By the time you’re done reading this most of the United States and many other parts of the world will recognize Nathan Salsburg as the brightest new hope for acoustic guitar playing. The Pennsylvania native and Louisville, Kentucky dweller sets aside his role as folklorist, producer, and associate of the mighty East Village Radio (the cat also works with the Drag City imprint Twos & Fews and the Alan Lomax Archive), sits down with his axe and gets down to playing tunes about—What else?—three race horses: Affirmed, Bold Ruler, and Eight Belles.
The guitarist and his compositions shine from the moment the proverbial needle drops on the lyrical jaunt “Sought & Hidden” until it winds down with the jaw-dropping goodness of “Affirmed”. Comparisons to legendary guitar figure John Fahey fit and come easily but Salsburg is never less than his own man, even a dash of the Reverend Gary Davis creeps in here and a dose of Ry Cooder shows up there.
Playing is, of course, one thing and writing another and it’s evident that Salsburg has taken his time and care in that department as pieces such as “Blues For Eight Belles” and “New Bold Ruler’s Joy” are both of the highest class. Both are likely to become benchmarks for other guitar players, a sign that one has done, as they say, something right. Salsburg also knows how to eloquently unfold a story before our ears, as he does with “Back Home In Bogenbrook”’, which begins as a haunting, nearly melancholy piece before becoming a happy stroll through the familiar, the track resolving in an impossibly perfect fashion.
“Blues For Eight Belles” also stands out as one of the record’s key pieces, but then so does “Fraught With Hornpipe” and what may very well be the record’s greatest triumph, “Eight Belles Dreamt The Devil Was Dead”. Each of these is buoyed by Salsburg’s remarkable fluidity, his impeccable ear for melody, and his whole-hearted connection with his instrument.
The lone vocal piece here, a take on the traditional “The False True Love” (with help from vocalist Julia Purcell and accordion player Matthew Schreiber), could have easily been out of place. So often a guitar player’s singing voice fails to match the majesty of the voice he’s developed on his instrument. But Salsburg’s singing voice is remarkably close to his guitar playing, in timbre, resonance, and spirit as well as in its purity.
Most importantly, this is music that must be heard for itself to be fully appreciated because only with repeated listens and repeated chances to allow Affirmed to become absorbed in your music stream can you fully appreciate the mastery that young Salsburg possess. As praiseworthy an album as you’re likely to come across this year and a fantastic and loving first entry from a writer and performer we’ll have no choice but to watch—and to cheer on—from this point out. Perfection is hard to quantify but this record is one that others like it will soon be measured against.