Albums and Artifacts
Durham, North Carolina singer and guitarist Jake Xerxes Fussell (yes, that’s his real middle name, after Georgia potter D.X. Gordy) grew up in Columbus, Georgia, son of Fred C. Fussell, a folklorist, curator, and photographer who hails from across the river in Phenix City, Alabama (once known as “The Wickedest City in America” for its rampant vice, corruption, and crime.) Fred’s fieldwork took him, often with young Jake 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 Jake to music) and collaborating with American Indian artists (which led Jake eventually to his graduate research on Choctaw fiddlers.)
As a teenager Jake 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 Alabama 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; he accompanied Etta Baker in North Carolina; he 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; 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, Mississippi, 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.
Jake’s 2015 self-titled debut record, produced by and featuring William Tyler, transmutes ten 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 a moving new album of Natural Questions in the form of transmogrified 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, his third and most finely wrought album yet, guitarist, singer, and master interpreter 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 (i.e., the things that matter), collected from a myriad of obscure sources and deftly metamorphosed, 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”).
Jake Xerxes Fussell creates music that resides at the seams of Appalachia and the cosmos.
– NPR Music’s All Songs Considered
Jake Fussell understands a couple of things about old songs: they weren’t always old, and they changed as they went from hand to hand or sometimes country to country. They shouldn’t be trapped in an imaginary past, but should be refreshed and reinvented. Now, on his third album, he’s subtly shading his music with more instruments. It’s still uncluttered. Still melancholy. Still threaded through with that elegant, deceptively simple guitar—its tone like no other. This is a journey you need to share.
– Colin Escott, author of Hank Williams: The Biography
Fussell’s burly, winking voice is made for storytelling.
– NPR Music
Achingly beautiful… a record that yields a procession of hidden treasures. Fussell has an uncanny ability to illuminate the present by propping up a window against the past. Whatever the raw material’s vintage, the protagonist’s pursuit of abstract notion—freedom, empowerment, danger, fulfillment—is every inch as pertinent today.
Jake Xerxes Fussell is a national treasure.
– Aquarium Drunkard
A singular combination of pedigree, experience, education, and talent.
– The Oxford American
A human jukebox, a raw and penetrating voice out of time, a genuine bluesman with the heart of a mystic. His debut, Jake Xerxes Fussell, just out from Paradise of Bachelors, is pretty damn perfect. This is the kind of record I feel like I was born to listen to. That voice. That guitar. Man.
– William Boyle, No Depression
Jake lives in music as a true time-artist, using the qualities of time itself as irreplaceable elements of content. As long as Jake Fussell is making records and playing shows, there is ample cause for optimism in this world.
– Bonnie “Prince” Billy
Jake isn’t just a rare bird, he’s the professor you always wished you had, the friend you never get tired of epic hangs with, the human jukebox, the guitar player and singer who makes any band that he’s in better. He’s a southern scholar and gentleman in the tradition of Jim Dickinson, George Mitchell, and Les Blank. He’s a Dave Van Ronk for SEC country.
– William Tyler
Jake is one helluva bluesman: my favorite of his generation, in fact; and, in my opinion, the best young traditional blues artist performing today.
– George Mitchell
Jake X. Fussell is certainly one of America’s finest young tradition-based songsters and guitar pickers. He had an ideal start: as a kid traveling the back roads of Georgia, Alabama, and even out to the Indian regions of Oklahoma with his folklorist dad, hearing and absorbing not only the vocal styles and guitar licks of such greats as Precious Bryant, but also developing a sure sense of the expressive core of Southern roots music. From Georgia’s Sea Islands and Chattahoochie Valley to the Mississippi Delta to the Blue Ridge Mountains, Jake is still listening and learning, and coming up with music that takes us to a deep place in the American spirit.
– Art Rosenbaum
Jake Xerxes Fussell is one of my brothers in song. A finer guitar picker, and more heart-centered interpreter of American song you will rarely find.
– Jolie Holland