Imagine one of those dusty American roads that stretch out into the horizon in an endless straight line, surrounded by scenery ranging from desolate desert areas to majestic forests and endless fields. On the hot asphalt, you can see the silhouette, trembling for the heat, of a man from behind wandering to an unknown destination. He is a classic American big guy with the inevitable baseball cap on his head and slightly ratty clothes on, but above all with a guitar over his shoulder and a suitcase of songs handed down from generation to generation, to offer to anyone who crosses his path. His name is Jake Xerxes Fussell.
OK, I could have summed it up simply by saying that the Georgia-born musician is an American storyteller, but when you talk about certain figures, it is never a sin to evoke the mythical aura of legend that surrounds them. American songwriters have been fundamental to the diffusion of popular ballads and traditional songs, which have survived the passage of time precisely because they have been handed down by musicians who, by adding their own small or large variations, have continually renewed their life.
Jake Xerxes Fussell was immersed in this tradition since he was a little boy: his father was a curator and scholar of traditional music and culture, and as a child, he had taken him around America to record old bluesmen or to study the cultural traditions of Native Americans.
A passion and respect for the subject matter that emerges with power and sincerity from the grooves of Jake’s music
With ‘Good and green again’, Fussell has reached his fourth album, which, on the surface, does not show great differences from the three that preceded it, but which, in reality, contains some juicy news. The first one is the production which, after the debut, was produced by fingerpicking guitarist William Tyler and two self-produced albums, this time has been entrusted to James Elkington. The British musician steps into the role on tiptoe, without revolutionising a sound that had no need of it, but working with extreme sensitivity on small nuances. Elkington works first of all on the roundness of the sound, softening the rustic and dry sound that had characterized (in a very positive way) his self-produced works. He fills in the gaps with the low frequencies of the double bass, the brushstrokes of the pedal steel guitar, the delicate and suffused arrangements of winds and strings, the crystalline guitars, and the impressionistic interventions of the piano, giving a full, soft, and enough dreamy sound to draw songs that remain suspended between the myth of stories and reality.
The second and most obvious news lies in the fact that, for the first time, not all the songs are traditional, but four songs have been written by the author. Three of these are instrumental. Listen to the cinematographic “Frolic”, built on a jumping fingerpicking to which are added, first stomping rhythm and then some caressing choruses: it is like crossing the vastness of the American territory, observing it from the window of a car or a running train. We find wide spaces and soundtrack atmospheres, evoked in a manner, not unlike that of two giants such as Bill Frisell and Ry Cooder, also in the splendid “In Florida” where an almost twang guitar and an accordion peep out, accompanied by an exciting arrangement of winds. A classic fingerpicking as a rhythmic base with dobro, slide guitar, and, above all, the violin to reiterate the phrasing of the melody, form the rustic bluegrass in slow motion of “What the hen…”. To conclude the quartet of the author’s tracks we find the curious “Washington”, a ballad with a very short text that is placed between history and myth as a classic traditional ballad.
Noblest of men
His house, his horse, his cherry tree, and him
The verses burst in the middle of the song and then give way to a wind arrangement that is left alone to conclude the record, leaving an aftertaste of brass bands and New Orleans in the mouth.
The real news, then, is that Fussell as an author not only moves within the same coordinates as the curator of traditional songs, but manages to write songs that could easily be attributed to the public domain if we were not aware of who composed them.
The album, however, begins with a traditional like “Love Farewell” which, in Fussell’s hands, becomes a small wonder: a guitar, a foot that keeps time, a mellow voice but with deep nuances à la Johnny Cash and the vocal harmonies of guest Bonnie Prince Billy draws a simply perfect and exciting interpretation. Frisell-like guitar touches and a mandolin adorn the tender ballad ‘Carriebell’, before it is taken to the stage for the first time. Even more chiaroscuro streaks of wind instruments caress the delicate, bouncy melody of “Breast Of Glass”. The strings support in an evanescent way the yearning and nocturnal ballad “Rolling Mills are burning Down”, where an “open-hearted” interpretation dominates, underlined by scattered piano chords. Bravely, the nine minutes of the longest track “The golden willow tree” are also those where the production intervenes more sparingly: the stage is left almost exclusively to the fingerpicking guitar and the voice of the owner of the record, with discrete interventions in the background of violin and a soft and dusky electric guitar almost Frippian. Once again, the production choice turns out to be simply perfect.
“Good and green again” is Jake Xerxes Fussell’s most intimate album, a truly precious work, overflowing with sincerity and humanity, moving and stirring to the core. With this album, the American musician not only publishes what is probably his best record in a discography that was already of an excellent level but also opens up new paths, beginning to show his qualities as an author, in continuity with the tradition from which he drinks and to which he succeeds in giving a contagious freshness and vitality.
We can therefore enjoy timeless music, like that of “Good and Green again”, looking with curiosity and optimism to the future together with Jake Xerxes Fussell, because the American folk tradition has not only found an artist capable of handing down its past, but also of giving it new life.