quickly recognize Fussell’s commitment to his purpose, as he firmly gripped and intensely glared at his Fender Telecaster while double-checking its tuning.
“How’s it going?” he smiled and looked up from underneath his teal Eno River flat-brimmed ballcap. “It’s great to be here. Thanks to everybody for coming out.”
With a fidget in his seat, and a couple glances at his Fender box amp, Jake’s hands went into motion as he calmly offered the opening notes of his promising take on Duke Ellington’s “Jump for Joy,” which, like many of his adaptations, fills such an ornate design that it feels wholly fresh and innovative from start to finish.
His voice eased in, his left boot tapped the floor lightly to start, and by scrutinizing the detail of every single note or chord, he invited those in the room — some who’d driven from as far away as West Virginia — to embrace and appreciate present-day analysis of music that has been around for years, some of it as old as the 1700s. It’s music that Fussell grew up with as the son of folklorists, an upbringing he recently discussed in great detail in an extensive interview with Aquarium Drunkard.
“I wanted to start with a Duke Ellington song in the home of Duke Ellington,” said Fussell, who has played with and learned from legendary artists like the great Precious Bryant but has spent time with so many more whose names might be lost on the average vinyl collector.
And that’s a glorious dividend of Jake’s years of labor and diligence apprenticing, watching, listening, and learning from those who came before him: his catalog will educate attentive listeners on the marvelous and undoubtedly crucial contributions of known and lesser-known folk musicians of the past.
Watch Jake Xerxes Fussell’s Tiny Desk (Home) Concert released this week via the NPR Music YouTube channel:
Presenting some of his favorites, including Rosa Lee Hill’s “Pork and Beans” recorded on his self-titled 2015 premier and the Jean Ritchie family version of “Jubilee” adapted on 2019’s Out of Sight, Jake emphasized notes with warm plucks and projected his rousing picking with a conviction and focus that pulled onlookers in closer as he went.
Reflecting the unadorned qualities in his recordings, Jake’s vocals were unguarded, revealing an emotional connectivity that empowers him and gives him an arresting presence with the guitar in his clasp. Clearing his throat in between songs, he pointed out that he was losing his voice after performing only one show on the schedule — the first night in Durham was postponed due to nasty winter weather, but he’d hit Richmond the night before making it to the DMV.
“I’ve been talking to so many interesting people here in Washington DC,” Fussell said, half sarcastic, half serious. “Did anybody have any pie?”
A show of hands and some shouted confessions indicated that about half the room had sampled some form of the dish being baked just a floor below.
“Some pie whoops,” he grinned. “I was hoping to have some savory pie, but they were out. So, it must have been good.”
While his effort to overcome the hoarseness was just barely palpable, nary a scratch could be detected as he gracefully made his way into compositions from his newest release, including “Rolling Mills Are Burning Down” and “Breast of Glass.” Genuine in their intent to bridge tones of the past with those familiar today, these live renditions saw Fussell not only immersed in the exquisite, oftentimes delicate melodies, but blissful as he seemed to transmit each with a sense of yearning and an affinity for the instrumental action itself.
By spotlighting recordings imparting some of the most troublesome times — “Rolling Mills” laments a challenging period for North Carolina’s textile industry — Jake is continuing the reconciliation of tougher yesteryears, while providing a level, hopeful runway for the days ahead. While some of the stories within these songs are not contemporary, Jake has masterfully painted them with his own colors and textures that captivate, and his earnest delivery makes each reworking profoundly and presently relevant.
What has become one of his signature concoctions, “The River St. Johns” saw Jake at his most boisterous as he delivered what, coming from him, echo as instantly classic words, with his endearingly honest blue-collar speak true to form: “I’ve got fresh fish this morning, ladies / They are gilded with gold / And you may find a diamond in their mouths / They are just from the River Saint Johns, Saint Johns.”
Stream Jake Xerxes Fussell’s third studio album, Out of Sight, via Spotify:
Throughout the gig, Fussell occasionally twisted or turned in his seat, kicking both bootheels a little harder, bending his head down over the neck, getting a closer look as his left hand shuffled in rapid patterns and every note he found seemed to perfectly play off the last as his interpretations see him venture off the trail blazed by the original source musicians.
Jake carried the vivid chorus and fetching rhythm of each song all by his lonesome, and enthusiastic cheers of approval came from the far end of the bar on the opposite side of the venue. One liquored-up fellow clumsily pardoned his way to the front row and sat right on the floor to take in the back half of the set.
It was an important and timely stop on a tour up the East Coast that in the time since was again bit by the snake — Jake’s voice unfortunately gave out the next day and he was forced to reschedule two more shows.
But nevertheless, like a professional who’s played through worse challenges in his day, Jake calmly and confidently shrugged off his looming vocal dilemma Sunday night, putting together a dozen songs that amounted to an unforgettable experience for those lucky enough to be there, and perhaps made more memorable given the circumstances.
Breathtaking, elegant yet alluringly frivolous, “Billy Button” from Jake’s second album — What In The Natural World — is a traditional tune Fussell learned from his friend, artist and folk field recordist Art Rosenbaum. Performed toward the end of the Pie Shop set, it featured motifs that rang with an eye-watering clarity, partitioned by a narrative that might sound almost like gibberish but yet manifested as nothing short of gorgeous:
“Hog meat, I got plenty / Sheep meat’s too good for the fella / Ram, lamb, sheep, mutton /
Good enough for Billy Button / Any other living glutton walking Joe / I’ll be your friend / It’s a long way to travel and a-money for to spend / Walking, talking, ginger-blooming, double-double-trouble / I’m bound for the happy land of Canaan.”
And performed as the night’s finale, his early hit “Raggy Levy” heard half the crowd wanting to sing along to his take on a piece recorded at different times in history by a number of different southern artists. His foot taps intensifying to stomps, Jake tossed his head back to belt out the verses of a simple but riveting design. When repeating the song’s matter-of-fact hook, he’d bob his head and his face beamed as he appeared to hold back a laugh, or maybe just contain his joy: “Just a simple ‘and I-I’m gonna build me a stone fence.’”
With his most recent stop in DC, Jake — who just last year became the father to a little boy — further made a case that perhaps he, of all folk artists flourishing at the moment, is intrinsically suited to clarify and carry on folk notions that have long been handed down as custom, some for hundreds of years.
As not only a musician, but an exponent and scholar with a pure reverence for these sounds and their origins, Fussell’s become a leading character in the ever-changing collage of American folklore — one whose recordings will undoubtedly be celebrated and translated by generations to come.
Jake Xerxes Fussell setlist (incomplete)
Jump for Joy
Pork and Beans
Rolling Mills are Burning Down
Breast Of Glass
The River St. Johns
Here are images of Jake Xerxes Fussell along with the night’s opener, Sam Moss, performing at Pie Shop in Washington DC on Jan. 23, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.