Interpreting folk songs can have a number of outcomes. Contexts might be obliterated, as Led Zeppelin did with their delightfully bombastic swipe of Kansas Joe and Memphis Minnie’s “When the Levee Breaks”. In the case of Fairport Convention’s 1969 update on the British lament “A Sailor’s Life”, it not only allowed that band to find focus as folk-rock powerhouse, a sub-genre this track all-but-invented, it also showed how Western balladry naturally connected with blissful Eastern drones and improvisation. More recently, the duo House and Land scrutinized UK-derived, American folk through a feminist lens, altering lyrics and arrangements in the process.
None of these examples goes much distance in getting a grip on Jake Xerxes Fussell‘s ear for the old-time ballads and mountain songs he was more or less raised up hearing. Born in Georgia and now living in Durham, North Carolina, Fussell has not only accompanied legendary folk song collectors such as George Mitchell and Art Rosenbaum into the field, he’s played with Etta Baker and copped licks from Precious Bryant. His father was a folklorist as well; Fussell has spent the bulk of his 40 years on this planet dealing with Southern folk music up close.
What his fourth LP, Good and Green Again, has in common with his other records is its reliance on traditional tunes. And like those records, he is often accompanied by a band, including drums, perhaps a second guitar or fiddle. Yet, there is are several distinctions on the new album. Aside from there being a few instrumental originals, Fussell shows more than ever that he isn’t so much an interpreter of folk song as he is an advancer, perhaps becoming a disguiser in the process.
His take on Child ballad “The Golden Vanity”, here titled “The Golden Willow Tree”, is not only a far cry from Paralee McCloud’s a capella version captured by Rosenbaum decades ago, Fussell’s gentle fingerpicking, which floats alongside a voice part Bill Callahan and part Randy Travis, takes a tale of deception and transforms it over its nine minutes into something almost reassuring.
Similarly, his take on “Rolling Mills are Burning Down” shifts the despair of North Carolina banjo player George Landers’ 1965 field recording and imbues the lyrics with a sense of peaceful inevitability. His guitar lines on the track, intertwined with James Elkington’s piano, are an achingly beautiful touch. I’ve been well acquainted with the Landers recording for at least a quarter-century and had to play Fussell’s album about five times before I even realized what song this was.
And then there are Fussell’s instrumentals. “What Did the Hen Say to the Drake?” feels like an old-time tune in that it is a simple, two-part melody repeated over the song’s three minutes. But with each pass, other instruments join- a dobro, a violin, drums- all so subtle as to nearly escape notice. Another instrumental, “In Florida”, pauses, as if to remind itself of its melodic theme. Meanwhile, horns appear like distant sailboats, barely within sight.
Fussell can take a song associated with the Georgia Sea Island singers or one of Ozark balladeer Neil Morris’s tunes and patiently nudge it into new territory simply by understanding that the words aren’t bound to any particular melody. The result feels like an album of original compositions, so effortlessly does he coax them into freshwaters. Meanwhile, Good and Green Again sounds as if it might have been released any time over the last 50 years without aging a day. Without knowledge of the tracks’ origins, it will fool listeners into assuming it’s one of the sweetest singer-songwriter efforts of at least the past half-decade.