Georgia-born, North Carolina-based musician follows in the footsteps of his folklorist parents
Jake Xerxes Fussell determined he wanted to play guitar at age 11. At the suggestion of Precious Bryant, a rural blueswoman from nearby Talbot County, Georgia, he started on the ukulele, an instrument whose smaller size made it easier to handle and thus learn chords. Utilizing Mel Bay guitar chord books and a songbook from Sing Out! magazine, Fussell first played canonic folk songs by artists such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie.
“I wasn't yet into those hardcore, pre-war 78s (early vinyl LPs) or anything like that,” Fussell said by phone from his home in North Carolina.
That wouldn't come until later.
“I was a teenager when I got into those,” Fussell said, and laughed.
Over the course of two albums, including What in the Natural World (Paradise of Bachelors), from 2017, Fussell has continued to exhume long-forgotten rural blues and folk songs, walking a similar path as his parents, who were both involved in folklore throughout his childhood growing up in Columbus, Georgia (or “the other Columbus,” as Fussell described it).
Through his father, who traversed the South capturing the stories and cultures of its rural populace, Fussell got to know prolific field recorders such as Art Rosenbaum and George Mitchell, who in turn introduced him to musicians such as Precious Bryant and George Daniel, a bluesman whose droning, pentatonic approach to song craft — a term that could be applied loosely, at best — left a lasting impression on the youngster.
“George Daniel could play one song for an hour, and it would go on in that really rhythmic, repetitive way. I always thought that was interesting and was probably built on some pre-existing tradition,” said Fussell, who joins Nathan Bowles for a duo show at Dirty Dungarees on Sunday, Sept. 16. “He wasn't big on titles. He'd play a song and you'd say, ‘What was that one, George?' And he'd say, ‘Oh, uh, “Blues”?' There wasn't a name for it, and then that thing might never happen again.”
While nothing on What in the Natural World approaches that length, songs like “Have You Ever Seen Peaches Growing on a Sweet Potato Vine,” first recorded by Jimmy Lee Williams, have a similarly hypnotic quality, building around Fussell's effortless picking and a voice that drifts across the track like a cooling summer breeze.
More an interpreter than a songwriter — his albums consist solely of covers — Fussell doesn't take a high-minded approach to his process, saying he's more drawn to the simple thrill of discovery than the concept of playing archaeologist, digging up and resuscitating “lost” songs for new audiences.
“What's obscure to one person is really not all that obscure to another. Like George Daniel playing these long, droning pieces. That's a sound that isn't known by many people outside of a few counties in southeast Alabama, but if you're of a certain age and maybe class or race from within that area, it's not obscure to you,” Fussell said. “It is exciting to look into some things that are maybe a little more hidden from view … but I don't think I'm breathing new life into something because, I don't know, these things kind of have their own lives.”