American folk music would be nothing if it weren’t for tradition. That’s why it’s folk music, by definition. The music of a community. Sure, you can downsize it infinitely, pinpoint the specific roots of place and influence, but there’s something distinct about the umbrella of American folk that we can trace, too. It’s why Bob Dylan ever existed, and Bob Dylan is why troubadors like Townes Van Zandt existed, and why Jeffrey Foucault exists, too. American folk music is a legacy, a family, a crew of motley ramblers, collections of tributaries too thick and thin and various to catalog. And all this is to say that Jeffrey Foucault fits right in in a big way.
That’s also why Jeffrey Foucault’s recollection of the haunting blues classic “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” in Ghost Repeater‘s title track is so revealing. Foucault builds a bridge right off the bat by situating that song’s title in present tense, the final chorus ringing,
Dark is the night
Cold is the ground
The armies march out to defend
And the Ghost Repeaters
of the revelators
Are singing “Peace on Earth
And Good Will to all Men.”
Foucault’s lyrics range in topic but the general nature of Ghost Repeater is the conflict between hope and hopelessness in contemporary America, with a little nostalgia thrown in for good measure.
Beneath and surrounding often deceptively paced compositions dusty as a West Texas afternoon are sharp lyrics delivered with stark, astute grit. Foucault’s voice is emotive and strong with impressive range and a bright future, and his songs are substantial enough for him to walk away now: they’re the kind of songs that resonate, songs you find yourself humming, or simply considering in what seem to be random moments. Songs that linger and manifest themselves into something much larger than they initially seem. But Foucault, clearly, isn’t going anywhere.
Fans of Greg Brown will be happy to know that Ghost Repeater is not only produced by Brown’s longtime producer and cohort, Bo Ramsey, but also that principle players Rick Cicalo (bass) and Steve Hayes (drums) are also regular Brown collaborators. In some ways, the Brown/Ramsey signature sound is apparent throughout the album: the mix of the haunting and lonesome pedal steel guitar over the boom-chicka strumming, the deep bass thud and Ramsey’s choppy, efficient leads. It’s Foucault’s show, though, without a doubt.
Ghost Repeater is at once a lament of what the American experience has become and a hopeful homage to making the best of what we have. Even the album’s title, a reference to empty radio stations with demographically-selected automated playlists, reflects the hollow nature of American definition circa 2006. But still there is a sweetness, too; you can almost hear it in the instrumentation of songs like “City Flower” and “Tall Grass in Old Virginny,” the latter of which is about the hope and technicalities of a youthful wedding day.
In fact, the album’s latter half finds Foucault fluorishing, creating something of a lack of balance but simultaneously displaying a great songwriter’s prime. The lyrics of “Mesa, Arizona” sparkle with melancholy. Foucault laments,
Your eyes are full of train smoke
And your mouth tastes like rain
And I know when I know nothing
I will always know your name.
Lyrically precise and touching, Foucault proves yet again to be the poet necessary in great folk songwriters. Ghost Repeater is Foucault’s third album, excluding the 2003 Redbird record with Peter Mulvey and Kris Delmhorst, and with each successive effort his songs are compositionally deeper and lyrically stronger than the one before. Foucault is the kind of songwriter who works within tradition and furthers it in a simultaneous moment, a true glimpse into the future of folk music.