Joan Shelley, with guest opener Jacob Fussell
|Shows at the Purple Fiddle|
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Joan Shelley is a songwriter and singer who lives near Louisville, Ky., not far from where she grew up. Like the River Loves the Sea is her fifth album. She draws inspiration from traditional and traditionally-minded performers from her native Kentucky, as well as those from Ireland, Scotland, and England, but she’s not a folksinger. Her disposition aligns more closely with that of, say, Roger Miller, Dolly Parton, or her fellow Kentuckian Tom T. Hall, who once explained—simply, succinctly, in a song—“I Witness Life.”
She’s not so much a confessional songwriter, although Like the River… gets closest to such subjectively emotional impressions as perhaps any album to date, and she sings less of her life and more of her place: of landscapes and watercourses; of flora and fauna; of seasons changing and years departing and the ineluctable attempt of humans to make some small sense of all—or, at best, some—of it. Her perspective and performances both have been described, apparently positively, as “pure,” but there’s no trace of the Pollyanna and there’s little of the pastoral, either: her work instead wrestles with the possibility of reconciling, if only for a moment, the perceived “natural” world with its reflection—sometimes, relatively speaking, clear; other times hopelessly distorted—in the human heart, mind, and footprint.
Since the 2015 release of her album Over and Even, Shelley has crossed the country and toured Europe several times as a headlining artist, sharing shows with the likes of Jake Xerxes Fussell, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Doug Paisley, Daniel Martin Moore, the Other Years, and Michael Hurley. She has opened for Wilco, Chris Smither, Andrew Bird, and Richard Thompson. Jeff Tweedy produced her previous record at The Loft in Chicago. She’ll be familiar to readers of guitar-centric magazines for having appeared, in the same season, on the covers of Fretboard Journal and Acoustic Guitar. She’ll be doubtless more familiar to more listeners in the wake of Like the River Loves the Sea.
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Durham, North Carolina singer and guitarist Jake Xerxes Fussell’s 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. Jake Xerxes (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 to some of the songs herein) 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 (“Georgia Buck”), with whom he toured and recorded, and riding wild with Alabama bluesman, black rodeo rider, rye whiskey distiller, and master dowser George Daniel (“Rabbit on a Log”). 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 (“Push Boat”); 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, last year, met up with acclaimed artist William Tyler to begin recording his first solo album.
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.
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