John Fusco is many things: A high school dropout, an NYU-educated screenwriter who wrote the scripts for films such as Young Guns and Young Guns II, a former homeless man who busked on the streets of New Orleans in the early 1970s, a novelist, a teacher, and, for the last several years, a recording artist.
His latest release, John the Revelator, a sprawling, two-disc set that ranges from deep blues to Randy Newmanesque portraits of American life in the Trump era to tales of friendship, love, and redemption, arrives on July 31 via Checkerboard Lounge Recordings. Tracked with his band the X-Road Riders, the album follows quickly on the heels of his 2019 debut album.
Assembling a cast that includes producer/multi-instrumentalist Cody Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars), vocalist Risse Norman, Samantha Fish, and trombonist Sarah Morrow (Ray Charles, Dr. John), Fusco tracked at Dickinson’s Checkerboard Lounge studio in Southaven, Mississippi. Then he added more material in Burlington, Vermont, with George Walker Petit (Boz Scaggs, Michael McDonald) producing as well as adding bass and guitar.
“It Takes a Man”, the latest single from the collection, demonstrates the soulful vibes that permeate the album. Though not absent contemporary sensibilities, one can easily imagine it appearing on an album issued by ATCO or Capricorn in the 1970s. Funky is not a big enough word to describe the down-and-dirty rhythms, the vivid narrative, or the lyrics or the sheer power of Morrow’s playing.
Fusco notes, “It’s a New Orleans style parable about the wisdom of walking away from a fight; walking away from a one-night stand; walking away from illegal money. As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you.
“It will spare you lawsuits, revenge, and worse. I am singing this one to all young men. It takes a real man with confidence to just walk away from trouble.” He continues, “Risse came in on this one spontaneously. She became the voice of the storyteller’s woman, reinforcing the message and reminding him. She is great like that. She has the uncanny story sense of a dramatist and knows when and how to be the chorus, the echo, or the counterpoint. She calls our relationship a musical marriage, and I feel the same.” Morrow, he adds, does indeed drive the piece with her New Orleans trombone. “She truly is the Bone Doctor.”
Neither this album nor its predecessor might have happened had he not been invited to chat with Dickinson about Crossroads,the 1986 film he wrote, which starred Ralph Macchio, Jami Gertz and Joe Seneca about a Julliard prodigy in search of a lost Robert Johnson song. Directed by Walter Hill (48 Hrs), the film has earned a loyal following among music fans since its release, becoming a gateway to the blues for many.
In New Orleans to shoot the 2019 Kevin Costner/Woody Harrelson picture The Highwaymen, he found himself chatting with Dickinson, who was eager to hear stories about his late father, Memphis producer and musician Jim Dickinson, who served as a musical advisor on Crossroads. Soon, they were in the studio together, forming a fierce musical partnership neither apparently expected. “Cody has a field recording sensibility like his father,” Fusco says. “He said, ‘I’m hitting the record button, man. Just keep going.'”
The inventive spirit of a four-day jam session with Dickinson and others from the Memphis music scene followed Fusco when he returned to Vermont. “It really opened the tap,” he says. “The songs just kept coming.” He was eager to record them, he notes, in part because of a painful lesson from his creative past. “I’d been writing songs for 36 years that I never recorded, never wrote down, and they basically evaporated.”
The Dickinson and Petit sessions yielded plenty of music in a range of styles. There was some discussion as to whether there would be two records, whether some material should be cast aside, what, in general, to do with everything. Dickinson offered some advice that he’d heard from his father: “Throw it all at the wall and see what sticks.”
Moreover, without a long-standing recording career, Fusco didn’t have to worry about how to market the material or how it would be perceived. “It’s really about the music right now. I didn’t feel restricted to any plan. I thought, ‘There’s a Northern Chapter/Southern Chapter thing. Why not go double barrel?'”
For music conceived in the heat of spontaneity, the finished product is, despite the wealth of material, taut. Perhaps some of this is owed to the careful, cinematic quality of the production. A well-produced album (think Bob Ezrin or Mike Mogis at their finest) can serve as aural cinema, and that is what Fusco and his partners have stumbled upon here.
Despite sensibilities that some might perceive as wildly disparate, Fusco says that both Petit and Dickinson have at least one thing in common: A gift for sound design. “I think what Luther and Cody do with The North Mississippi Allstars is something their dad called Primitive Modernism. It’s taking the West African/Scotch-Irish/Hill Country roots of the music and pushing it into new places with sound. Cody can make things sound muddy or like you’re singing through the cigar box guitar.”
Petit’s work might best be exemplified on the opening, titular track. “That was all George’s sound design,” Fusco offers. “It’s what he describes as conjuring the ghost of Son House. So you have Son House doing call-and-response with me.”
Fusco’s writing remains at the center: The material proves unsurprisingly character-driven. “When I was working with Cody, he started laughing and said, ‘Man, you write three-act songs! You’ve got them all fleshed-out. I know the story, I’ve got the subplot.’ Screenwriting is all about truncating, crystalizing ideas, going for a kind of storytelling shorthand. Show, don’t tell, subtext. I think I learned a lot of my screenwriting stuff from songwriting.”
The ability to work in a variety of genres, including fiction, is at the heart of what Fusco does. He’ll soon teach a course in writing across mediums at NYU. “It’s part of the new landscape,” he notes. “More writers are working in movies, TV, new media. To me, songwriting is part of that.”
The inspiration for some of the pieces on the record date back decades, percolating until they found the exact moment to spill out on the page. “As a writer, you keep this satchel where you store these situations you come across. Real-life situations, stories you hear. You file them away and say, ‘Someday I’m going to do something with that.'”
He points to “Motel Laws of Arizona” on the new album as an example. “I was down-and-out in a motel room in the Arizona desert. I was trying to figure out my next move, and there was nothing in the room but a Gideon’s Bible and a bulletin on the wall that read ‘Motel laws of Arizona’. That was 35 or more years ago, but I said, ‘Someday I’m going to write a Sam Shepard-like play with that title or a movie or a song.'”
Fusco has written his share of movies since first emerging with Crossroads in the 1980s, but there is something about that script, that story, and the picture’s legacy that carries over to this day for the writer. Though he and Hill had their differences and the finished film differs from his original script, he says that he’s glad that the work has inspired generations of musicians.
He’s especially glad that two young men, in particular, saw it. His thoughts turn quickly to his late friend, Jim Dickinson. “He was a little concerned because there he was, living 50 yards from Otha Turner’s juke joint,” recalls Fusco. “And Jim was Jim. But his boys, Luther and Cody, were fascinated by punk rock. He was dismayed. When we finished a rough cut of Crossroads, he took them to see it. They walked in aspiring punkers and walked out diehard bluesmen.”