Jake Xerxes Fussell performs at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage on Dec. 1, 2022. (Photo by Casey Vock)
On any given night in the nation’s capital, one might be able to catch a show that puts them in the company of world-class musicians playing some of the most important songs being recorded today.
Staying abreast requires constant attention to the many local venues booking gigs, but those with an ear to the ground likely caught wind in recent weeks of an intriguing dinner time set scheduled for this past Thursday at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage featuring Jake Xerxes Fussell, considered one of the leading interpreters of traditional Southern folk songs.
In-the-know fans and general capital region music lovers alike filed into the Grand Foyer, with some seated off the side on the steps for a better angle, and entire families with small children in attendance as well for what was likely an eye-opening and influential experience for both youngsters and their parents the night of Dec. 1.
In casual fashion, Fussell took the stage at the end of the enormous hallway, and with four ever-lasting albums under his belt, including early 2022’s Good and Green Again, he needed nothing more than his Fender Telecaster and the small box amp off to his right to entertain the large turnout before him.
Stream Jake Xerxes Fussell’s 2022 studio album Good and Green Again, released on Paradise of Bachelors, via Spotify:
The Georgia native was lighthearted in between songs, but he’s continually focused on and driven by his genuine admiration for the many musicians who’ve come before him, especially the long list of those he’s learned from, accompanied on the road or simply had the pleasure of acquainting through his family, including his father, Fred, a respected folklorist and artist.
Like any evening with Fussell, last Thursday was a testament to those artists and to the work Jake has done before and since he began recording after years of playing in different settings with a range of talented and influential individuals.
He’d share the names of the earliest known artists to record some of the pieces that he’s rearranged or reinterpreted to captivating effect on each of his eternal albums, and he’d inquire to the audience’s familiarity with some of the folks for whom he now nobly carries a torch.
Watch Jake Xerxes Fussell’s recent performance on the Millennium Stage via the Kennedy Center’s YouTube channel:
Opening the night with a festive treat, Fussell shared his take on Duke Ellington’s “Jump for Joy,” celebrating a DC legend from the jazz sphere. But he’d go on to perform songs credited to the likes of artists contemporary listeners might have yet to explore — including John Tams, Jean Ruth Ritchie and Bessie Jones & The Georgia Sea Island Singers.
While these names could be forgotten by some or totally new to others, their compositions are in many cases in the public domain, and Jake perpetuates their dignity and celebrates the beauty of their work by bringing this music to some listeners for the very first time, or by presenting more seasoned ears the chance to hear it refreshed and inspirited. Thanks to the warmth in Jake’s voice and his ability to call in a timeless manner, he tints each song with its own antiquity and character.
Listen to “Hills of Mexico,” a single Jake Xerxes Fussell released early last year, on Spotify:
Built on his masterful skills as a guitar player — look for him to be featured in the January issue of Guitarist magazine — it’s natural to lose oneself in his sound, either from the comfort of your living room, or seated before a stage, as was the case for those fortunate enough to be on hand last week at the Kennedy Center.
They would leave with an interest or at least a curiosity about the lesser discussed but highly influential writers and players behind the pieces Jake performed, some of whom he referred to as “collectors” of songs.
And while no one can pretend to know what he’s got stored at home — he’s based in Durham now — Jake’s unquestionably accumulated tremendous respect among his fellow musicians, writers and artists and of course his growing number of fans who learn to adore not only his marvelous playing style, but his overflowing knowledge of songs and those who passed them down.
Jump for Joy (Duke Ellington)
Push Boat (traditional)
Love Farewell (John Tams)
The River St. Johns (traditional)
Jubilee (traditional, but credited Jean Ruth Ritchie)
Pork and Beans (learned from a field recording by Rosa Lee Hill)
Cowpoke (Stan Jones)
Raggy Levee (Bessie Jones & The Georgia Sea Island Singers, influenced as well, he said, by Doug and Frank Quimby)
Handsome Molly (we missed this one)
Star Girl (traditional, credited Bobby McMillon)
Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing on a Sweet Potato Vine? (traditional)
Here are images of Jake Xerxes Fussell performing at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage on Dec. 1, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.