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Photograph by Tom Rankin

The Fussell Family Business

Guitarist and singer Jake Xerxes Fussell grew up steeped in folklore, thanks to his musicologist father and textile artist mother. Like his parents, the younger Fussell is always searching through the back catalogs of Southern culture — but rendering art that is always of the moment.

Singer/guitarist Jake Xerxes Fussell grew up in a staggeringly rich cultural atmosphere in Columbus, Georgia. That’s not a joke, even though the home of the U.S. Army’s century-old Fort Benning might not be high on your list of cultural hotspots.

Let’s start with credit where it is due: Fussell’s parents. His father Fred was curator of the Columbus Museum and is a renowned folklorist, writer, painter and photographer. Jake’s mother, Cathy, a high school and college English teacher, is an expert in the textile art forms. She has created hundreds of quilted pieces over six decades. But more than that, Fred and Cathy Fussell are an exemplary creative partnership whose passion for the arts in all their forms infused their home and set their four children on the road to nonconformist careers of their own.

The celebrated archivists and field recorders George Mitchell and the late Art Rosenbaum were always among the Fussells’ closest friends. The late deep blues picker and singer Precious Bryant was among a regular parade of artists who passed through their home, sharing meals and stories and songs. Sometime around age 12, Jake started teaching himself how to play guitar by watching the musicians who passed through his living room, getting the occasional pointer, but mostly just taking it in like a sponge.

In his late teens, Fussell played in bands around his Lower Chattahoochee Valley home and performed a bit with Precious Bryant. He knocked around Berkeley, California, for a few years, soaking up whatever he could from the considerable Bay Area traditional music scene. Then he landed at Ole Miss, where he earned a master’s in Southern Studies for his research into Choctaw fiddle music.

Since 2015, Fussell has released four intimate and engaging albums on the Paradise of Bachelors label. Aside from three original instrumental pieces on his latest, “Good and Green Again” (2021), and Duke Ellington’s “Jump for Joy” on “What in the Natural World” (2017), some cat named “Traditional" wrote pretty much all the songs.

Some tunes are familiar from performances by late-20th century folkies like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez or the field recordings of folks like family friends Mitchell and Rosenbaum, but for the average listener, these tunes are as good as brand new. There are ballads, laments, murder songs, romances and a few dance tunes. A few have clear origins in the British Isles, but Fussell primarily mines the realm of the South. Detailed liner notes for each piece explain which recordings and transcriptions inform his interpretation.

“I think I was aware on some level that my parents were outsiders. It's sort of hard to rebel against people who are already rebellious to the dominant culture.".

His superpower is a knack for unearthing gems guaranteed to stick in your head. Check out “River St. John,” a North Florida fishmonger’s cry, from his 2022 NPR Tiny Desk appearance. An easy loping guitar vamp is the bait; the irresistible lyrics reel you in.

“I got fresh fish this morning ladies” is an uber earworm, perfect for chasing away disagreeable ad jingles and other unwanted cheese.

Hang with that video for the other two tunes. It’s a perfect introduction to Fussell’s easy-does-it finger picking and bourbon-smooth voice. Frequent collaborator Libby Rodenbough’s fiddling and vocal harmonies are icing on the cake.

Photograph by Tom Rankin
Photograph by Tom Rankin

It’s not every kid who dreams of taking up the family business; for many, the idea of carrying on the work of your elders is more akin to grim obligation than soaring aspiration. But when you grow up with folklore scholars like Fred and Cathy — and extended family composed of visual artists, musicians and archivists of 20th century folk culture — the family business maybe holds a little greater appeal than more conventional hereditary prospects.

“There were aspects of my childhood that were normal,” Jake says. “I was listening to whatever was on the top 40 or watching MTV and all. I was listening to the Beastie Boys and Nirvana and all that, but I didn't take any of that stuff too seriously, because it didn't really have that sort of weight of traditional music, you know? Especially when I got to be 12 or 13 years old that just became my life, and it hasn't really stopped.”

So, no rebellious phase for young Jake?

“I think I was aware on some level that my parents were outsiders,” he recalls. “It's sort of hard to rebel against people who are already rebellious to the dominant culture, you know. I think I was aware that I didn't grow up in a cookie-cutter world. There wasn't anything about my parents’ behavior that was, like, dominating. It just speaks a lot about the way that my parents handled my upbringing. We didn’t feel pressured. They never shoved any of this stuff down our throats. We were just along for the ride. It was a great adventure.”

Fussell’s respect for the music’s provenance is undeniable, but he never succumbs to somber reverence or facile nostalgia, that gauzy longing for imagined and happier old times not forgotten. In line with his embrace of tradition as something ongoing and current, Fussell’s excavations almost inevitably connect to how we live now; the more things change, the more we keep playing the same sad game on what seems an infinite loop. “All in Down and Out,” the opening track from his eponymous debut album, is a rollicking recitation of the tribulations of the poor and downtrodden.

Traditional music is thick with “ya gotta laugh or you’re gonna cry” songs like this one, and Fussell certainly seems drawn to this type of tune. Perhaps this is another manifestation of lessons learned in his upbringing. I found this quote from Cathy Fussell’s website about her love for quilting.

Quilts are about history and art and politics and stories and patience and beauty and community and economics and place and expression and freedom and transition and family and warmth – and love.

This understanding of an art form often regarded as anachronistic or old-timey displays instead a radically sympathetic engagement with an extended present moment. It goes a long way toward understanding why Jake Fussell treats tradition as something alive and vital.

“Folk music is not like an insect in amber,” he says. “I think we tend to think of the discography and things as being encapsulated because of the 78-rpm era and things like that. And those things are important documents. But they're just documents, you know.

“It's never been my approach to try to recreate the 1920s or anything like that. I think there's a place for that. There's plenty of room for everybody's approach. It's just not my particular approach.”

Take this track from “What in the Natural World.” “Furniture Man” is a Depression-era lament about a repo agent named Mr. Brown — “a devil born without horns” — who turns up one Sunday morning at a poor man’s cabin.

He asked me if my wife was at home
I told him she had long been gone
He backed the wagon up to the door
And he took everything I had

A song dating back nearly a century carries more than passing resemblance to the poverty crisis of our own times, though today it would likely end with sheriff’s deputies dumping the poor man’s possessions in a pile by the street. The more things change …

Poverty can drive a person to desperation. In “Michael Was Hearty” from “Out of Sight” (2019), we find our handsome hero spurning true love to marry one whose only quality is wealth; his reward is a lifetime of regret. Fussell gets deep inside this lyric, tapping the bottomless remorse Michael feels as his soul mate inquires after “the woman who owns you.” Ouch.

It sometimes feels as though I don’t listen to Fussell’s albums so much as I inhabit them, wearing them like a favorite old sweater or well-worn pair of boots. This is especially so with his fourth album, “Good and Green Again” (2021). The production by James Elkington is sumptuous yet never overdone, with evocative horns and just the right touches of pedal steel, fiddle and keyboards. Fussell’s singing and playing is as warm and relaxed as a hang with close friends around a fire. As one of my pals put it, “All of his records have felt timeless … but this one somehow manages to play like it has always existed.”

“I'm aware that what I'm doing — you know, there's a certain amount of history and all that stuff — might appear to be like retrospective or looking backward, you know?” Fussell says. “But that's just because I'm somebody who's interested in old songs. It's not necessarily that I'm hung up on the past, but I'm also aware that I'm not trying to do anything real contemporary either. That's never interested me — to try to sound fresh or new or anything. I mean, hopefully you sound fresh or new just because you're doing something that's a little different from the next thing or the last thing or whatever. But that's not really anything to work toward. It’s hopefully a byproduct of you doing what you find exciting.”

Photograph by Tom Rankin
Photograph by Tom Rankin

The pandemic shut down Jake’s roadwork, but he has been making up for it in 2022 with tours of the US and Europe that will extend into ’23, almost always as a solo act. (Music industry economics make full band tours near-impossible these days, even for big headlining acts.) But aside from the loneliness — touring by yourself is its own special brand of brutal — Fussell prefers the freedom of the solo format.

“I've been playing by myself for so long,” he says.

"I don't ever write down a setlist anymore. I just kind of go with it. I have a lot of freedom being by myself musically.”

“It's easy for me to do. The travel part can be lonely, you know, and it's just me most the time driving a van or taking a flight somewhere. But I can play whatever song I want to play. You know, I don't ever write down a setlist anymore. I just kind of go with it. I can play the song in whatever key I feel like. I have a lot of freedom being by myself musically.”

His website is the best way to find out when he will turn up in your area.

Fussell also hosts “Fall Line Radio,” a weekly show on community-supported WHUP-FM in  Hillsborough, North Carolina. He says it’s just an excuse to play a bunch of music that he likes. The show’s website describes it as having “a particular bent toward the songs and tunes of the American south. However, our idea of 'Southern' is broad and inclusive and distances itself from stagnant notions of authenticity, exclusivity and antiquity.” (Kind of like Salvation South, reckon.)

There is an archive of past shows at the WHUP website, so between that and Jake’s live shows and recording catalog, there is plenty of delightful music on tap for people with thirsty ears.

Go. Listen.

Rob Rushin-Knopf blogs about culture at Immune to Boredom.

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Chattanooga-based writer/musician Rob Rushin-Knopf, Salvation South’s longtime culture warrior, blogs about culture at Immune to Boredom and appears regularly as one-half of the near-jazz duo RoboCromp.

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