Published on April 6th, 2017 | by Brittain Thompson0
Southern Studies and Folklore: an Interview with Jake Xerxes Fussell
Jake Xerxes Fussell released What in This Natural World, his follow up to his self-titled 2015 debut, on March 31.
A musician with two full releases under their belt has surely written more songs than they could remember at this point. Fussell, however, has never written an original song. He took time off from planning his record release party and three-week overseas tour to speak with us about inspiration and the evolution of his career in music.
The Columbus, Georgia–native’s work consists of taking traditional folk tunes from the early 1900s and reworking them into modern songs. That’s not to say he’s turning gentle folk songs in club hits, his style is still very much set in folk sensibilities.
“These were songs that are special to me and that I want to play pretty frequently,” said Fussell. “When you’re making a record you have to be very selective and these are the ones that really stood up. There was enough diversity that it worked out well and in that you start to see themes rise up that are typically unplanned. Things always come together in a funny way.”
Considering Fussell’s background his interest in reimagining folk tunes sounds right in line. After moving to North Carolina in 2015 he found work with a local record shop, Carolina Soul. While he has not stumbled across any songs that he wanted to do renditions of, the collection is inspiring all the same.
“It has turned me on to a lot of records I wouldn’t have sought out myself,” said Fussell.
Since Fussell was a small boy accompanying his father, a folklorist and museum curator, on trips to visit those who still practice traditional American arts, he has always been drawn to that early 20th century era of history.
“Both my parents have been involved in folk lore, so I grew up in an environment where people were thinking about music and art in a historical sense,” said Fussell.
With this upbringing, it makes sense that his creative and scholarly sides meld so seamlessly.
“When I got into music as a kid and started playing . . . it was natural for me to put it in that context because of my dad’s work,” said Fussell. “It’s hard for me to distinguish the two, in a way.”
The time Fussell spends working on new music would be hard to discern from a historian’s research.
“My musical interests have always had a historical dent because those two things feed each other,” said Fussell. “There’s a symbiotic relationship. My intellectual interest in music buttresses my creative impulses and vice-versa.”
This combination of interests led him to enroll in Ole Miss’ Southern Studies program.
“When I was studying at Ole Miss I could be reading about a certain time and reference a narrative ballad about that event,” said Fussell. “Playing music gives you a unique perspective inside a song.”
Fussell’s time in Oxford ran from 2005 to 2015. Over the course of that decade he racked up a grocery list of gigs.
“My first show was actually at Longshot,” said Fussell. “Then Randy Yates hired me to play a few shows at Ajax.”
From there things began to snowball for the artist.
“I met Jim Dickinson who was involved with Thacker Mountain but is also this amazing producer. I started playing guitar with Reverend John Wilkins who is a Memphis gospel guy and a preacher in Como, Mississippi.”
After that Fussell found himself with some of the Hill Country Blues players.
“I was immersed in the scene in my own way, but I was mostly just dabbling in stuff. I’d occasionally play solo gigs at Ajax,” said Fussell. “At some point Slade Lewis asked me to get involved with Thacker Mountain, so I started playing full time as the house band leader.”
The gig was a perfect fit for someone like Fussell, who wanted to expand his repertoire as much as possible.
“You have to come up with a few songs to play every week that you didn’t play last week, so it’s a good challenge,” said Fussell.
On April 8 catch Jake Xerxes Fussell at End of All Music for a free in store performance and then later that evening at Proud Larrys’. Tickets for the Proud larry’s show can be purchased here or at the door the night of the show.